Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 2

Reynisdrangar, basalt columns off the coast at Vik í Mýrdal in southern central Iceland

Reynisdrangar.  Right off the water’s edge from Reynisfjall.  Two trolls were pulling their three-masted boat in, but it was slow going because of the rough seas.  Unfortunately, they got caught out in the water as the sun rose, and being trolls, this turned them to stone.  And, there they stay, out in the water, forever.

Vik is not a large town.  In fact, only about 300 people live here full-time.  This was our next destination on our tour of Iceland.  We left our cozy little cabin near Selfoss, put some diesel in the Skoda, and headed out along Iceland 1, the ring road that runs the circumference of Iceland.  Along the way, passing through Hvolsvöllur, we happened to see a sign on the road for the “The Saga Centre”.  As we drove by the sign, I asked my traveling companions if they would like to stop and check it out.  Yes, was the reply.  So, we turned around and searched for it.  It was not immediately obvious, but hunting off the main road took us to the low building with a painting of a viking ship, vikings with swords raised, on the side, and there we were.

The Saga Centre

Inside, a very nice woman explained the exhibit.  We paid the entrance fee and explored.  The Centre is devoted to telling the story of Njáls Saga, or the Story of Burnt Njáll.  Yes, Njáll meets an unpleasant end, but a lot happens in this, the most famous and one of the earliest of the Icelandic sagas.  It is a story first written down by an unknown author between 1270 and 1290, but taken from oral stories of early families, mainly concerning the sagacious Njáll and his friend the strong warrior Gunnar.  It is a long and complicated work.  The museum shows the saga from start to finish in dioramas with life-sized figures, dressed in period garb, with the writing in Icelandic and English, and allow for an understanding of the flow of the saga, the feuds, the insults, the vengeance, the trickery, the lustiness and the struggles of every day life in early, Viking-style Iceland.  After making our way through Njáls Saga, we moved to the mock-up of a Chieftain’s Hall, a meeting area built by the Vikings in early times.

Viking-era Chieftain’s Hall at the Saga Centre.

Today, it is used as a café, and is rented out for functions.  Beyond this, was another hall in which there was an intriguing project taking place.  It is called the Njals Saga Tapestry, and it is the work of three women who designed and created a 90 meter long tapestry in which panels depict the entire story of Njáls Saga.  It uses a Bayeux stitch, which was a type of tapestry stitch used in Viking times.  According to Christína, one of the creators of the project, 60 meters have been completed so far.  She is not certain where such a big artwork will be displayed.

Christína and her Njáls Saga Tapestry

 

One of the panels of the tapestry. The pinned papers show the name of the person working on that panel.

Once we had finished contemplating life in the time of Njáll, we sat outside and ate sandwiches we had prepared that AM.  It started out sunny and warm, but had turned cold and overcast, so we hurriedly finished and then went on driving towards Vik.  One thing in Iceland one can count on is the presence of waterfalls.  Our next stop was at Seljalandsfoss,  where water from the above plain and glacier plunge 60 meters to the flat land below.  A unique feature of this waterfall, is the footpath that leads behind it to a cavernous space from which one can witness the backside of water.  I came prepared for this.  I wore my waterproof jacket and ski pants, had my hiking boots on, and kept my camera under my jacket until I got around to the back.  There was a good breeze blowing, spraying water over the path which made it slippery.  I managed the path, and had a big grin on my face once I got to the relative protection of the cave.

Seljalandsfoss from the front.

 

Seljalandsfoss from behind (the backside of water).

A bit of a hike down the path was another waterfall, Gljúfrabú¡, also very dramatic, and hidden behind an opening in the cliff.

Gljúfrabú¡, the hidden falls near Seljalandsfoss

 

A sheep carcass along the path, in its “pre-fossilized” state.

 

Kathleen and Lynne, walking along the runoff from the falls.

 

The big picture view of the Seljalandsfoss area.

We then went on to Vik, and to our next Airbnb rental.  As we neared Vik, we climbed over a mountainous pass which then descended into the town.  It is a tiny town, with a population around 300.  But, being the only town of any size in this area, it is well stocked.  There is a nice grocery, a bank, and a liquor store.  Our rental was easy to find, as it was right off the main highway, and looked just like its photo on the website.  Once we made it into the apartment, we headed on foot to the store to gather up some wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres.  Our whole group of nine intrepid explorers were coming over to our place to eat, drink and chat about what we had seen and done so far.

Frank, Lynne, Bob, Gary, Niny, Kathleen, Michael, Sue and Ann; in Vik.

We prepared some Icelandic crustaceans similar to crayfish with seafood sauce, had locally produced salami and cheeses, and Kathleen made a delicious yellow split pea soup for some honest sustenance.  Grapes and Finncrisps topped off the delights.  There was no need for dinner that evening.

Overnight, it snowed.  According to one source, Icelandic language has 100 names for snow.  Snow is certainly part of their culture.  It made for a difficult drive the next morning.  While the road crews did plow the road, is was still very slick for the first third of the drive.  Our destination was 192 km away.  The drive got much better after we passed Kirkjubærklaustur.  The snow was gone, and traction returned. We were on our way to Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon with a rapidly running, short river to the sea.   Along the way, we crossed a number of one lane bridges, where, if no one is approaching it is clear sailing.  Otherwise, you give the other driver the right of way if they reach the bridge first.  No playing chicken, since the downside is a cold river.  The glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, is a tongue of a larger glacier called Vatnajökull.  It has changed dramatically over the centuries.  When the Vikings first arrived, the edge of the glacier was 20 km from the ocean.  During the little ice age of 1600-1900, the glacier extended almost to the ocean.  But over the last 100 or so years, it has receded, and now is about 6 km from the ocean.  The glacier hangs into the lagoon, and large pieces of it break off and float in the lagoon.  As we arrived, we stayed away from the main parking area and gift shop, and parked in a small lot close to some hills surrounding the lagoon.

Ascending the gravelly hill overlooking Jökulsárlón.

We were amazed by the view.  To the left was a mountain range, part of a large national park in this part of Iceland.  Directly to the north, there was the immense glacier, with its edge dropping into the lagoon.  And the lagoon itself was filled with large chunks of ice which had broken free of the edge of the glacier.  They would eventually make their way to the sea.

The mountains of the Vatnajökull National Park

 

The Breiðamerkurjökull (glacier) at the far side of the Jökulsárlón (lagoon).

 

Tracks from giant-wheeled four wheel drive vehicles are evident on the glacier, where expeditions of tourists go to explore the surface.  We moved down to the shore line of the lagoon.

Heading to the shore line of the Jökulsárlón.

 

Bits of the glacier had landed on the rocks, forming interesting artistic pieces.

We had gotten a tip from a local in Vik that we could break off pieces of ice from the glacial ice and taste it.  That we did.  It was crystal clear and tasted fine, and, glad to report, did not cause any illness.

Frank and Kat, exploring along the edge of the lagoon.

You may notice that a lot of the floating ice contains layers of black.  These are layers of volcanic ash which coated the glacier over many years.  The amount of ash differs from eruption to eruption, so glaciologists can determine the age of the ice based on the volcanic ash layer.

Glacial ice with volcanic ash layers.

 

Rocks and pebbles deposited on the shoreline by the glacier.

We then drove to the beach where the outlet river met the ocean.  After almost getting trapped in a low, icy patch, we managed to park safely and got out to wander amongst the beached icebergs.  The beach, a black sand and gravel beach, had dozens of icebergs to wander around, and dozens of tourists doing just that.

Some icebergs made it out to the ocean.

 

Beautiful translucent blue of a slowly melting iceberg, with birds circling behind.

 

Some icebergs got stranded on the sand.

 

We were able to walk around the stranded icebergs.

 

The outflow of the lagoon, rapidly running water and jammed up icebergs.

As we looked at the glacier, and the large chunks breaking off and floating by, I thought of Sveinn Pálsson.  Who, you say?  Sveinn Pálsson was a Dane, trained in Copenhagen to be a physician, who came to Iceland in 1791.  His home, a farm, was near Vik.  He was the only physician in a large part of southern Iceland, where travel was very difficult due to the many rivers and lava fields in this area.  He was also a naturalist, farmer, fisherman, father of 15 children by wife Þórunn Bjarnadóttir, 10 of whom survived infancy.  He studied glaciers and volcanoes, and was the first person to propose that glaciers move by “creep, analogous to the flow of pitch”, per the Wikipedia article about him, which was the only source I could find.  He wrote a treatise and submitted it to the Danish Society of Natural History in 1795.  It remained unpublished there until 1880, when part of it was published.  The whole treatise was finally published in Icelandic in 1945.  He also wrote extensively about medicine.  He must have been an amazing, brilliant and very tough person who loved life.

We could not get enough of watching the water sluice around the ice, staring at the many shapes and sizes of icebergs, and the beautiful views of the mountains and glacier in the distance.  But, eventually we tore ourselves away and headed back to Vik for the evening.  On arrival back at our apartment, Michael and I walked down to the grocery store intending to buy some lamb to cook for dinner.  The meat section had a variety of cuts from which to choose, but all labeled only in Icelandic.  We stood there, picking up packs of meats in one hand, our phones and Google translate in the other, trying to figure out what animal these cuts had come from.  None seemed to match the word “lamb”, “lambakjöt”.  But the  words written on the packages kept coming up with no translation.  We made a choice based on looks alone, bought some carrots, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, and salad makings and headed back.  We had a delicious dinner that night, enhanced by the collection of spices available in our apartment, but in no way was it lamb.  It may have been veal, but no one was certain.

The next morning, Kat and I had planned to ride the Icelandic horses on the beach.  In Vik, there is a stables which advertises horse back rides on the black sand beach of Vik.  We made a reservation before our trip with Vik Horse Adventures.  Early that morning, I got up ahead of everyone else, like I usually do, and made some coffee.  I was cleaning a beer glass from the night before, a very thin, narrow glass, which broke in my hand as I was washing it.  Suddenly, there was blood all over the sink, and I looked at my hand.  I saw a very neat slash at the base of my fourth finger, down to the tendon, bleeding profusely.  I applied pressure with a paper towel, cleaned up the blood as well as I could, and sought the help of Kathleen.  We were able to fashion a nice, tight bandage of paper towel and plastic wrap, which stopped the bleeding and seemed to keep everything under control.  I did not want to miss the opportunity to ride the Icelandic horses.  These are a unique breed.  Their ancestors were brought to Iceland in the early days of settlement, 870 to 1100, mostly from Norway, but also from Scotland and the Shetland Islands.  After that, no new horses were allowed into Iceland.  The characteristics of the breed developed from selective breeding and from natural selection, creating the breed as it exists today.  It is known as a strong breed, well adapted to the weather and geography of Iceland, and also as a five-gaited horse, with two gaits which many other horses do not have.  These are the tölt and the skeið.  These are unusual, flowing gaits not usually seen in domestic horses in the USA.

Hjördis readying the horses at Vik Horse Adventure

 

Frank and Kathleen riding Icelandic horses on the black sand beach covered in snow in Vik.

 

Heading out on our ride.

We rode along a path which led to a little stream.  We forded the stream, which was fast running and came up to the bottoms of our shoes.  The horses seemed comfortable in the frigid water.  Crossing to the other side, we headed for the beach and the black sand.  There, we were able to get, briefly, into a tölt, which, while slow by tölt standards, felt fast and remarkably smooth.  We could not go for long, due to the snow, which would pack into the horses hooves and cause them injury.  Nevertheless, it was a remarkable experience on beautiful and unique horses.  Getting back to the stables, I had to take my horse on a few more turns around the paddock.  Reluctantly, I dismounted, removed the bridle and saddle, and turned the tack over to Hjördis, promising I would be back for some more riding.

My wife, Kathleen, and I then met up with Lynne and Michael.  We took the road up to the Church overlooking the town of Vik.  Vik is, for the most part, low and close to the ocean.  High above it is the massive Mýrdalsjökull, an enormous glacier which covers the Katla volcano.  Should the volcano blow, it could melt enough ice to flood the town of Vik.  So, they have regular drills in Vik when everyone in the town gets themselves up the hill to the church, the only building in the area which could potentially survive such a flood.  This in mind, we headed out of town, towards Reykjavík, and part three of our saga.

Explain Tango

I recently returned from my first trip to Buenos Aires, accompanied by my wife, Kathleen, an ardent tanguera, and another couple, Roger and Claire, both tango devotees of the highest order.  I will attempt to explain tango.

Not an easy thing to do.  I think it’s like trying to explain Argentina.  That’s where tango began.  It’s why it is called the Argentine Tango.  It is a social dance, since people who dance tango gather at milongas and ask others, not the “one who brung ya”, to dance.  Mostly men ask women, with a certain glance known as a cabaceo, to which the woman responds with a nod, or turns her head away.  This allows two dancers spotting each other across the room, then making their way across the dance floor to each other, assuming the embrace, then starting to dance, with few or no words said.  The music is of three basic styles, called tango, milonga or vals.  Yes, it can get confusing.  One goes to a milonga to dance tango, and might dance to a tango, or a milonga or a vals, which is a waltz, but not danced like a waltz, but like a tango but with a few syncopated steps thrown in.  If a couple want only to dance with each other, that is okay, but they are sat with other like-minded couples.  If the thought is to dance with others, one needs to sit separate from one’s mate, and be available.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Learning tango is like learning another language.  The vocabulary consists of different progressions of movement, and the communication is between the leader and the follower.  In general, the male leads and the woman follows, but men can follow, women can lead, and men can dance with men, women with women.  But a leader and follower are still essential parts.  Done well, it can be quite beautiful, but everyone needs to start at the beginning, so entry-level tango is necessary.  In fact, when one attends a milonga, which is what the gathering of people to dance tango is called, it usually starts with a lesson.  The lesson is taught by masters of tango, who show basic steps very slowly, building on one turn into the next, and then the students try to emulate.  Good teachers will watch all the students and closely interact with them until they get the movement being taught.  They also encourage the students to frequently change partners, so they get the opportunity to learn how different leaders lead, and different followers follow.  Some followers need a very strong lead and move like a barge, while others are like cutting horses; give them a bit of a nudge and they’re off into a crazy boleo or some other risky maneuver.

Practica:  teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without.

Practica: teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without being too formal.

Tango started sometime around the mid-1800’s, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.  While the origins may be obscure, it seems the early dancers were mainly men, sometimes dancing with each other, sometimes with prostitutes in the poorer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.  It caught favor with a classier crowd, and towards the end of the century into the early 1900’s it became very popular.  The bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument, was adopted from Germany and became a basic part of tango.  The popularity of the dance spread, first to Paris, then other parts of Europe, New York and eventually world-wide.  But the only true capital, and the place where tangueros and tangueras go to experience the essence of tango is Buenos Aires.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

The music of tango has certain style and sound that make it unique.  For straight tango, it has a very strong rhythm with two or four beats per measure, and a pronounced down beat.  There is usually no percussion, although the bandoneon or the bass can be used to keep the rhythm. The music can change tempo, giving dancers the opportunity for dramatic acceleration or slowing, even pausing.  The most famous tango song, and the one which is often used to wrap up a night at a milonga, signalling the last dance, is called La Cumparsita.  It was written by Gerardo Matos Rodriquez, an 18-year-old Uruguayan from Montevideo, in 1916.

Tango in Argentina has gone through periods of decline, then resurgence several times.  But now it is a world-wide phenomenon, one can find milongas most nights in most major cities, and it is popular with more people now than ever before.  The mystery, though, is what drives the desire to spend years, huge amounts of money, and great amounts of frustration to learn tango.

It is a dance of intimate contact.  It is danced chest to chest, sometimes with a bit of separation, in salon style, and sometimes pressed up against each other in close embrace, feet and legs a bit outward, moving in concert in milonguero style.  This is with any partner one happens to lure to the dance floor.  The intimacy is counteracted by the serious nature and intent of the dancers, in other words, if you are enjoying that close contact, you must not show it.  But, the milongueras know.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

It is also a dance of strict lead and follow, requiring close attention on the follower’s part, and very clear intention on the leader’s part.  The leader must maintain the proper posture and embrace, without using force, to let his follower know what to do.  The leader must also get cues from the follower, to allow her time to respond, to pivot, or to perform embellishments.  The signals are conveyed chest to chest.  It is a dance requiring a connection between two people which is unlike any other social interaction.  Songs are played in groups of three, or sometimes four, called a “tanda”, and are of the same type, tango, or vals, or milonga.  Once a connection is made, one is expected to dance the entire tanda with the partner, then switch partners.  Between songs, the partners may make light conversation, then wait as the next song starts.  They will often wait until a minute or so into the song before starting dancing.  Between tandas, a bit of utterly non-tango music is played, such as swing, or cha-cha, and the dancers chuckle, briefly showing they may know how to do those dances, too, before getting to the next tanda.

Afternoon tango at Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue.

Matinee (until 9:00 PM) tango at La Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue in Buenos Aires.

Tango has it’s own verbal language.  There’s abrazo, boleo, cadena, desplazamiento, entrada, fanfarron, gancho, lapiz, molinete, ocho, planeo, and many more, all in Spanish, all which one must learn as part of learning the dance.  Naturally, the tango teacher comes from Argentina, speaks mostly or only Spanish, so one either gets with the language or is totally confused.  Tango dancers enjoy learning this secret language known only to them.  The Spanish words by themselves are common, but what they mean in the dance is the key.

Making shoes for tango.

Making shoes for tango.

Particularly for women, there is the excitement of the shoes.  Tangueras (the ladies) get absolutely obsessed by the tango shoes, stylish high heels costing hundreds of dollars, built by hand in the shoe salons of Buenos Aires.  If a woman enjoys tango, she may go to Buenos Aires for the sole purpose of buying shoes.  Of course, they need to fit just right, and be supportive for dancing in addition to making the other women furious with envy.  We spent one afternoon chasing this dream on our recent trip.  The address of the salon led us to a tall, narrow building on a busy street with a locked door and the typical push button list of occupants.  There was no sign indicating a shoe salon, and no labels on the brass plate with the buttons to show which one to press.  We were wondering if we were in the right place, when another customer came up, pressed the right button and got buzzed in.  She indicated we were indeed in the right place.  The building inside was old with a very high ceiling and elegant, but with the look of an office building.  The elevator was a classic ancient elevator, tiny with glass doors.  There was room only for our wives and the other customer, so my friend Roger and I ascended the stairs and met the women on the third floor, which was, English style, three flights up.  Through the unmarked office door we went, and were greeted by a young woman in charge of her shoe salon.  She had samples on shelves around the waiting area, with thin leather straps, colorful combinations of prints and designs, and very long slender heels.  Several other women were there trying on shoes.  This is the ultimate in shoe buying experience.  We went to several other shoe salons during the trip that were not so secretive, but this one topped them all.

One of Kathleen's new pairs of tango shoes.

One of Kathleen’s new pairs of tango shoes.

Tango starts and ends very late at night.  The typical time table starts with a lesson around 9:30-10:30.  The milonga itself does not start until 11:00 PM, and goes until 4:00 AM.  The better dancers don’t even show up until 1:00 AM, and stay until the end.  So if you like to sleep in late, rise say at noon, and hit the dance floor around midnight, tango is for you.  Some people like this.  This life is not for the hard core early riser, the sunrise worshiper, the early to bed, early to rise type.  Nope.  This is for the person whose life runs on their time, who likes to consider dinner at around 10:00 PM, and uses the later morning hours for a good sleep.

Learning tango may take years, and a lot of dedication, but it offers the excuse, if one was needed, to go to Argentina and experience the dance in its element.  Certainly, Buenos Aires has much to offer beyond tango.  The various neighborhoods are very colorful, with beautiful architecture, and a style of painting in many areas known as fileteado.

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

There is San Telmo, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, characterized by small cafés, bodegas, book shops, art galleries, antique shops and elegant old buildings.  It is where we stayed in a very unique apartment while in Buenos Aires.  La Boca, where many Italian immigrants from Genoa settled, has typical tourist shops, and the old port.  Microcentro is the central business district, with office buildings, shopping, restaurants and hotels.  There is a pedestrian-only street in Microcentro called Calle Florida, jammed with shops and shoppers, also young men quietly calling out “cambio”, (“change”), seeking to have you change your dollars for their pesos.

Street tango performers

Street performers on Calle Florida in Microcentro.

Palermo is a chic, upscale barrio, with earth-friendly but costly cafés, expensive clothing stores, and lots of bikes.  It is a very pleasant area to wander in the afternoon, window shopping, and stopping for an espresso, or lunch.  We did not make it to Recoleta on this trip, but it is the highest end neighborhood.   In every barrio, every night, there are several milongas from which to choose.  There is, of course, a smart phone app to help, called “Hoy Milonga”, which will let you know what is happening where.

I will leave you with a link to a video of a typical milonga, but to truly understand tango takes years of practice, lessons, milongas, mistakes, overcoming shyness, brusqueness, close human interaction, embracing the challenge and opening oneself to new friends and relationships.  I am told that once one is bitten by the bug, there is no turning back.  Perhaps I sound a bit on the fence,  but I am enjoying my foray into the world of tango.

A Handful of Nuts….

Pecan Tree

Pecan Tree, East Ranch, Madill, Oklahoma

A handful of nuts.

A Handful of Nuts

A report was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on November 21, 2013, entitled “Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality.”  This really caught my eye for a few reasons.  The primary reason was I wondered how it was possible to do such a study.  The second, and perhaps the more important, was I wanted to know if eating nuts could really have an effect on one’s mortality.  The third was whether the study would have been published if they had not proven their hypothesis, i.e., that eating nuts is good for you.

The study has a very impressive pedigree.  It was performed and written by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Indiana University.  It was funded by the National Institutes of Health (the NIH), and the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation.  I was unaware of the Tree Nut Council, but it is an interesting note that they would be funding research showing nuts are really good for you.  On the other hand, the report states “the funders of the study had no role in its design or conduct; in the collection, management, analysis, or interpretation of the data; or in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript.”

How was it possible to do this study?  The study was done by examining nut consumption in two very large groups of people for whom intimate details of their lives are available.  One is a group called the Nurses’ Health Study, a group of 121,700 female nurses living in 11 states in the U.S.A., enrolled in 1976.  The other is the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a group of 51,529 male health professionals from all 50 states, enrolled in 1986.  Food frequency questionnaires were regularly filled out by these participants, and were the basis of the data collected.  The examined group was pared down to those for whom good data was available.  People with known heart disease, stroke or cancer were excluded.  Ultimately, they studied 76,464 women, and 42,498 men.  So they had significant numbers of participants to study.  They report that food frequency data was collected from these people using questionnaires administered every 2-4 years, starting with the women in 1980, and the men in 1986.  They asked how often during the preceding year did the person eat a one ounce (28 g) serving of nuts:  almost never, 1-3 times a month, once a week, 2-4 times a week, daily, or more often.  They also asked if the nuts were peanuts (a legume), or tree nuts.  The end point of the study was death.  So, if you were participating and died during the study, your nut consumption, cause of death, and other factors were then compared against the group still alive.  They found some very interesting things about nut eaters.  As a group, they tend to be leaner, less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise and more likely to take a vitamin supplement.  They also consumed more fruit and vegetables, and drank more alcohol.  In other words, they were very much like my running friends.  The researchers state, though, that they were able to tease apart these other factors in order to look at nut consumption alone as a predictive factor.  They found that how often one ate that handful of nuts was inversely proportional to their chance of dying during the study.  This was expressed as a hazard ratio, a way of comparing relative risks, but not the absolute risk, of an event occurring.  During the years of study, 30 for women, and 24 for men, 16,200 women died, and 11,229 men died.  That is around one in four participants in the study, which seems a high number.  The ones who ate the most nuts, more than one ounce a day, had a hazard ratio of dying of 0.8, or 20% lower chance than those who never or rarely ate nuts.  When they examined peanuts versus tree nuts, the reduced risk of mortality persisted.  Brief mention is made in the report that most major causes of death, including heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease, were decreased in the nut eaters, hence the reference to “cause specific” in the title.

They point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of such a study.  The study included a large number of enrollees, so presumably the statistics are meaningful.  They were careful to include methods for ensuring that the data were as reliable as possible, and that their statistical methods compared apples to apples, so to speak.  However, the study is an observational study, so while it can show an association, it cannot show cause and effect.  Another point not mentioned, is that the number of enrollees who died was significant, and makes me think a good number may have been older when they were first enrolled.  Another criticism of the study is that a large percent of the nut eaters were also, in general, more likely to exercise, eat a Mediterranean diet, and be thinner than the nut avoiders who, perhaps, were also were more likely to consume Ho-Ho’s, who knows.   While they state they were able to separate out these variables, intuitively it seems that if someone eats a healthy diet, exercises, and is thinner that person is less likely to develop diabetes, heart disease or cancer. In a related study published in the NEJM February 25, 2013, “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet,” a group of Spanish researchers showed that in a study of people at high cardiovascular risk, but without known heart disease, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of cardiovascular events.  This was a prospective study, meaning the study participants were divided into two groups, and studied going forward, rather than observed after the fact.  In fact, the study was stopped at 4.8 years due to the significance of the data being collected.  Of course, that can skew a study also.  It is possible for the healthy eaters to catch up to the poor eaters in their heart disease and mortality given a little more time.

What does this tell us about the value of a handful of nuts, and its effect on our well being?  The researchers give several plausible explanations why nuts may be good for us in general.  They contain unsaturated fatty acids, high-quality protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.  They also contain certain phytochemicals (plant-based chemicals such as carotenoids, flavonoids and phytosterols) which may be healthful.  They cannot say, based on their research, that if one starts eating a handful of nuts on a daily basis, that person will avoid heart disease or cancer.  If you are my age, 59, much of your fate may already be cast, with regards to eating habits, atherosclerosis, and other long term health issues.  But that doesn’t mean there is no benefit.  In fact, changing one’s dietary ways at any time could have good effects, too.  In general, from numerous other studies cited by the two papers described above, eating a Mediterranean diet which includes olive oil or nuts is a very healthy type of diet.  Does your olive oil need to be “extra-virgin”?  Extra-virgin is cold-pressed and is the first pressing of the olive.  It is less processed than its non-virginal counterparts, and so has more of the natural substances intact.  There are lots of oils that claim extra-virgin status, which don’t quite live up to the name or reputation.  One must shop carefully.

I feel the benefits of a handful of nuts daily are there, but may not be as important as the overall habit of adherence to a Mediterranean diet.  I know at this time of year, close to Christmas, with cold weather and snow, and long nights with short days, the lure of all sorts of dietary indiscretions is strong.  Yet, be mindful of what you eat, as it does become you.  And grab that handful of nuts…

Pecan Tree

Another Pecan Tree

Citations:

Ying Bao, M.D., Sc.D., Jiali Han, Ph.D. et. al., Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality.  NEJM, 2013, 369:2001-2011.

Ramon Estruch, M.D., Ph.D., Emilio Ros, M.D., Ph.D., et. al., Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet.  NEJM, 2013, 368:1279-1290.

Running Philadelphia

Lining up to get in to the Philly Expo, 2013 Marathon

Lining up to get in to the Philly Expo, 2013 Marathon

We had to get up awfully early.  The start of the race was scheduled to be at seven AM, and the officials were recommending runners arrive by five AM to get through security.  That would mean a lot of time standing around waiting to start, in the dark, getting cold.  After Boston, it seems all of the US based marathons, and perhaps worldwide, I don’t know, have gone to higher levels of security around the start and finish of the races.  It seems a false sense of security, but I understand the motivation.  In Philly, we were told there would be security entrances at the staging area of the race and we should expect lines.  Hence, the reason for early arrival.  We compromised, with a knowledge that this being our hometown race, we could predict how things would go.

I set my alarm for 4:00.  I wanted to get a decent breakfast before heading out.  I ate a bowl of cereal and had a cup of freshly brewed coffee.  I bought the beans the day before at Old City Coffee at the Reading Terminal Market.  It has become my tradition, to go to the marathon expo at the Philadelphia Convention Center, pick up my number, browse the expo, then head over to Reading Terminal Market across the street.  I even know the route I will take through the market.  First, a stop at Metropolitan bakery, for a pain au levain and a loaf of cherry chocolate bread, because life is better with cherry chocolate bread.  Then I head to Downtown Cheese, to pick up something tasty, usually a goat gouda or morbier.  Then, it’s on to Old City Coffee for some of their freshly roasted beans.  At Old City Coffee I had a conversation with a young woman also buying coffee.  She asked if I was running tomorrow.

“Yes,”  I said.

“The full?” she asked.

“Yes, the full,” I said, smiling.

“I’m only running the half.  I started to train for the full but got distracted, and I’m just not ready for a full.”

She looked plenty young and fit enough to run an ultra if she wanted, and I felt a bit wistful, that someone could be perfectly satisfied running the half, knowing others would be running the full, and thinking she had done the right thing.  While waiting for our coffee, we talked about the course, how the crowds gather on Chestnut street, how the weather would be, and how early we had to show up the next day.  I then said “have fun tomorrow”, and headed back to meet my friends who had come to the expo with me, and were patiently waiting, actually having lunch, while I indulged my wants.

A group from my running club met at the train station for the five AM train into Philly.  There were plenty of others on the PATCO line from South Jersey heading in for the race.  We definitely were a bigger crowd than the normal 5:00 AM Sunday train sees.  We rode to the end of the line, 16th and Locust, then started walking to the Ben Franklin Parkway. It is more than a walk. We sped along, the adrenaline pumping up the pace and the chatter. We passed two closed Starbucks, and commented, “we’re up before the baristas.” As we reached the Ben Franklin Parkway, the crowd got thicker. There were entrance gates into the staging area for the runners, but we went through without a holdup. The security guards at the gates seemed to recognize who were runners, and just waved us on through. As we wandered up the parkway we saw the UPS trucks waiting to take our clear plastic personal items bags. We decided whoever makes clear plastic bags for marathons is having a banner year this year. Along a grassy stretch there were dozens of portable toilets with almost no line yet. We all stopped to use the facilities, not because we had to, but because the lines were so short. This is never the case at these big races. We then strolled over to sit at on the steps of the Washington Monument fountain in Eakins Oval. It was still early, about 6 AM, so we had another hour before the start.

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On the steps of the Washington memorial fountain, awaiting the start of the Philly marathon.  Photo by B.A.

I spoke to a young woman seated on our same steps. She was with her mother and father, who were not running today, but just making sure she was not alone in the crowd. I found out this was her second full marathon, but her father was on his way to running a marathon in all fifty states.  That, it would appear, was where the motivation came from for her to run.  He had completed about 20 states, and said Alaska was the most interesting so far.  The marathon, in Anchorage, is run during the summer solstice in the middle of the night.  He’s saving Hawai’i for last.

Another trip to the portable toilet was out of the question. The lines had grown tremendously, and the way the toilets were lined up facing each other, the lines melded into a confusing conglomeration. One didn’t know if one was coming or going.   As the start time grew nearer, we headed to the UPS trucks, dropped off our bags, and found our way to the corrals.  Unusual for this time of year, the temperature was balmy, in the mid 50’s.  I came with a throw-away long sleeve shirt, but decided to pitch it before the race started.

We lined up, and then, before you know it, we were off.  The course for Philly is a great urban course.  It starts down the Ben Franklin Parkway and past our incredibly ornate city hall.  The statue on top is known familiarly as Billy Penn, the founder of the city of brotherly love, and as now known also of sisterly affection.  Then, it’s down Arch Street, and over to the aptly named Race Street to Columbus Boulevard.  The route heads south to Washington Avenue, then in to South Philly.  South Philly has a character all its own.  In addition to the usual signs held up by fans, I spotted a permanent sign on the street which said, “The last car that parked here still hasn’t been found.”  Turning up South Street and heading west, the crowds had grown thick.  The nice weather had brought out a great number of spectators, and they were all very noisy and encouraging.  Then, its over to Chestnut Street, choked with fans to the point that the course got a little narrow in places.  The race was briefly interrupted by a taxi carrying a woman to Pennsylvania Hospital.  Over the Schuykill river, the race turns north through the Drexel University area, where celebrating frat boys are banging on pots as the runners go by.  Beyond that, the crowds thin considerably as the route heads past the Zoo.  Up and around the Belmont Plateau, and the Please Touch museum, the first offering of gels is provided.  The sponsor this year was Clif, so we got Clif Shots in all different flavors.  The last part of the first half heads down hill to West River Drive, along the Schuykill, then back to the Philadelphia Art Museum.  At this point, large signs attempt to direct the half-marathoners one way, and the marathoners the other, for the full trip out to Manayunk.

I was feeling pretty decent up to the half, but noticed my nemesis, muscle cramps, starting to threaten.  It was certainly early in the race for this to become a factor for me, and I was seriously considering  bailing at the half.  I would have finished the half in a decent but not earth shaking time.  But, my stubborn side would not allow it.  This would be my sixth consecutive Philadelphia Marathon, and I did not want to only finish a half, and break my streak.  Looking at it from a rational, objective view, who would care?  Would stopping at the half make me half a person, unworthy of honor?  Regardless of whatever logical argument I could have made, I made the illogical choice to run on.

I had arranged with my friend Tony to have a bottle of Gatorade for me at this point.  I almost missed him, looking on the wrong side of the street.  Fortunately, he was with another of our club members, the delightfully attractive Michele, who I didn’t miss, and I was able to grab my Gatorade and muster on.  Around the front of the art museum I went, heading out for the second half, the long slog out to Manayunk and back.  I was still going fairly well, with the occasional calf cramp sending one leg or the other out in a bizarre spasm.  Another club member had joined me at this point, Dave, running just to support us SJAC club members.  He’s a remarkably fast runner, and I felt guilty as I started to fall apart running with him.  I also caught up to my teammate Brian, normally much faster than me, who, it appears, was having a worse day than me.  The route goes out along Kelly Drive, past the famous boat house row, and along the Schuykill to the Falls Bridge.  This is the only part of the course I really don’t care for.  We have to go across the bridge, down a hill along the West river drive for a ways, then make a U-turn to come back up and across the bridge again, for the sole purpose of adding distance.

As we got back to the road to Manayunk, I started to have serious problems with the legs.  I was having not just cramps, but real pain, and my back, shoulders and arms were cramping up, too.  It made for an amusing sidelight.  As I grabbed a cup of water from a water stop and raised my arm to drink, my bicep and forearm muscles cramped, and I had to pull my arm down with the other hand to get it to straighten out.  By this time, I was already in Manayunk, and the only way back was to go the last six or seven miles, even if I had to walk.  Which was what I did.  Not the whole way, but a good part of it.  My terrific time tumbled, and the walking was all I could muster.  I noticed a good number of other runners who had succumbed to fatigue, or the wall, or whatever, and were walking, too.  It became a race of walkers.  I was jealous of the other runners who continued to zip by me, still able to run and even chat.  I stopped several times to stretch, and Dave, my friend from the club, who had lost me for a while, found me again and was very patient and encouraging.  Finally, as I neared the boat houses again, I had recovered sufficiently to run again.  Interestingly, the pacesetter for the 4:15 group, who had passed me a little earlier, seemed to be having his own troubles, and I passed him as I rounded the curve to the home stretch along the Parkway.  I have always said, “look good going out and coming in.”  What happens in-between, only I am privy to.  So, I looked as good as I could for the finish line.  I gave Mayor Nutter a high-five as I crossed the line with the Rocky theme playing loudly over the speakers.  The crowds were there and shouting, and the atmosphere, as always at this race, was very upbeat and positive.  I sidled along the line of recipients receiving their marathon medals, which this year were beautiful, large gold colored medals for the 20th anniversary of the race.  I didn’t need the mylar blanket, because the temperature had risen considerably and it was quite warm.  I got in line for my post-race snacks, and headed out to the UPS trucks to pick up my clear plastic clothing bag.

Another marathon done, I pondered about the way my muscles had failed me.  I was in very decent shape going in to this race, having done a 21 miler two weeks earlier in fine form.  It turned out the following day, I had, perhaps, a partial explanation.  I developed a fever, sore throat and runny nose, and felt completely washed out.  I think I was in the pro-dromal stage of a virus, and that explains the muscle soreness and cramping of everything, not just my legs.  I was a real sight the day after the race at work.  It is my standard practice to always take the stairs, no elevators for me.  As I hobbled in pain on the stairs, particularly going down, sniffling, and moving slowly, my surgical residents were probably wondering why I would do this to myself.  I don’t have a ready answer, but I do know that I am already planning next years assault on the marathon circuit.  We, my running partners and I, are thinking about Minneapolis/Saint Paul.  We hear it is a great marathon, and perhaps a little easier course than Philly.

Wineglass, Warm and Humid

The frequently flooded Chemung River, a tributary of the Susquehanna, in Corning, N.Y.

The frequently flooded Chemung River, a tributary of the Susquehanna, in Corning, N.Y.

I didn’t expect western New York in October to be warm and humid, but then I didn’t know what to expect.  When we train for a marathon, we start months in advance with a plan to build miles and endurance.  This summer, we were slogging through many warm and humid days.  I was hoping for cool and brisk, but that is not the way it turned out.

Our trip up to the Wineglass Marathon, held October 6, 2013, started with a very nice cruise through Philadelphia and up the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  This in itself is a cause for celebration, knowing what this stretch of highway can be like.  We stopped at Clark’s Summit, north of Scranton, for lunch with a good friend.  On we went further north after lunch, around Binghamton, NY, then westward along the Southern Tier Expressway through Owego and Elmira.  We passed the bridge with the village name of Horseheads chiseled in large letters.  This village has the distinction of being dedicated to the pack horses of Major-General John Sullivan of the revolutionary army.  The bleached skulls of the horses make for an interesting history.  But never mind this distraction,  we were on our way to Corning.

The expo for the marathon is held in the Corning YMCA, in a fortress of an old red brick building.  It is not a big expo, in fact, rather small, but then this is not a huge marathon.  The marathon and the half marathon are capped at 2500 runners each.

In front of the Corning YMCA, home of the expo.

In front of the Corning YMCA, home of the expo.

Picking up my number on the indoor track at the YMCA

Picking up my number on the indoor track at the YMCA

Encouraging signs from my wife for me and clubmate Steve.

Encouraging signs from my wife for me and clubmate Steve.

I picked up my number, and the number of my friend Steve, who was going to arrive a bit late.  The friendly young lady behind the rail took Steve’s word by phone that she could trust me and allow me to pick up for him.  Fortunately, I remembered to check for safety pins, too.

After we picked up our numbers, we headed a little out of town to our motel, the Hampton Inn, of Corning.  I am a fan of Hampton Inns.  They always seem so comfortable and clean, and the complementary wi-fi and breakfast are nice benefits.  We had a little trouble finding the Inn.  We knew the address, but all we could find was a Denny’s and a gas station.  Then, we spotted it.  It was behind the Denny’s a little ways, with absolutely no sign directing one in to the parking area.  No matter, we parked and went to check in.  The pleasant woman behind the desk asked me my name, and then informed me that she did not see my reservation.  Of course, I had made the reservation months ago, and even got an email from the hotel advising us that construction was going on, that there would be noise during the day, and that all of their facilities would remain open.  Another front desk person came over, and they re-examined their records.  As it turned out, the reservation I had made was for two nights starting the night before.  I originally planned to come up Friday night.  Since I didn’t show, they gave away my room and cancelled my reservation.  They informed me they were completely booked, but that they would try to help find me a room in another hotel.  Naturally, the marathoners had booked everything in several miles.  Just as I was getting despondent, and here’s where they really shined, they suddenly realized that one room was not taken.  This was a strange, very large, room on the first floor, close to the lobby, equipped with a board room-like table and chairs, a kitchenette, and a Murphy bed instead of a regular bed.  While all the other rooms had been recently renovated, this room had not, and was in the process of a make-over.  We, my wife and I, were more than happy to take it.  The front desk person even assured me she would remove any charge for my missing the night before.

After freshening up a bit, we joined with the other club members staying at the Hampton Inn and headed back to town for dinner.  We found a place to park on Market Street, the main shopping and dining street in Corning.  They have an unusual way of decorating shops on Market Street, with whimsical signage and artwork.

A Dali-esque clock suspended from a second story window.

A Dali-esque clock suspended from a second story window.

It appears to be a boy dipping his finger in a pond.

It appears to be a boy dipping his finger in a pond.

Steve called a few months ago to the restaurant, Sorge’s, an old, established Italian restaurant in Corning.  He was assured that even though they don’t take reservations, they are a large restaurant which can accommodate a large crowd, and we would not have much of a wait.  As you might expect, Sorge’s was packed, and we were told there would be about an hour or so wait.  We were a hungry crew, and did not want to spend an hour thinking about food, and then another hour possibly waiting for it to arrive at the table.  Right down the street there was a small establishment which appeared to have tables set up for an impromptu dinner.  It was the Palate Cafe and Juice Bar, and they were serving a pasta dinner for the marathoners that night.  We inquired, and it turned out a large party had skipped out on their reservation so they had room for us.  Two in our group, Sara and Brian, wanted a more normal restaurant experience, and chose to return to Sorge’s, but the rest of us settled on the home-cooked style of the dinner at Palate.  It appears Palate specializes in wheat grass juice, and their website has a list of forty benefits and things to do with wheat grass juice, some of which I would never consider.  Check for yourselves if you are curious.

Steve and Caren at Palate Cafe

Steve and Caren at Palate Cafe

Tony, Kat and Frank getting ready to have a pasta feast.

Tony, Kat and Frank getting ready to have a pasta feast.

Kat , my number one supporter, and me, Frank

Kat , my number one supporter, and me, Frank

The dinner at the Palate Cafe and Juice Bar was acceptable, not spectacular, but it was pasta.  We felt we had served our bodies well in the carbohydrate loading department.  It was a family style affair, though, seeing the steaming pots and the rest of the preparation area assembled in a corner of the store usually used for other purposes.  After dinner, we met up at a small bar down the street for a beer, the one beer I would have the night before the big event.  We were definitely out-of-place at this locals hang-out.  There were a few of the regulars standing outside smoking, and Tony seemed a bit intimidated by them, although he’s a lot bigger and stronger than they were.  Inside, the choices for beer were limited, and they definitely focused on the usual, Bud, Miller and Coors.  I asked for a Sam Adams, which was on tap, and without any evil look the bartender poured me one.  I was grateful.  Caren paid the tab for us and we sat at a small table near a group ranging from grandma to young adult-on-iPhone playing electronic darts.  Now they did give us an evil eye or two, having crowded in on their territory.  Our nervousness about the next day started to come out as we sat and drank, thinking about the weather, and the prediction for warm and humid conditions.  After the beer, we drove back to our hotel in relative silence.

Kat and I settled back in our room, the large space intended for meetings, and got into the Murphy bed.  It was no regular bed, with awkward straps holding up a thin mattress.  One had to adjust one’s body so that the hips and shoulders appropriately fit in the hollows created by the straps.  I slowly drifted into dream world, thinking about what to wear the next day.

The morning of the marathon I arose early, waking at my usual 5:00 AM.  I checked the weather on my iPad.  It didn’t look too daunting, with light rain and temperature in the mid 60’s at that moment.  I could hear the rain outside, and it sounded a bit more than “light”.  I decided to go with shorts and my club singlet, and my Saucony compression knee-high socks.  Donning some light cover up pants and a jacket, I headed out to get breakfast, nicely set out for us runners by the hotel staff.  They came in early to set up, since they usually don’t start serving until 6:00.  A number of other runners were there, having a coffee and some oatmeal.  My club mates, Steve, Brian and Tony soon arrived, and we had breakfast.  I went with the oatmeal, too, but Brian went for the pour-your-own waffle, freshly cooked in the waffle iron.  After a bit more conversation and a second cup of coffee, we gathered our stuff and headed out.  Caren was nice enough to drive Steve, Brian and me to the start, in Bath, N.Y., while Tony headed separately for the buses in Corning.  Since he was doing the half marathon, his start was half way down the route from our start.  We gathered up a hill in Bath at a Philips Lighting Company plant.  We were not aware at the time that the plant had closed, laying off 280 workers.  It appears that due to changes in demands in the home lighting industry, this plant made the wrong type of bulbs, and so rather than change the technology in the plant, the company, based in the Netherlands, decided to close it.

The start area was well equipped for the runners.  There were plenty of portable toilets, and UPS trucks were waiting to take our bags to the finish line.  Since the Boston bombing, all running events where bag check is allowed have gone to allowing only clear plastic bags provided by the race.  It’s a bit like making every passenger remove his or her shoes to board a plane, since there was an attempt to set off an explosive in a shoe in the famous “shoe-bomber” incident.  As we gathered for the start, it was misty and a bit warm.  The runners lined up, there was a very nice rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by a local singer, and then we were off.

I get an odd feeling starting a marathon.  I don’t know whether I’ll cramp up or when, whether my training will prevail, or how long it will take me to get to the finish.  One thing on my side, I’ve finished every one of the eight marathons I’ve run to date.  As we headed down the hill I was reminded of last year’s Steamtown Marathon.  That start was a long down hill run, but this one was only about a half mile before the road flattened out.  In spite of the warm, humid conditions, I was feeling alright.  I kept reminding myself to keep my pace in check, and I kept it around an 8’35” pace, according to my trusty Garmin.  I have the 305 model, with a large face which one of my friends referred to as a Dell laptop on my wrist.  It is easy to read on the run, though!

The early part of the race was very nice.  My pace was good, the legs felt good, and the scenery was quite attractive.  We could see the surrounding hills with trees turning colors, and there were ponds reflecting the colors.  We passed through a few very small towns, and some of the locals came out to cheer us on, but they looked a bit sleepy, standing by the side of the road, coffee cup in hand, and not saying much.  Moving on, Steve, running with me, and I were greeted enthusiastically by Caren and Kat, who were driving from cheering stop to cheering stop to give us support.  I stopped for a moment to let Kat get a photo, but she yelled “keep going”, and I did.

Frank (L) and Steve (R) moving on.

Frank (L) and Steve (R) moving on.

Hey Steve, how much farther do we have to run?

Hey Steve, how much farther do we have to run?

It did occur to me that I was losing a lot of fluid.  My clothing was soaked and clinging to me, there was a constant flow of sweat from the brim of my hat, and it wasn’t raining, so the wetness was coming from me.  I was stopping at every water stop, alternating Gatorade and water, and trying my best to keep well hydrated.  The trick to drinking on the run is to crimp the cup.  That way only a third of it sloshes out of the cup on me and my shoes, and two-thirds goes down the right way.  We got to the half way point still feeling fairly good.  By this time, the crowds had picked up and were very enthusiastic.  After passing through the 13 mile mark, there is a significant hill, but it is the last of the real climbs.  As we got into the second half, I started to feel the first signs of trouble from my legs.  There were little twinges of muscle spasm coming from my calves, and I was getting concerned.  The last time I passed her, my wife held out a water bottle filled with sports drink, which I grabbed and downed along the route.  I also was taking gels, about one every six miles.

Caren, heading out to give Steve some encouragement.

Caren, heading out to give Steve some encouragement.

She may have been telling him to "be careful, we need you at home".

She may have told him to “be careful, we need you at home”.

He was looking better just a moment ago.

He was looking better just a moment ago.

Perhaps the photos project the warm and steamy conditions we were facing.  The rubber bands had snapped, the legs had turned to pudding.  By around mile 18, both Steve and I were shot.  In spite of working hard to stay well hydrated, it seemed the loss of sweat, and the inability to get rid of body heat had taken a toll on us, and we both wound up walking a ways.  It really is amazing how much time one loses off one’s goal when the walking starts.  At this point I recognized that my hopes for a Boston qualifier were not going to become reality, so I did what I could to make it to the finish without hurting myself too badly.

Even the supporters along the route were a bit subdued.

Even the supporters along the route were a bit subdued.

My legs were toying with me.  One moment I was able to run, the next they were cramping up and sticking out to the point I could hardly stand.  I was reminded of Peter Sellers’ arm in his role as Dr. Strangelove, and his “alien hand syndrome”.

Walking was the best I could muster around miles 18-20.

Walking was the best I could muster around miles 18-22.

After some walking, some more Gatorade, and another gel, I felt revived enough to run again, although I had completely lost my stride.  I was able to manage around a ten minute mile, and I kept trudging along.  I noticed an awful lot of other runners doing the same at this point.  My plan, what I had practiced for, was to pick up my pace at this point to go for a good finish.  That plan will have to wait for another day.

Back to a running stride, and trying to keep smiling.

Back to a running stride, and trying to keep smiling.

About the last four miles we headed through a park along a bike path, and I could see we were starting to get close to finishing.  The legs, while not working well, were at least working, and I managed to carry through to the finish line.  The last stretch before reaching Market street is over a bridge, with a slight rise.  This gave me cause for concern, but my fears were unnecessary, as I crested the relatively minor hump without incident.  On the other side of the bridge, Tony, having finished his half marathon, was cheering on runners and spotted me.  He yelled “go Frank, you’re looking good”, and it definitely helped.  The finish down Market Street is a very nice finish.  The crowds were out and yelling for us, and I could see the finish line in the distance.  I saw a bank sign with the temperature showing 80 degrees on that last stretch.  As I crossed, it was a great relief to stop.  I needed fluids, and I quickly downed two bottles of water and grabbed a third.  I received my medal, a large glass medallion in purple, hanging from a broad white ribbon.  I walked through the food line, took some broth and a few other items, and met up with Kat, who had spied me on the final stretch.  It was great to see her smiling face at the end of the race, and have her support all along the way.

After the race, we headed down towards the Market Street Brewing Company, where we all met up for lunch.  Brian had turned in a terrific performance, given the conditions, finishing in the 3:34 range.  I had come in at 4:21, and Steve a bit behind that.  We all agreed that the race organization and course were very good.  I would certainly like to do this marathon again.  I just would rather do it when it is in the 40-60 degree range and dry, not 70-80 degrees and humid.  But, one can’t plan that part of the marathon, and you take the conditions as they are.

Brian, who turned in a great time.

Brian, who turned in a great time.

Brian's wife Sara, displaying the sleeveless "T" look for a hot day in October.

Brian’s wife Sara, displaying the sleeveless “T” look for a hot day in October.

Half marathon man Tony, who will be running Boston this spring.

Half marathon man Tony, who will be running Boston this spring.

Steve, who suffered the most this marathon.

Steve, who suffered the most this marathon.

Kat and humble author Frank, two beers down.

Kat and humble author Frank, two beers down.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, but the running isn’t!

This feels like the summer of 2012 all over again.  We had a stretch of rainy days which seemed to go on forever, although it was really only about a 10 days or so.  I had two rather interesting rain-related experiences during this time.  Both were during my Monday run from my hospital in Camden, NJ, over the Ben Franklin bridge to Philadelphia, a loop down to the Race Street pier, then back over the bridge and back to the hospital.  It is a very nice six mile round trip, with the challenge of the bridge, but also with a pleasant breeze on the bridge and very nice views.

The first interesting experience occurred on my way back through Camden.  Dark rain clouds and the rain coming down to the east were illuminated by the setting sun to the west, and a beautiful, full-arc, sharply colored double rainbow could be seen as I was crossing Market Street.  I stopped a local man crossing the street who hadn’t noticed this wonder of nature and pointed it out.  He smiled broadly, and said “yeah, cool.”

The other incident was a little more worrisome.  I was doing the same run again.  It was overcast, but the rain seemed to be off to the east, and usually the direction of travel of the rain clouds is west to east.  As I was cresting the high point on the bridge, large raindrops started to splat the walkway.  I still felt this didn’t seem like much of a problem.  In fact, I was marveling at how the rain on the walkway created an outline of the old-fashioned style lamps along the railing.  My reverie was short lived.  Instead of moving east, the storm was heading right towards me.  I still had about a quarter of the bridge to go as the rain picked up and became torrential.  Worse, lightening was flashing around me.  I don’t know the risk of being on an enormous steel structure during a lightening storm, but my gut feeling was that it was not safe.  I scurried down the ending stairway of the bridge, three sets of wet stairs, to the street.  I made it shortly to a loading dock area on the Rutgers campus, and got out of the storm.  As I waited out the storm, several other runners behind me on the bridge kept running in the storm, and I watched them go by.  I felt a little wimpy, as if I should shake my fear and continue running.  But then, reason took hold and I waited a bit more.  Looking up at the sky, I could see swirling clouds which looked like they were attempting to make a tornado.  Fortunately, it never go to that.  With the storm, and the lightening, having moved on, the thunder now coming more than 10 seconds from the lightening, I ventured out and ran the last mile or so back.  It was still raining, and when I got to the hospital I made sure to allow a little drip time before going back in to change.

Now, though, the rain has been gone for several days and the heat has arrived.  As we all know, running in the heat can be brutal.  One’s body must acclimate to the heat.  This is a complex process, involving changes in the body’s blood volume, hormonal status, immunological changes, sweat composition and response, and other alterations.  All those intricate physiological changes have yet to occur in me.  I ran yesterday for a seven mile run, and today for a 12.5 miler.  While the starting temperatures don’t sound that brutal, around 79 degrees F, the high humidity of 90%, low to non-existent breeze, and sun made for very uncomfortable running.  Both days we started at 7:00 AM.  My friend Brandon, with whom I ran on Saturday, seemed to already have made that jump to summer running, as he was not nearly as affected as I was.  Perhaps it is his incredibly lean, thin body, or the fact that he runs normally more than fifty miles a week, but he cruised without dying.  I, on the other hand, felt like collapsing after a few miles.  Saturday, I mustered on, drinking water from the fountains along our route, and going a very diminished pace.  Sunday, I started out running with two other runners, planning to go 13.5 miles.  I carried a bottle of water with me in one of those handy runner’s bottles, with a strap for my hand, and a protruding enormous nipple-like spigot, allowing a drink on the run.  One of the guys in my group peeled off at four miles, saying he was never going to make the 13.  The other kept with me until his usual turnoff at my six mile mark.  So I was left alone for the rest of the run.  As I steadily, but at a considerably slower pace than normal, made my way around our standard Sunday loop, the sun got higher, cresting the trees and shining down on me.  Other runners came by in the opposite direction, looking pretty bedraggled, with the exception of one young guy.  He had on a gray army-style t-shirt and was running with a backpack.  He looked pretty tough in the heat.  I was drinking steadily to ward off dehydration, and used the amount of sweat on my hands as a guide.  If they were dry, I figured I had stopped sweating from not enough fluid, and took another gulp.  The sweat continued to drench me, and I could feel my feet getting soaked in my shoes.  At around ten miles, I stopped at a water fountain and had the good fortune of meeting a friend running in the other direction.  I hadn’t seen him in a long time, but still we stopped to talk far more than would be normal under milder circumstances.  As I headed for the last leg, I was running now at around a 9’30” to 10 minute per mile pace, not able to go any faster.  I switched sides on the road a few times to take advantage of the bit of shade I could find from the trees.  With two miles left to go, I made the decision to cut this run short, and headed back up the hill for only a one mile return to the start, thinking that lost mile would not be doing me much good anyway.  I made sure to finish strong, though, as I passed my fellow Sunday morning crew who had run shorter and were already hanging out at the Starbucks.  One always should look good at the start and end of a run.  In between, nobody is really watching.  I banged on the sign marking the end of the run, and wobbled over to get my backpack and my extra bottle of sports drink I had stowed for my recovery.  Sitting in the shade, bent over, calf muscles doing their quivering imitation of fireworks going off, I took off my shoes and socks, wrung the sweat from my socks, and slowly felt the heat dissipating.  Once I had cooled to a nearly presentable state, I made my way over to join my friends. I changed to dry clothes, and sitting outside, with a little breeze and in the shade, it didn’t seem so awful.  But, boy, running in the heat can be brutal.  I do look forward to that magical transformation of being acclimated.

Paleofantasy: a book report

Paleofantasy

What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live

by Marlene Zuk

Published Feb. 2013 by W.W.Norton & Co., 328 pages

paleofantasy

 

 

 

 

 

When I was in high school, first learning about genetics, things seemed fairly simple and straightforward.  Blue eyes, a recessive trait, required two genes, one from each parent, specifying blue eyes.  Otherwise, the eyes would be brown, being from a dominant gene.  Since then, with the explosion of scientific knowledge of molecular biology and the analysis of the entire human genome, the world of genetics and evolution has, well, evolved, to put it in the phrasing of Dr. Zuk, a professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota.  But it is as if we have just dipped our toe in a vast and unexplored ocean, which was previously unknown.

I picked up this book at my favorite book shop in the U.S., Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, while on a ski trip in February.  The title captured my interest.  There is a huge “Paleo” movement at present, based on the theory that our genes adapted to life of the paleolithic time, that is, from about 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago.  This covers a lot of time, from when earliest human-like creatures developed, to the development of modern homo sapiens.  A search on Amazon for books with paleo in the title yields 2,719 titles, very few of which have to do with actual paleontology.  They are almost all about eating paleo, living the paleo lifestyle, and there was even a paleo cookbook for your dog.  The concept is that humans evolved before the era of agriculture, caught their meals in bursts of speed chasing down animals, gathered vegetable food from nature, and walked and ran barefoot.  Thus, the argument goes, we are best suited for this type of food, and life, and that our genes are ill equipped to handle crops such as grains, non-meat sources of protein, and running long distances, especially in shoes.  There are also devotes to various concepts of how stone-agers lived in family units, or groups, how they coupled up and reproduced, and whether there was pairing for life versus multiple partner life.  The purpose of devoting oneself to a paleo lifestyle, then, is to be in harmony with ones nature and genes, to be healthier, leaner, fitter, sexier, have less immunological problems, and presumably, to be able to run injury free.

Dr. Zuk starts off with a brief description of human evolution.  She explains some of the complexity of the evolutionary process, that many human ancestor lineages were changing in different ways, that we share an enormous percent of our genome with earlier species right down to bacteria, and that evolutionary change is not always change for the good.  She points out some of the complexity of genes being favorable or unfavorable for survival.  For example, if a trait is unfavorable, and results in loss of that trait, other genes will be lost along with that  trait due to their being linked together.  She gives specific examples. She also documents that there was not just one paleolithic lifestyle; there were many different routes taken along very different paths.

Her second major point is that evolutionary change can happen quickly or slowly, and may occur without any type of survival pressure.  An argument of the paleo adherents is that our genes were fixed back in pre-modern times, and that the last 10,000 years is too short a time to allow for adaption to new foods, and new ways of living.  She rebuts this with specific examples of changes that have occurred in that relatively short period.  Blue eyes, mentioned above, came about in the last 10,000 years.  Lactose intolerance seems to have a lot to do with where and how one’s group survived, and is also very recent.  It has the complex nature of being caused by a lack of a gene to inhibit built in turning off of another gene which inhibits lactase production as one matures, lactase being the enzyme required to digest lactose.  She mainly discusses genetic changes which are changes in gene expression, as opposed to major gene alterations such as occur with mutations.  In other words, she’s not talking about how we got to be human, but rather how our genome is modified over time to adapt to our surroundings.

The following chapters deal with diet, food procuring methods, exercise or physical activity including running, sex, monogamy versus multiple partners, family structure, child raising, susceptibility to diseases, and how we protect ourselves from disease.  Her discussions of these topics are backed up with scientific studies, and she cites the literature from which she makes her arguments.  She also points out where the science does not support the claims made by paleo adherents, thus the “Paleofantasy” of the title.  In many ways, she does not try to say that the “paleo” approach to diet or exercise is harmful, just that it is not based on real scientific reasoning.  As with any devoted scientist, she includes a lengthy bibliography which she used to form her arguments, as well as a notes section and an index.

Her writing style was an interesting, and sometimes to me, annoying mix of sound scientific argument with a conversational tone that seemed unnecessary.  It was like watching a really good Nova TV show on a particular topic, and then having a few lines from the sitcom “Cheers” thrown in.  She uses the word “well” a lot, as I used it above in the first paragraph.  I enjoyed the humorous touches, though, and I think she would make a very entertaining teacher in the classroom.  The title of the book is clearly meant to titillate, listing sex as the first major topic, when it’s really primarily about diet.  She got most of her information regarding the paleo lifestyle from the internet and popular books, which makes sense, since it’s not a scientific discipline, but it does make comparisons of real research with what paleo advocates consider perfectly logical thinking a bit one-sided.  This is not meant to be a book for scholars, but for the lay public, and I think she has accomplished that very well without sacrificing the scientific complexity which makes this topic so interesting.

I learned a lot reading this book, about evolution and current thought about genes and molecular biology.  I think she makes very sound arguments that, while living a paleo lifestyle may not hurt you, you won’t necessarily be any better off for it.  She successfully defends her thesis, that the paleo movement is based on fantasy, not fact.  Reading the comments about her book online, there were obviously many adherents of the paleo life who were not only unconvinced by her arguments, but found her book essentially sacrilegious.  In fact, a number of commentators remarked that they would not read the book. For me, it was an exciting look at topics which are themselves changing rapidly as new research is done in the areas of evolution, genes, reproduction, disease, disease prevention, fitness and longevity.  I think anyone who is interested in these topics will find this book fascinating and a good read, as long as you can, well, ignore some of the style issues.

Vlad Averbukh, 29, a follower of the paleo diet, eats raw meat along the Hudson River in New York in 2010. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Vlad Averbukh, 29, a follower of the paleo diet, eats raw meat along the Hudson River in New York in 2010.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Why I Didn’t Run in Hawai’i (part three, the final part)

Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiian Islands

We finished our boat tour of the lava flow into the ocean, full of awe at the spectacle of being so close to flowing melted rock.  Rather than head back to Kona, which would be a two hour drive, then return again the next morning, we decided to spend the night at a bed and breakfast close to Volcano National Park, which would be our next big adventure on the big island.  This also meant skipping the Saturday morning run with the Big Island Running Company, which I had planned to do before realizing how tightly packed our itinerary would be once we got here.

We stayed overnight at the Aloha Crater Lodge, in Volcano Village, close to the entrance to Volcano National Park.  This is a small Bed and Breakfast in a converted house within the rain forest, with very reasonable rates.  They have five rooms, each with room for three to four occupants, and the breakfast is provided in-room, with a coffee maker and a small refrigerator stocked with milk, juice, cereal and fruit.  Being in the rain forest as it is, the room was very humid, but the bed was nice and comfortable.  Close to the lodge there is a lava tube, which is a large cave-like tunnel created by the flow of lava.  They give tours daily of the lava tube, but we decided not to participate, since we would be seeing the same thing on our bike tour of the national park.

Aloha Crater Lodge

Aloha Crater Lodge

We arranged for a tour of Volcano National Park with BikeVolcano.com, a company which offers several different bicycle tours of the park, although not every tour every day.  They require a minimum number of people signed up to do a tour, and one needs to sign up at least 48 hours in advance.  They also will ride rain or shine, since it rains often on this side of the island.  We were able to sign up for their shorter tour, although we really wanted the longer one.

Like any other national park, there is a nominal fee to enter.  We drove up to the visitors center, and had some time before our tour started to look at the exhibits and browse the gift shop.  Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park extends from the summit of Mauna Loa to the sea, with Kilauea being the active volcano.  Our bike tour company pulled up with their trailer to the parking lot.

Jaggar_sign_crop688

Photo obtained from national park service web site.

Naturally, the first order of business was for all the participants to sign a waver saying we wouldn’t hold them responsible if we fell into a volcano, or any other mishap.  We were driven up to the Jagger Museum, where we would see the giant caldera of Kilauea, which has its own name, the Halema’uma’u crater.  Thomas Jaggar was an M.I.T. geologist who started the study of volcanoes scientifically here in 1912, in response to the eruption of Mt. Etna in Italy in 1908, which claimed 125,000 lives.  The caldera is very wide, and has an enormous pool of lava churning in a central pit.  There is an impressive time-lapse video on the park website of the glow from Halema’uma’u as the sun sets, revealing the glow from the central lava lake.

vapors from Halema'uma'u

Vapors coming from the central pit of Halema’uma’u crater

At the Jaggar museum, overlooking the Kilauea caldera.

At the Jaggar museum, overlooking the Kilauea caldera.

Along the edge of the caldera is a hiking trail.  The tiny white dot in the photo is a sign warning hikers to not go off the trail.

Along the edge of the caldera is a hiking trail. The tiny white dot in the photo is a sign warning hikers to not go off the trail.

We had some time to peruse the exhibits on volcanology at the Jaggar Museum, learning about the difference between a shield type vs. a cone type of volcano, how volcano activity is monitored, how geologists collect lava samples (which can be tricky, and dangerous as we saw), and what makes up the airborne emissions from volcanoes  We were then directed to the parking lot and were assigned a bike.  The bikes were Sedona hybrid bikes, made by Giant.  They were adjustable to match our own frames, did not have toe clips, and were equipped with three front rings and seven gears in the rear.  They were set to the second ring in front, and their was a briefing from the tour guide regarding how to shift.  We would be riding on paths and roads around the park, and there were a few hills involved.  We got a chance to practice riding around in the parking lot before we set out.  Our guide was well equipped to give us our tour, as he was a graduate with a geology degree, and he had a special interest in volcanoes.  He also seemed to be very laid back, with long hair and a bright, easy-going demeanor.

Our guide in red, and fellow cyclists at one of the stops.

Our guide in red, and fellow cyclists at one of the stops.

We were taken by steam vents, down old roads partially destroyed by lava flows, and to other crater formations within the park.  One particularly interesting phenomenon is the lava tube.  These are long cave-like channels through the ground which are conduits for flowing lava.  They can be a few hundred yards long, or several miles.  They provide insulation for the flowing lava so it remains molten as it travels through the tube, eventually draining their contents out onto a lava field or into the ocean.  One of the most famous of these is the Thurston lava tube, named after the Honolulu newspaper owner who helped Jagger get his start studying volcanos, and who personally discovered this tube.

Looking into the Thurston Lava Tube.  Note the flat floor, from cooled lava, and the lava level marks on the side walls.

Looking into the Thurston Lava Tube. Note the flat floor, from cooled lava, and the lava level marks on the side walls.

We walked through a portion of this tube, about 100 yards, and exited up through a vent whole.   It is located within dense jungle growth, with steep crevices and sharp rocks all around.  We were told this tube goes on farther, but that section is closed to the public.  A side crater of Kilauea, Pu’u O’o, is the source of the lave we watched flow into the ocean, and it travels there through tubes like this one.

Typical of the ground around the lava tube, it is all crevices and rock with jungle-like overgrowth.

Typical of the ground around the lava tube, it is all crevices and rock with jungle-like overgrowth.

Discovering this lava tube originally would have taken some fearless exploration.  We also cycled to see a steam vent, where steam, not lava vapors, were coming up through a crevice in the ground.  Unlike the vapors from the lava, which contain all sorts of harmful airborne particles and gasses, this steam was just water vapor.  Interestingly, many people treated this crack in the earth like a fountain, and threw coins into it, I suppose, to curry favor with Pélé, the goddess of volcanoes, whose home is Kilauea.  It is considered tabu and a serious crime against Pélé to take anything such as volcanic rock away from Hawai’i.  A popular story told to us tourists is that the main post office in Hilo has a collection of rocks sent back by visitors who took them away, then suffered Pélé’s wrath.

We finished our tour on bikes looking at several other impressive craters, such as the “Ever-Smoking” Crater, with its numerous vents of smoke rising, and the Kilauea Iki crater, near the main caldera of Kilauea, where an eruption in 1959 reach heights of 580 meters (1900 feet) occurred.  A USGS film documenting the eruption was made, and is available in four parts on YouTube.

At a stop along the way, on our bike tour of the Hawaiian Volcano National Park

At a stop along the way, on our bike tour of the Hawaiian Volcano National Park

After finishing our bike tour, we headed back to the gift shop, naturally, where I picked up a refrigerator magnet showing lava flowing into the ocean, and a book on volcanoes, called “Volcano Watching, Revised 2010 Edition”.  It is short, but filled with well-written explanations about the science of volcanoes.  We then headed back to our car for the two hour drive back to Kona, along the southern perimeter of Hawai’i.  We stopped for lunch at a well known bakery and restaurant called Punalu’u Bake Shop.  It is known for its sweet breads, and for excellent sandwiches.  We also stopped along the road at an old cemetery, which had grave stones present from the late 1800’s forward.  The grave sites were notable for many above ground or partially buried stone containers of the caskets, presumably due to the difficulty of digging into rock.  Since there were a number of family members visiting relative’s graves here I did not take any photos.

Arriving back in Kona, we went to our hotel, for a bit of rest before our repeat trip to see the amazing dancing manta rays.  Sea Paradise, our manta ray tour company, has a guarantee (with asterisk) which states one gets a second opportunity for no extra charge if manta rays are not seen.  We were determined not to allow the letdown of the first trip discourage us.  Again, we headed back to the check-in office to sign the usual release forms, and to get our wet suits.  We then drove back to Keauhou Bay, waiting for the boat to load.  We had a beautiful sunset and also watched canoe racers practicing turns around a buoy.

Canoe racers practicing in Keauhou Bay.

Canoe racers practicing in Keauhou Bay.

The drill getting into the boat was the same as last time.  We had to take off our footwear and place them in a container before boarding the boat.  We had a different crew this time, but they were just as energetic and confident as the last crew.  The captain, a young handsome guy who appeared to really enjoy his job, was back at the helm.  As we motored out to the viewing area, we were treated to the now familiar talk on manta rays, what they eat, how they are attracted to the plankton, and how the plankton are drawn to the lights.  We were offered tea or juice on the way out, and masks and snorkels were handed out.  Once at the viewing area, we pulled on our wet suits and prepared for the dip into the ocean.  I was a bit concerned that this would be another hour spent breathing through a snorkel in the dark, with nothing to show for it.  We marched down the ladder into the ocean, Kathleen and I, along with about twenty five other people.  This time, I was stationed at the end of the long floating device with the attached lights, next to one of the crew at the very end who helped keep the float in the proper spot.  I started my vigil.  Yes, the plankton, true to their nature, were amassing under the light.  I could see some fish swimming around in the deeper water, and under them were large lava rocks.  Time was passing.  Not wanting to miss the first glimpse of the undersea marvels, I kept my head down, listening to my breathing sounds as my breath passed through the tube.  One becomes consciously aware of one’s breathing in this setting, and instead of it being automatic, one starts to think about it.  I found myself needing to actively initiate inhalation, then exhalation.  Still, the plankton swam about but no manta showed his or her wide wings.  The crew had moved the barge around to the front of the boat, perhaps hoping, as I sometimes do while fishing, that by changing location we’ll get lucky.  I started to look for ways to distract myself, since I was getting cold, and my right shoulder, injured the week before in a fall in San Diego, was starting to hurt.    I started to name the plankton.  There’s Susie, Fred and George, there goes Samantha and Robert, and look, it’s Kealea and Hunahuna, native Hawai’ian plankton.  I followed the path of my little friends as they swirled and scurried about.  I noticed people had left their posts at the barge, and had made their way back to the boat.  Apparently, I was one of the last to hold out hope of seeing a manta that night, along with Kathleen, who, no doubt, was also determined not to give up.  The two of us, though, came to the same conclusion, no mantas tonight.  We swam around to the stern, but as we swam we noticed, no, not mantas, but a huge school of needle fish which were swimming all around us right at the surface of the water.  They made the trip worthwhile.  They have iridescent colors, swim within inches of one’s face and arms, but never come in contact.  They were quite a marvel, and we stayed in the water a bit longer to enjoy them.  We then got back in the boat, stripped off our wetsuits, gave back our masks and snorkels, and sat down for the return to the dock.  The hot cocoa provided on the boat was very welcome, as I was shivering.  We were disappointed, but not overly so.  Again, you can’t command these creatures, you can only try to lure them, and I know our crew did the best they could for us.  After getting back to our car and changing back to clothes, we drove back to our hotel.

The following morning was our last in Hawai’i.  Unlike many trips, the flight out doesn’t leave until late, in our case, 10:00 PM.  So we still had a full day to enjoy just wandering around Kona, not needing to get anywhere.  Kathleen got her henna tattoo freshened up.  I went for a swim in the cove in front of our hotel, with a rented mask, which cost only $5 at the beach side equipment rental.  I saw myriad numbers of incredibly colored fish, with patterns one might think were made up by Dr. Seuss.  In the afternoon, we went looking for a bookstore, the Kona Bay Bookstore, which was difficult to find by walking, as it was tucked into a semi-industrial area, as we later found.  Instead, we found ourselves at the Kona Brewing Company, where they give tours of their brewery and a free beer tasting.  The last tour that day was at 3:00 PM, and they had two spots left.  We signed up.  The brewery, which was started as a very small operation by a father and son in 1995, has grown to major proportions.  The brewery in Kona now only produces kegs, no bottled beer, and distributes it only to the other Hawai’ian islands.  They also sell beer for growlers (two liter bottles one brings to get filled) at their brewery and there is a restaurant on premises, which looked very busy while we were there.  They have partnered with breweries in Oregon, Washington and New Hampshire to produce the beer in bottles sold in the U.S. mainland and other countries.  After our tour, our group sat around two large round tables in the restaurant.  Fortunately, the tables had umbrellas, since it was raining, although we hardly noticed.  We had a great afternoon, sampling five of their various brews including a coffee stout made with Kona coffee, and chatting with our other tour mates.

Across from our hotel, the start and finish of the Kona Ironman Triathlon Championships.

Across from our hotel, the start and finish of the Kona Ironman Triathlon Championships.

Hawai’i has attracted numerous famous visitors, from all over the world.  Mark Twain traveled as a correspondent to Hawai’i, known then as the Sandwich Islands to non-Hawai’ians, and recorded his thoughts in letters back to the mainland.  Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Amelia Earhart, and I’m sure, many other famous people, in the era before modern airfare (not to dismiss Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments), traveled the long journey by steamship to visit the Hawai’ian Islands.  Today, it is still a long trip to get here, but definitely worth the effort.

We left Hawai’i that night, having had an incredible adventure and a lot of fun.  I would enjoy going back to do many of the things we didn’t get to do on this trip, such as see sea turtles, do some volcano hiking, and maybe, just maybe, see a manta ray.  I also might go for a few more runs on my return.  We found the local people of Hawai’i to be very friendly and helpful, and they take very seriously the ecology and care of their island.

Aloha Nō!

Hawai'ian sunset, Keauhou Bay.

Hawai’ian sunset, Keauhou Bay.

Why I Didn’t Run in Hawai’i (part two)

Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiian Islands

When I last wrote of this trip, we had returned from an unproductive trip waiting in vain to see manta rays.  This was the first reason I didn’t get more running in while in Hawai’i.  The Big Island Running Company, the running store in Kona, has group runs Tuesday and Thursday at 5 PM, and Saturday at 6:30 AM.  I had plans to do the Thursday run, but in order to get to our manta ray trip, I had to skip it.   Their usual run is about a six mile run, typically around an 8:30 pace.  The guy in the shop told me an option was to run with him and his friends for a five mile warm up, then hill repeats, and a five mile cool down.  I laughed, and said that normally I would take him up on it, but being on vacation I didn’t want to work that hard.  It was not an issue anyway, since we needed to get to our manta ray trip.

The next morning, we were heading to the other side of Hawai’i for a zip line tour.  There are a number of companies running zip lines in Hawai’i.  We selected Skyline Eco-Adventures, because we would be able to zip over waterfalls, and because they were the original zip line company in the U.S., at least according to their web site.  They also have a commitment to being “carbon neutral”, and ecologically friendly, which are all good things.  They are located on the other side of Hawai’i from Kona, near Hilo, so we would need to rise early in order to drive the two hours to get to the start on time.  Fortunately, our breakfast buffet started at 6 AM, and we were there a few minutes after that, fueling up for our adventure.  There are just a few ways to drive around the island.  There’s the southern route, which is the long way to get to Hilo.  There’s Saddle Road, which is the shortest route from Kona to Hilo, but a crazy drive.  We were heading to Akaka Falls State Park, which is north of Hilo.  So we took the northern route around the island, through Waimea.

View of Mauna Kea, with observatories visible at the summit, along route 190 heading toward Waimea.

View of Mauna Kea, with observatories visible at the summit, along route 190 heading toward Waimea.

Waimea is home of the Parker Ranch, which is a cattle ranching operation started in 1847 by John Palmer Parker.  Early on, the ranch covered 250,00 acres, and grew at one point to 500,000 acres.  It is now run by a trust, but still is an active cattle ranching company.  Also in Waimea are the support facilities for two of the large telescopes atop Mauna Kea, the Keck Observatory and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.  We stopped in Waimea for a coffee at Starbucks.  While it seemed practically sacrilegious to buy Starbucks in the home of Kona coffee, I was pleased to see a long line of locals waiting to buy coffee, recognizing, probably, the high cost of the local product.  As we drove eastward along the northern part of Hawai’i, the climate changes significantly, going from arid conditions on the west of the island, to the rain forests of the eastern side.  We had some rain and fog along this part of the drive.  As we got to the turnoff for Akaka Falls, though, the rain stopped and the sun was peeking out.  We turned off route 19 to Honomu Road, to the staging office of our zip line company.

Office of Skyline Eco-Advenures, near Akaka Falls State Park in Hawai'i

Office of Skyline Eco-Advenures, near Akaka Falls State Park in Hawai’i

The office is a small, humble one, part of an old building with the other half unoccupied.  They seemed very professional and confident, though, so we were not concerned.  They have a large tackle box in the office which they call their lock box, and in which one can place items like keys and wallets.  It would be unfortunate if items like that slipped out of one’s pocket while zipping a few hundred feet above a gorge.  Of course, a clever thief could make off with the whole box, but fortunately, that didn’t happen.  The first thing, of course, was to sign the waver holding them blameless for any fate that should befall us.  Before heading out, our group of eleven intrepid explorers were fitted with our harnesses.  This set of thick nylon straps is the method by which we would be suspended from the zip cable.  A few warnings were given.  Don’t let your fingers get up to the contraption which has the wheels that zip along the cable.  The fingers will go missing.  Make sure any items one carries are secured to your person.  We were provided with a water bottle (very nice one, by the way, a 700 cc BPA-free bottle with a screw cap, which we attached by a carabiner to our harness.  Given the warmth and humidity, the water would be needed.

Kat, strapped in to her harness.

Kat, strapped in to her harness.

We then piled into a large van for our trip to the starting point.  The drive there was an adventure itself.  It was primarily over rough dirt roads which climbed through old banana and sugar cane fields.  While the bananas are still a viable crop, the sugar cane production is down significantly from it’s peak in the late 1960’s.  We had two guides, which is necessary for zip line tours, since you need one to get you going and the other to stop you at the other end.  Both of our guides were graduates of agriculture programs in college, and were able to provide us with a wonderful amount of information about the local flora, both native and non-native, and give us samples of local berries and flowers that could be plucked and eaten.  Our first zip line was a training line, to get us used to the action.

The training zip line, a little zip before moving on to the long ones.

The training zip line, a little zip before moving on to the long ones.

That done, we headed on to the next line.  Each zip line was longer than the last, and higher above the ground.  Along the way we got to sample some of the local banana crop, which are primarily the Williams and Apple type.  These, until recently, could not be shipped to the mainland due to fruit flies which might travel with them.  We were able to pluck them from the tree.  They are smaller, and quite a bit sweeter, than bananas back home.

Observing the banana trees along the zip line route.

Observing the banana trees along the zip line route.

We learned how to control our position on the zip line.  Rotating the clamp holding us to the rollers to the left would cause us to rotate to the right, and vice versa.  That way, we could get a look at all the great views under us as we went zipping by.   We crossed one set of waterfalls which was very beautiful.

A smaller falls.  The big one was yet to come.

A smaller falls. The big one was yet to come.  Kat goes zipping along the cable.

We also found that stretching out flat allows for a faster ride.  Between each zip line, there were seven in all, we walked from station to station, examining interesting plants and tasting the odd berry or flower with the urging of our guides.

Kat and Frank, clearly enjoying the zip experience!

Kat and Frank, clearly enjoying the zip experience!

When we got to the last of the zip lines, we needed to climb a tall, tower-like structure to start.  This was the longest ride, about 3300 feet, and it would take us over Akaka falls.

The tower for the last zip.

The tower for the last zip.

Kat preparing to take off over Akaka Falls.

Kat preparing to take off over Akaka Falls.

This would be a long ride, and would have some nice views in the middle.  One wouldn’t want to progress too slowly, though, and get hung up midway along the cable.  That has happened, according to our guides, and they had to use a special device to go out along the cable and rescue the poor lug.  So the word was, keep your speed up, enjoy the view, and we’ll see you on the other side.  I readied my camera to capture a picture of the falls as I went over it.  Dangling from a cable, twisting, wanting to keep my speed up, I wasn’t sure if I would capture much of a photo.  As it turns out, I was able to get a pretty terrific shot of the falls.

Akaka Falls as seen from the zip line.

Akaka Falls as seen from the zip line.

We had a fun group, and everyone was fearless from the start.  I would not have minded continuing on for several more zips, but unfortunately we had come to the end.  We boarded the van for the ride back to the office.

Our intrepid group of zip liners.

Our fearless group of zip liners.

Heliconia bihai, or Macaw flower, non-native to Hawaii, but introduced long ago, before the reign of King Kamehameha I

I think this is Heliconia bihai, or Macaw flower, non-native to Hawaii, but introduced long ago, before the reign of King Kamehameha I

After leaving Skyline Eco-Adventure office, having retrieved our valuables from the secure lock box, we headed off toward Hilo, the county seat of the island of Hawai’i, and the oldest city of the Hawaiian Islands.  On the way, we took a scenic detour along the Old Mamalahoa Highway, and found a beautiful view of Onomea Bay.

Onomea Bay seen from the Old Mamalahoa Highway.

Onomea Bay seen from the Old Mamalahoa Highway.

The dirt path down to the bay was accompanied by these signs:

DSC_0259a

We chose not to venture too far down the path, not out of fear, but because we were heading to our next adventure, the boat ride to see molten lava falling into the sea.  We stopped in Hilo for lunch, and found a delightful small cafe called the Puka Puka Kitchen, apparently a favorite of the locals.  After lunch, we walked around town a bit to familiarize ourselves with Hilo.  It is very much a working community, as opposed to Kona which is very much tourist oriented.  The University of Hawai’i is here, as are the Tsunami Museum, and the headquarters for the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation.  We then headed south, to the southeast point of Hawai’i, at Isaac Hale park, to meet up with our boat which would take us to see flowing lava.  The drive was not short, but went through some older communities, with a few papaya plantations along the way.  We stopped at Pāhoa, which seems to be where all the hippies from the sixties found a place to their liking.  It probably hasn’t changed much in the last 40 or so years.  I got some prepared mahi mahi to-go at the local supermarket, for dinner later, and some Maui Bikini Blonde lager, in cans.  We made it to Isaac Hale Park with time to spare.  This is a park near the water, where there is a small beach, and grassy picnic areas with rest room facilities.  A local motorcycle club was wrapping up a get together when we arrived, and other families were enjoying the barbecue grills and playground equipment.  We had made reservations with See Lava, a tour boat company we found in “101 Things To Do”, the big island edition.  We were surprised when our boat pulled up into the parking lot, on a big trailer.  The boat was not small, and was an open air boat with school bus style seats, and two big outboard engines in the rear.  They warn you ahead of time, expect the ocean to be rough!  Once we had signed, again, the obligatory waver that we would not hold them responsible for any mishap, we were allowed on board, which meant climbing up a rickety ten foot ladder, like a painter might use.  My wife and I took seats towards the rear, which, we were told, would be a little less rough than sitting towards the front.  The truck hauling the boat maneuvered it back towards the boat ramp at Isaac Hale park.  Several small children were swimming where the boat was to be launched.  They must have been through this exercise before, since the truck driver just kept heading to the ramp, and the children swam to the side as the boat slipped into the water.  Our engines were started, and we were on our way.

Expect the ocean to be rough was an understatement.  For the next 45 minutes, our craft pounded along through the waves, with a shudder and a spray of sea water on everyone with each crash over a wave.  The fellows managing the boat seemed perfectly comfortable, though, and there was island and volcano themed music coming through the on-board, water-resistant speakers.  They had advised everyone to fix feet under the bars, and hold on to something for the trip.  It turned out the advice was unnecessary, since not doing so would get you bounced out of the boat.  As we approached the viewing area, a sense of awe came over us, as we could see billows of steam rising from where the cliffs met the ocean.  Getting even closer, we could start to see the glow of the lava.

Getting close to the billowing vapor from the lava hitting the ocean water

Getting close to the billowing vapor from the lava hitting the ocean water

The source of the lava is the volcano Kilauea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983.  The lava rises and falls, and we were fortunate to see it now, while it is at a high point of flow.  It didn’t only flow directly into the ocean.  It has caused some serious damage to small towns in the path of the lave flow, completely destroying one subdivision called Royal Gardens, and cutting off access to a town called Kalapana.  Many homes and businesses are buried under 80 feet of lava.

Getting closer to the lava, one could start to hear the hiss and snap of the steam

Partial view of the boat that would bring us closer to the lava flow

We really started to move in closer to the action

We really started to move in closer to the action

The closer we got, the more the water was churning,reacting to the flow of molten rock

The closer we got, the more the water was churning,reacting to the flow of molten rock

In some areas the lava flowed like a river, in others, it fell as if from a lava faucet

In some areas the lava flowed like a river, in others, it fell as if from a lava faucet

As the lava flowed into the ocean, big chunks of solid rock form which were crackling and popping as they floated around us, trapped air keeping them afloat.  The crew hauled a bucket of sea water into the boat so we could feel how hot it was.  Indeed, it was very hot, almost scalding.

We were reminded by the crew to put down our cameras and just look at this marvel

We were reminded by the crew to put down our cameras and just look at this marvel

After spending about forty five minutes observing the lava flow it was time to head back.  Looking high on the overlying shelf we could see about fifty or so people who had hiked out to the cliff edge to observe this phenomenon from high up.  They were taking a risk, as the shelf of lava which forms from the flow periodically breaks off, and a few hundred acres can go crashing into the water.  Of course, if that were to occur while our boat was nearby, we would probably be boiled alive, too, but, fortunately for us all, we lived to talk about it.  This current lava flow reaching the ocean has been active since January of this year.  It could redirect, or turn off at any time.  The US Geological Survey keeps very detailed records of it’s activity, and updates are published on a daily basis.

After a smashing, wave crashing ride back to Isaac Hale Beach, we were hauled back up on land by a waiting boat trailer, the driver of which expertly collected the boat out of the water without a hitch (bit of nautical wordplay, there).  We then, with shaky legs, had to descend that same aluminum ladder we used to climb in to the boat.

Our next adventure was to be a tour of the Volcano National Park by bicycle, the next morning.  Since we were already on the side of the island with the National Park, it didn’t make sense to drive all the way back to Kona for the night, only to drive back here again the next morning.  We found overnight lodging in a small house turned bed and breakfast, called the Aloha Crater Lodge, located in Volcano, Hawai’i.  That will start part III of our big island tour.

Why I Didn’t Run in Hawai’i (part one)

Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiian Islands

To be sure, I did run, and I’ll get to that, but certainly not as much as I had planned. Since we, being my wife and I, were already on the west coast for my daughter’s graduation, we felt, “why not extend our trip a few days, and have a real vacation”. We decided to take a trip to Hawai’i. Never having been there before, we decided to visit the “big island”, because of the opportunities for adventure. It took a bit of reading to find there are two main airports on Hawai’i, in it’s capitol Hilo, and in Kona. Yes, Kona, the home of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. Kona is also the more touristy of the cities on Hawai’i, with more hotels, restaurants and bars than Hilo, and it is where we decided to stay. Our flight from San Diego took us eastward first to Phoenix, then we changed planes for Kona. We left San Diego at 6:30 AM, and arrived in Kona at 2:40 PM, a total of eleven hours travel time. It’s not a quick trip. The arrival in Kona, though, is other-worldly, though, as the plane descends over barren lava fields to the airport. Once on the ground, we we disembarked the old fashioned way, by a stairway rolled out on the tarmac. I felt like waving as I stepped through the doorway of the plane onto the stairs. The terminal itself is completely outdoors. No walls, just open air, with some overhead coverage for rain. Exotic looking plants and flowers were in abundance around the terminal. We collected our bags and rented our car without a problem. It was a short drive to Kona and to our hotel. We stayed at the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. This hotel is built on grounds of the royal court from the time of King Kamehameha I. It faces a beach, a rebuilt temple of the royal residence, and a pier. The first room they gave us did face the water but was adjacent to a busy street and parking area. They were kind enough to move us to a different room which was much more what I had in mind, overlooking the beach and a grassy area surrounded by palm trees.

View from our balcony, King Kamehameha hotel

View from our balcony, King Kamehameha hotel

While we had investigated the various things to do on the island, we had not yet made any plans. So, once settled, we began making some reservations. This island is the home of the famous Kona Coffee, and we put visiting a coffee plantation on the list. Most dominant on the island are the two major mountains, both volcanos, and both reaching close to 14,000 feet high. The higher of the two, Mauna Kea, is the home of the largest observatory in the world. There are a number of zip line opportunities, through rain forests and over waterfalls. Hawai’i is known for the opportunity to see giant manta rays doing ballet on nighttime snorkeling boat trips. Of course, there is Volcano National Park. With five days to get this all in, it took a lot of calling, reserving spots, and adjusting plans when one tour was filled and we had to shift things around. While I had the job of getting us to the island and finding a hotel, my wife, Kat, handled most of the engineering of the schedule. I should add, all these touristy things do not come cheap. We anticipated that, and while there are plenty of free or reasonable things to do in Hawai’i, organized activities are expensive, but, as we found, very much worth it.

The next morning I awoke feeling frisky and ready to run. I got out at 6:00, which was no problem given Hawai’i is three hours behind west coast time. There are few roads on which to run, so I followed the path most of the runners in this area seem to take, which is along Ali’i road, which runs south along the coastline from Kona. The road is narrow, but does have a shoulder/bike lane, and there were other runners along the route. It is a beautiful route, since there are frequent areas where the waves crashing against the lava rocks are in view. Getting out early, it wasn’t too warm, about 74˚F, but it was very humid.  I ran out a bit past the 2.5 mile mark, then turned around and ran back.  The road is undulating, with a few hills of significance over that distance.

Ocean view while running along the Ali'i Highway

Ocean view while running along the Ali’i Highway

Another beach view along Ali'i Highway

Another beach view along Ali’i Highway

Big Island Running Company

Big Island Running Company

End of the run, quite sweaty.

End of the run, quite sweaty.

After running, I took a quick shower and joined my wife for breakfast at Honu’s, the hotel restaurant.  It is such a temptation to want to fill one’s plate with every tasty item available at hotel breakfast buffets.  I held the line at a made-to-order omelet, a mini Belgian waffle with coconut syrup and blueberries, loads of pineapple, and coffee.  I may have added a few other items as well….  After breakfast we headed out for the coffee plantation.  While there are several dozen on the island which give tours, we chose Mountain Thunder.  It had been featured on an episode of “Dirty Jobs”, and it was located high up Mauna Loa.  It also grows organic coffee, and seemed like a good bet.  We not only took a tour of the coffee growing and roasting operation, we arranged to roast our own organic Kona coffee.

Here is our bucket of 5 pounds of raw, organic Kona coffee

Here is our bucket of 5 pounds of raw, organic Kona coffee

Unto the roaster it goes.  This is a small roaster for the visitors.

Unto the roaster it goes. This is a small roaster for the visitors.

It doesn't take long to get the beans to the proper temperature.  There is a very narrow range between not roasted enough, and over done.

It doesn’t take long to get the beans to the proper temperature. There is a very narrow range between not roasted enough, and over done.

A wandering rooster with a tiki statue in the background, at the coffee plantation

A wandering rooster with a tiki statue in the background, at the coffee plantation

We found that growing and roasting coffee, at least here, is a very “hands-on” job.  The trees are very productive but take a lot of care and feeding, and as we discovered, donkey dung and the outer skins of the beans make for good fertilizer. The beans are picked by hand, since on one branch there can be many beans in different stages of ripeness.  The roasting, too, requires close attention to get the degree of roasting exactly right.  I’m sure at big operations this is all done without human intervention, but here, it was all done by well-trained and obsessive people.  In fact, we detected a note of competitiveness among the roasters, regarding who gets it exactly right.  Five pounds of raw coffee made four pounds and a bit of roasted coffee.  No doubt it’s the most expensive coffee we’ll ever buy, but looked at from the standpoint of price per cup, it still beats the local higher end coffee shop.

That afternoon, our next adventure was to head up to Mauna Kea, to go to the visitor’s center of the Mauna Kea (means “white mountain”, because it gets snow!) observatories.  The visitors’ center is at 9200 feet elevation, while the summit, with the telescopes, is at 13,796 feet.  We stopped at the visitors’ center and did not go to the summit, the drive for which a four wheel vehicle is recommended.  There are summit tours on weekends, when one can go inside one of the observatories, but during the week they are closed to visitors.  Many people do go up to the summit for the view of the sunset, but we decided to listen to the ranger’s talk at the center, and then do some viewing through the many telescopes they had set up.

Visitor's Information Center at the Mauna Kea Observatories.

Visitor’s Information Center at the Mauna Kea Observatories.  Note the winter coats.  It gets cold up here.

The ranger gave a laser guided sky tour once it got dark enough, and we saw the Southern Cross, alpha and beta centauri, and many other constellations.  We were able to get amazing views of Saturn and Jupiter through the telescopes, and a view of a star cluster called omega centauri, or “the jewel box”, because of the different colored stars.  After about two hours of viewing, and getting thoroughly chilled, we headed back to Kona.  The road to Mauna Kea is an adventure itself.  It is called Saddle Road, because it goes between Mauna Kea and Mauna Lea.  It is a very narrow, twisting, rising and falling road over bleak and dangerous looking lava fields, often with no shoulder, and with the occasional one-lane bridge.  There are signs posted regarding which car should yield when two approach these bridges.  It was challenging on the way to the mountain when it was still light out.  In the dark, it was scary.  We were told later that this road was built this way on purpose by the army, as a way to foil an enemy that might try to use it.  But, I have serious doubts about that story.

The next morning we planned to get in some snorkeling.  After another scrumptious breakfast at Honu’s (which is the Hawaiian word for sea turtle), we walked into town to rent some masks and snorkels.  Also, Kat was very interested in getting a henna tattoo.  She stopped in at Kona Henna Studio, where a delightful and artistic young woman put a very nice, temporary tattoo on her left shoulder.  I’m not sure if the side has any meaning, but it did look nice, and included a honu, which I requested.  Meanwhile, I went across the street to Boss Frog’s Dive, Surf and Bike shop to rent the gear.

The henna goes on at Kona Henna Tattoo.

The henna goes on at Kona Henna Tattoo.

Kat needed to let the henna paste dry, so she couldn’t go in the water right away.  But after a few hours she would be able to get it wet, once the paste fell off, as long as it was not in the swimming pool, since the chlorine would bleach it out.

We drove along the coast, looking for the passageways to the best snorkeling beaches as recommended by Boss Frog’s.  About thirty minutes drive down the coast we headed for Honaunau Bay.  We found our way to the bay, but wound up in a National Historic Park, where snorkeling was not allowed.  We were directed back to the road we came in on, but missed the turn for the cove.  Instead, we wound up on City of Refuge Road, a four mile long, single lane (that’s right, just one lane, not two, and traffic goes both ways), road along another bleak, sharp-rocked lava field.  Turning around was not an option.  I was starting to think that, aside from a few main roads, driving in Hawai’i is a huge driving challenge.  We finally reached the end of the road, where it joined with another which took us back up (about a thousand feet up) to the main highway.  It took looking back at the map later to realize where we had gone wrong.  Instead, we headed north, to check out other possibilities.  The walkways to the beaches are marked as public access walkways, but often there are no areas to park, and the hike out to the water can be a few miles.  We finally found our way to a beach near the Honokohau Marina, north of Kona.  The walk to the beach was a challenge, and the beach itself was tiny and rocky.  But, I was able to get in and see some beautiful fish.  No turtles, though, even though this beach is known for them.  The water was uncharacteristically pretty rough.  Getting in the water was no problem, but getting out, I needed to find my way to the least rocky egress in order not to get hurt.

Formerly known as a lifeguard tower, at Honokohau beach.  I think this was put up with tongue in cheek.

Formerly known as a lifeguard tower, at Honokohau beach. I think this was put up with tongue in cheek.

The sand and palms at the little Honokohau beach.

The sand and palms at the little Honokohau beach.

Testing the water, in a sandy spot.

Testing the water, in a sandy spot.

Our search for an ideal snorkeling experience did not turn out as we hoped.  The next time we are in Kona, we’ll know how to get to the “two step” beach at Honaunau Bay.  That evening, though, we had plans for another expedition.  Kona is well known for night time viewing of manta rays.  In fact, the guy at Boss Frog’s said if we see the Mauna Kea, see lava, and see manta rays, we’ve done the big three items on his list of the best of Hawai’i.  We arranged to go out with Sea Paradise tours, for the boat ride out to what they call “Manta Ray Village”, out of Keauhou Bay.

Awaiting darkness in Keauhoa Bay, before boarding the Hokuhele for our trip to see mantas.

Awaiting darkness in Keauhoa Bay, before boarding the Hokuhele for our trip to see mantas.

The boat trip is a short one, only about 20 minutes.  One checks in at their office about an hour before the trip, to sign the inevitable legal release and get fitted with a wet suit.  Everyone shucks their shoes before getting on the boat.  As they motor out to the spot, one of the hands on the boat gives a brief lecture about manta rays.  It turns out they eat only plankton, can be quite large in size with wing spans up to 14 feet, and will often turn flips as they eat up the plankton.  The plankton are attracted to the lights attached to a boom, similar to moths being attracted to light, which then pull in the mantas  The boom is a long contraption with floats and attached lights.  The thirty or so members of our party were provided  masks and snorkels, and led down a stair into the water.  We were directed to line up along the boom, with our hands outstretched on the boom and a “noodle” float under our feet to keep us suspended, so we wouldn’t touch the mantas.  It was a bit eery being out in the dark water, with only the light from the boom shining down.  True to our captain’s word, the plankton massed under us, their tiny bodies in constant motion as their cilia propelled them.  After watching and waiting for about thirty minutes, while all those delicious plankton cavorted like a Vegas stage show, no hungry manta rays wanted to show up.  We gave it another twenty minutes.  A woman opposite me on the boom had a very large underwater camera, the type professional divers use, but it was of no use that night.  Before the hour was up, we were all back on board the boat, stripping out of our wet suits, and trying not to be upset that we had not seen a single manta ray.  The captain and crew were very nice, and assured us that this is a rarity.  In fact, they had just seen several mantas the night before.  One let slip that their hit rate for mantas was 88%, so one in eight trips is a dud.  No matter.  Kat and I realized that these are wild animals and cannot be commanded to show up.  The company did allow us to sign up for another trip, which would be two days later.

After disembarking, we headed back to our hotel, then went out for a late supper.  We wound up at a Thai restaurant which was okay, not great, but did know how to make a passable green papaya salad, although the papaya was not really green, more ripe.  We then walked back to our hotel, passing along the sea wall where the waves splash over onto the sidewalk, tired from a very active, if not so productive, day.  The next morning, we needed to get up very early for the trip to the other side of the island, and our first encounter with a zip line, which will be covered in part two.  Stay tuned….

Daytime view of the sea wall and the Kamakahonu Bay

Daytime view of the sea wall and the Kamakahonu Bay

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