Thursday, February 23, 2012

Weston Bend State Park

Thanks to my fiancée and her family, I am becoming acquainted with some wonderful parks and refuges in the vicinity of Leavenworth, Kansas and nearby areas across the river in Missouri. A recent visit at the end of January and beginning of February included an afternoon hike in Weston Bend State Park near Weston, Missouri.

Considering that our primary reason for this trip to Leavenworth was for the aftermath of a family tragedy, time spent in the quiet of a deciduous forest on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River was a perfect antidote to the stress surrounding funeral planning; and the cozy claustrophobia of too many well-meaning friends and family in one house.

The area has a rich history. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery reached the vicinity of Weston on July 4, 1804, reporting evidence of a Kansa settlement on the opposite bank of the river. The Kansa were one of several indigenous tribes that first occupied this region. The Lewis and Clark expedition returned two years later, finding fur traders navigating the Missouri.

Agriculture is the current industry here, with tobacco farming leading the way. The park itself even includes five old tobacco barns. One of these has been transformed into a covered shelter available for rent by park visitors.

Weston Bend is a relatively young state park, established in 1980 by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The amenities accommodate everyone from casual hikers to campers (traditional or RV) with hot showers, modern restrooms, and even laundry facilities available. The trails meander up and down ravines and along ridges. A lookout offers spectacular views of the Missouri River below, and five or six miles into Kansas on a clear day.

While human visitors are made to feel welcome, so are other creatures. The park is now recognized as an “Important Bird Area” (IBA) by the National Audubon Society, part of the Iatan/Weston River Corridor, a very popular stopover for avifauna during spring and fall migrations. The annual ”Wings Over Weston” birding event will be held at the 1,133 acre park on May 12, 2012.

Park trails are well-marked, with ample ample signage interpreting the local fauna, flora, and historical elements that make the park unique. There are enough warm, or at least tolerably cool, days for one to experience the park at any time of year.

Even in the “dead” of winter one can spot a variety of birds, insects (like the green lacewing below), lichens, and fungi. In the absence of the animals themselves one can find signs of life like the chiseled holes left by Pileated Woodpecker; or the abandoned galls of wasps on oak twigs. Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) lends a colorful accent to even the dreariest of landscapes here.

I am already looking forward to coming back to Weston Bend State Park, when the forests and bottomlands are greener and even fuller of wildlife. Be sure to add the park to your own itinerary whenever you find yourself in Kansas City, St. Joseph, or Leavenworth. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Two Flukes' Up

The other night Heidi and I went to see the movie Big Miracle, about the rescue of three Pacific Gray Whales off the coast of Alaska near Point Barrow. Surprisingly, this was not a cheesy film with a completely gift-wrapped ending. Considering how many interest groups and characters were involved in this story, based in part on the book by Thomas Rose, director Ken Kwapis managed to create a seamless production worthy of viewing for both entertainment and an education in sociology.

Rose’s non-fiction book was originally entitled Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event, and indeed, whales routinely die from the predicament of a prematurely freezing ocean each year. What made it newsworthy was simply the fact that there was a nearby satellite transmitter. The 1988 story quickly went the analog version of “viral,” and the media descended on Point Barrow en masse to cover the action.

The actors could have played their roles in a stereotypic way, but in most cases they managed to avoid that trap. Drew Barrymore plays an appropriately angry and suspicious Greenpeace activist. Ted Danson is an understandably eco-illiterate oil baron who initially engages his company in the “rescue” for public relations reasons. Newcomers Ahmaogak Sweeney and John Pingayak play an Inupiat pre-teen and his grandfather, respectively. They stole the show, playing sympathetic indigenous people with wit and wisdom.

Maybe the only characters that were disappointingly self-serving were the media reporters that got the whole circus started in the first place. John Krasinski and Kristen Bell are newspersons mostly obsessed with their own career advancement throughout the film, though Krasinski is also the ex-boyfriend of Barrymore’s character and is thus somewhat ambivalent about pursuing a future in the “lower 48.” You have two guesses as to how that relationship ends in the movie.

Ironically, an actual romance evolved in the true story, and was also played out in the film. Air National Guard Colonel “Scott Boyer” and Whitehouse West Winger “Kelly Meyers” (Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw) portray Tom Carroll and Bonnie Mersinger, who really did fall in love over the course of this adventure. During the credits one sees their real-life wedding photos.

The overarching plot still boils down to the whales, though, and I won’t spoil the ending. However, after all was said in done back in 1988, no one involved can say with any certainty that more than one whale made it out into the open ocean. Beleaguered by its ordeal, who is to say it had the strength to complete its migration?

The lesson to be learned, reviewers will say, is that human beings can overcome their political, ethnic, social, and economic differences to achieve a common goal. The cynic will say that we merely disguise our true motives and we are basically selfish and dishonest animals. Both interpretations may be true, but we also can’t help but take away something new from such a dramatic and tangled experience. I, for one, think we could learn an awful lot from Native Americans. At least they have a deep reverence for the other organisms they share their land (and water) with, even if they do hunt them. I’m not altogether sure our supposedly civilized, tech-driven urban society has a reverence for other human beings, let alone wildlife. I do hope I’m wrong.

The bottom line is that I would recommend the film. There is precious little family fare on the big screen these days that has any substance at all, and this movie should pleasantly exceed your expectations. I give it “two flukes’ up.”