Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Magic and Wonder of Bridges


    I love bridges. I really love them. Since I was a kid and first rode across the Ben Franklin bridge with my family to New Jersey I have been fascinated and amazed by the fact that humans can envision, design, and build structures that can carry them across rivers, creeks, and bays. I love crossing large bodies of water. Seeing the grand views of the water, noting the structures built on either side of the cliffs above the water, and marveling at the design of the pylons and cables and approach roads that safely carry me across the spans never ceases to amaze me. And given the news coverage of the rains and flooding in the Carolinas the last 2 weeks, bridges have definitely been in the news. So I have been reflecting on our camping trip to MD and VA a few weeks ago and our experience with bridges. I got to experience a couple of my favorite bridges on that trip, and I really enjoyed them. They are on roads I do not regularly travel, so the crossings were special indeed.

    The William Roth Turnpike Canal Bridge was the first special bridge we crossed. Located on Rt 1 in Delaware, it is a uniquely designed bridge with several massive cable-stays holding in place the long and elegant gold plated cables that give the bridge its distinctive appearance. Until my first time on this bridge several years ago I had never been on a bridge that did not have supports and cables stretching the entire length and height of the bridge, and I admit it was a little unnerving at first. But I loved the sleek and daring design, and the view of the Delaware-Chesapeake Canal it provided was almost magical. After that I looked forward to every time I had to cross it. Crossing the span almost feels as if you are floating, and crossing it on a sunny afternoon got the camping trip off to a great start. It is a wondrously designed structure that feels light and open. It is one of my favorite bridges. (

   My favorite bridge experience of the trip, though, was twice crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that so gracefully spans the Chesapeake Bay, linking Norfolk,VA and the Eastern Shore of VA. Crossing that bridge is always an awe-inspiring experience. Sleek, curving, low to the water, and over 17 miles long, it was voted one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineering. And it definitely deserves that award. It combines a beautiful, expansive, curving bridge with a tunnel and, surprisingly, a mid-bridge restaurant. That combination was daring when the bridge was built in 1964, and it has been carried off in a spectacular fashion. The bridge crosses the Chesapeake Bay-one of the most spectacularly breathtaking and beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. And the sense of wonder that I feel as I approach and start the long elegant crossing on this structure is hard to describe. That wonderful ribbon of concrete that takes you across the Chesapeake feels like a venture into the great unknown-a mythical journey. Suffice it say that crossing the Bay-Tunnel Bridge is one of the joys of any trip to or from eastern Virginia. There are always dozens of waterfowl, amazing waves, sailboats and other vessels, and absolutely stunning views in all directions. And at one point you go beneath the bay, and you know the ships are passing over you. It is a crossing that combines beauty, daring, engineering and subtlety in a way that few creations have ever done. I just love it and feel grateful to the designers and especially the builders every-time I cross it. It is simply wondrous. ( )

  So these bridge crossings were almost as much a part of our recent wonderful camping trip as was the birding. We will return to these places in a few months for some winter birding, and we will experience these great spans again. We've never done these crossings in winter, so that will be another first, and we are definitely looking forward to it. Beautiful bodies of water and great bridges can inspire wonder, amazement and joy, and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to experience these marvels of human design. Travel is a wondrous thing.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Joy of Fall Camping

     It is early autumn now, and I love this time of the year. The weather is cooler, mornings are brisk, trees and bushes are starting to slowly change colors, and there is a quiet energy that gives a little bounce to one's step. It is also the time of the fall hawk and songbird migration, and that always energizes and excites me. This year I am not teaching, so I now have the opportunity to check a bit of the migration during the week. This year I am on an autumn camping trip for the first time in decades, and I am able to visit wildlife refuges along the Atlantic Flyway and track the hawk migration. What a gift!
      When my wife and I camp we love setting up in state parks. They are well maintained, situated in wonderful locations, have good facilities, and are near towns with interesting places to go and things to do in the event of rain. We picked one place in both MD and VA that were near a couple of National Wildlife Refuges with which we were not really familiar; we were looking forward to tracking the migration in new places. We would be in a number of marshy areas, which is heaven for us. We love marshes; marshes contain a vast array of plant communities that in turn support a wide variety of wildlife. As a result, marshes can support an amazing diversity of life that is way out of proportion to their size. Where there are diverse plants there are diverse insects, fish and small mammals. And where there is a diversity of insects, fish and small mammals, there is a great diversity of birds. And sure enough, we saw plenty of birds and insects. Turkey vultures were all over the place, soaring with the winds, and there were plenty of full grown and immature eagles taking to the skies as well. Merlin, Coopers, broad winged, sharp-shinned, and marsh hawks were all soaring high and circling in the skies as they hunted. We caught a peregrine falcon posing in a dead tree across a pond from us. Even though the weather did not allow for the regular rush of hawks normally seen at this time, there was plenty to see. But it was not just hawks and birds of prey. In the marshes we saw great white and snowy egrets, great blue herons, dozens of swans, green-winged teals, black ducks, and more. Walking the trails we came across some confusing fall warblers we could not hope to identify and woodpeckers we could. We also encountered breathtakingly beautiful butterflies and colorful dragonflies that had us shaking our heads in wonder. It was an embarrassment of species riches that lifted our spirits and took us to that special place of quiet wonder and awe that only being outside and directly connected with the natural world can bring. It was a gift to have the time to both explore new places and to see the cycle of nature and time at work at a leisurely pace.
    One other thing that amazed us on the trip was the number of National Wildlife Refuges that are in MD and VA. We had been to Blackwater Refuge outside of Cambridge, MD before, but we visited a total of four refuges in eastern part of the two states, and had our trip not been cut short by rain, we could have visited at least four more. The four we visited-Eastern Neck in VA and Pawtuxent, Eastern Shore and Blackwater in MD-each had slightly different layouts and environments, and that made me quite aware of the hands of humans in managing nature at refuges. Normally when I think of humans “managing nature” I think of negative things, such as the destruction of wetlands and poorly planned levee systems that led to the floods in New Orleans during Katrina, and the over-development of natural habitat that has helped lead to climate change and the near extinction of so many species. But the human management in the Wildlife Refuges seems to work extremely well. Their human made impoundments, carefully laid out hiking, biking and auto trails, and their controlled burns all serve to keep an abundant number of species surviving midst the dual threats of climate change and development. In addition, their educational and outreach programs seem to be connect with people of all ages and types. I have always been a big supporter of National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges, but seeing so many in such a short period of time made me even more aware of the wonderful work they do. Without them this city born West Philadelphia kid might never have become a birder or explored much beyond my front door. And for that, I am grateful.
    We will be back to those refuges-there are winter walking tours at a couple and festivals at others. That is one of the wonderful things about being alive; there are so many places to visit, so many things to explore and so many things to discover. I know I will never get to see all the places and sites that would blow my mind and please my soul. But what that means is that this is constant and ongoing-I will never run out. There will always be more to see, to do, to learn, and to experience. And that is a very good thing, indeed. Happy Autumn to you all.