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Archive for April, 2011

winter ridge oregonSummer Lake, Oregon, has magic on the wing. All four of us feel it, winding through the Wildlife Area at the north end of the lake. It’s the sense of wonder that comes with being this close to hundreds of wild birds as they stop here on their long trip north. Binoculars in hand, driving over 8 miles of dikes, John and I and our friends John and Susan search the water and clusters of grasses and reeds, looking for the flash of a wing.

“Two Sandhill Cranes! Over there, in the tall grass.” There they are,sandhill cranes huge birds with red hats and fluffy tail feathers. Suddenly one hops into the air and spreads his wings wide, an 80-inch wingspan. He does it again, and again, while the other watches. We’re witnessing a mating dance, and it’s an amazing spectacle. The female doesn’t seem as impressed as we are. She turns and pecks at the grass, ignoring him. Maybe she’s being coy. Eventually the two of them amble away from the gawkers and we continue along the gravel dike road, eyes peeled.

There are 18,000 acres of open water, marsh and meadow in the northwest corner of Oregon’s Great Basin drainage, 100 miles southeast of Bend. Summer Lake Wildlife Area was established in 1944, the first wetland wildlife area in Oregon, at the foot of snow-dusted Winter Ridge. Some 280 bird species have been spotted, along with 40 types of animals, from marmots and squirrels to weasels and bobcats.

snow geese“Snow geese!” Heads swivel, binocs adjust.  A flock of the big white geese with black wingtips rises from a pond and settles again. Further on, we see dozens more. Also Great Egrets, Blue-winged Teals, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Barn Swallows. Gorgeous white pelicans, mallards, cute little black coots with white bills, seagulls–a long way from the sea–and another thrill, Trumpeter Swans. Bird song everywhere, and more geese, white against the gray, cloudy sky.

Finally we head across the road to The Lodge at Summer Lake. lodge at summer lakeThis community gathering place offers a little of everything–motel-style rooms (quite comfortable), cabins, a restaurant, and a gift shop. The people are friendly and the food is hearty, country-style, and excellent, all made from scratch: homemade soups, salads, tender filet mignon, hamburgers, and herbed chicken that comes with chunky mashed potatoes and a pool of melted butter. Desserts include Annie Oakley Peach Pie, Billy the Kid Fudge Brownie Sundae, and Wyatt Earp Apple Pie. I can vouch for the peach pie; it’s flaky, fruity and delicious. The owners, Jan and Gil Foust and Marie and Gary Brain, know how to take care of their customers.

This area is full of interesting geological formations, caves, petroglyphs and fort rockhot springs.  One is Fort Rock, where we hike around the enormous, curving wall of jagged rock rising from the flat high desert, and ponder the people who lived here when it was an island in a shallow sea. Sandals made of sagebrush, found in a nearby cave, date back more than 9,000 years. And I thought my shoes were old.

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pearl city chinatown sfPearl City, on Jackson Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is busy and crowded, and John and I are the only non-Asian lunch customers, the only ones struggling with chopsticks and menu. I gratefully accept a fork from the hostess, along with her translations. Pearl City is dim sum territory, where waitresses push wheeled carts from table to table and you choose your dumplings, shrimp paste, chicken chunks, pork-stuffed hom bow, spring rolls and whatever else catches your fancy. For most of it we make guesses, until the hostess steps in and suggests vegetables and seafood on crispy noodles. It’s all delicious. The only thing I don’t like about this place is that shark’s fin soup is on the menu. Sharks are threatened with extinction, and an anti-shark’s fin soup campaign is now underway, with ads on buses running through Chinatown and other areas with large Asian populations.

Next door is the better known Great Eastern Restaurant, where hordes of tourists and locals wait for tables. Service is fast, and they won’t wait long. Great Eastern too serves Hong Kong-style dim sum, and from past experience we know it’s one of the best.

We’re exploring neighborhood restaurants, so now we’re across town with friends at Delfina in the hip and still gritty Mission district. The place is crammed and noisy. Does everyone have to yell to be sure they’re having fun? The din may be outrageous, but the dinner is excellent: tagliatelle with chopped guinea hen sauce, delicate bass, a rich and silky pennacotta dessert. And an unusual wine, Anderson Valley sauvignon blanc, cidery and cloudy because it’s unfiltered.

Nob Hill Cafe, on Taylor Street, is in a tonier area, on the steep hill nob hill cafe sfnear some of the city’s loftiest hotels. It’s full of verve, cozy and friendly, with folks who know where to go for good Italian food. No reservations are taken, so we sip wine at a sidewalk table until we’re led inside and handed menus. Risotto with snap peas and tortellini in creamy pesto sauce–terrific. Also mango gelato with a cheesecake crust to finish it off.

Ferry Plaza Seafood is on the Embarcadero, very San Francisco. We eat outdoors with a view of the Bay Bridge, ferry traffic, strollers and bicyclists. My avocado stuffed with shrimp salad is a treat, along with bread at 50 cents per piece.  The bread charge goes to a good cause: restaurant workers’ health benefits. For dessert we munch on fabulous chocolate cookies from Village Market, a specialty foods shop in the Ferry Building. I’d go back for for those, as well as the other little shops selling exotic cheeses, chocolates, herbs, garden gear, ferry bldg mushroomsmushrooms and more. Then there’s the famous farmers’ market, on Ferry Plaza, where nearly 25,000 people a week come to buy produce, flowers, meats and eggs from regional farmers. A festive scene, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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redwood tree, Muir WoodsA million people a year come to Muir Woods, California, to gaze up at the world’s tallest living things. John and I are among them, treading the boardwalk that winds through the redwood trees along Redwood Creek, hearing exclamations of amazement in a dozen languages.  Muir Woods National Monument is a 560-acre park 12 miles north of the Gold Gate Bridge, open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, with an entrance fee for ages 16 and older. There’s a visitor center and a gift shop, but everyone’s here for those magnificent, big trees. And I do mean big. Some coast redwoods are more than 252 feet high and 14 feet wide. Mature trees are 500 to 800 years old, and some have been standing for 1,000 years. (Redwoods in other California forests can reach 380 feet and 2,000 years.) They are beyond impressive, they give new meaning to awesome.

We’re on the main canyon floor, where bridges across the creek allow short loop walks into the woods and back on the other side. Rangers are on hand to answer questions and good-naturedly take pictures of  kids posing against giant trees. Six miles of unpaved trails meander through Muir Woods, connecting with trails in Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

Mt. Tam is our other destination. It’s only a 40-minute drive from downtown San Francisco, but a world away, with trees, chaparral, and miles of trails  instead of high-rise buildings and concrete sidewalks.  The view from East Peak, view from Mt. Tamat 2,571 feet, is spectacular in every direction, even to the snowy Sierra Nevadas on the horizon. There’s a visitor center, open weekends, and a wheelchair-accessible trail. The Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association offers guided hikes, walks in the moonlight, and astronomy nights in summer, with telescopes for watching the stars.

I’ll be back for those, but lunch is currently on my mind. We head for Stinson Beach, a few miles from the park. This cafelittle coastal town (pop. 486) has antique and gift shops, a beach park, and a terrific cafe, Breakers. At a table on the patio, I’m eating the best chicken tortilla soup I’ve tasted outside of Mexico, and even better than some served there. John’s BLT is crammed with fresh tomatoes and thick, crispy bacon. The lemonade is tart and good. We love this place, and so do many others. The line of hungry customers extends to the front door.

Good food, a sunny day, and incredible natural beauty: perfection.

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