Fear the Turtle

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

Copyright 2014

As the summer sun rose behind me, I stood ankle deep in the brisk water of Narragansett Bay at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. I watched the swimmers in the first wave of the Save the Bay swim strike out for the opposite shore, two miles away at Potter Cove in Jamestown.

My friend Elizabeth stood next to me. Last year, when we committed to swim the race together, we were both recovering from health setbacks. Months ago, there had been plenty of time to train. Time passed. We didn’t train.

We were certain we wouldn’t have been standing there if we hadn’t made the commitment to each other.

My kayak safety escort was a freshman at University of Maryland and a friend of my friends. He sported a T-shirt for his Maryland Terrapins.

“Fear the Turtle,” he said, citing the university’s slogan.

Fear the turtle. I laughed. Perfect.

I had three goals for the swim: finish the race; don’t be last; don’t get pulled from the water. Narragansett Bay is a shipping channel and the officials close it for only two hours. If you can’t make it in two hours, they’ll pull you.

Elizabeth was in the fourth wave. We high-fived, shivering slightly in now thigh-deep water. As we awaited the cannon-shot start, I felt a familiar flutter in my gut, a cocktail of fear and fierceness. My wave, the fifth, was the last group of 100 swimmers to head across the bay.

It was an ideal morning for my first open-water swim. The water was flat; the sky overcast. My fear-the-turtle kayaker, Sam, found me after a few hundred yards and paddled to my left.

I bumped into a kayak on the right. Oops. A bit later, I swam up to one of the safety boats in some kind of aquatic version of “Are you my mother?” I had debutante navigation skills. I asked Sam to paddle on my right. Problem solved.

I had no sense of distance. I did have the Newport Bridge to my left, so I judged my progress by the spans. Sam remained a calm, reassuring presence, paddling off my starboard.

Elizabeth had told me to remember to enjoy the swim. She said swimming across the bay offers a rare perspective. Several times I raised my head and swam breaststroke, admiring the sky, the bridge, the view. And yes, I would steady my breath before resuming my freestyle.

I passed swimmers along the way. Red caps were the first wave. Highlighter yellow, the fourth. Neon green, my wave. As we veered away from the bridge and toward the finish, we could see a congestion of caps of swimmers from earlier waves.

“What do you want to do,” Sam asked. “Do you want to pass them?”

Bless your heart, Sam. I had a secret, internal smile. Heck, yeah, I want to pass them. Once a competitor, always a competitor, it seems.

With the finish line in sight, I dug in and moved ahead, passing swimmers as Sam veered right and kayaked to shore. Cheering volunteers and red balloons greeted me when I crossed. A woman handed me a Popsicle stick with a number on it.

Elated, I accepted the participation medal and the big souvenir towel that volunteers offered me when my feet touched the shore. I posed with Elizabeth, her kayaker husband, Eliot, and fear-the-turtle Sam for celebration portraits. We lingered on shore, watching other participants finish.

More than an hour after I finished, one swimmer, surrounded by a small flotilla of boats, was making for the shore. I waded back into the water to cheer for the lone, last swimmer.

Congratulations. Is this your first race?

Yes, he said. My legs feel wobbly.

I offered my fist for a victory bump. It’s my first race, too. I’m Cheryl. David, he said.

He told me the Save the Bay swim was on his bucket list.

In January, he didn’t know how to swim.

His friend, who kayaked beside him, is a triathlete. He trained David to swim breaststroke for three hours. He swam breaststroke two miles across the bay in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Next year, David had a new goal. “Freestyle,” he shouted.

Mountaineer W. H. Murray has a quote about commitment in his 1951 book “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.”

“But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money—booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:  Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Commitment. It’s the difference between setting a goal and achieving it. When David committed to the event, he couldn’t swim. When I started, I didn’t believe I could swim two miles in open water. I still told everyone I would.

Set a goal. Say it out loud and often. Follow through.

And fear the turtle.

link: http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/article_97969516-3ecf-11e4-9967-c7d8c1cbe597.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.


Can you help me?


It’s been snowing on and off for days here. It’s sneaky, silent snow.

I’ve been grading papers, projects and exams. I have a view out two windows and still sometimes I’m surprised when I look up and see four to six inches has fallen.

Most folks in my neighborhood have snowblowers, so when I hear that lawnmower engine whir, I look outside. Sure enough, time to shovel.

I’m not sure which is heavier lifting: grading or shoveling. Each day, I walk downtown–to take a break from grading and to enjoy the snow. When in Pennsylvania…

Today I passed a boy shoveling snow in the driveway of a two-story, weathered Victorian house. I waved.

“That’s hard work,” I said.

He turned, put his hands on the handle of the shovel and paused. His cheeks were red and his fringe on the hood of his jacket hung over his eyes.

He leaned on the shovel–the handle was just under his chin–and looked up.

“Can you help me?” he said.

The driveway was at least 30-feet long and six-feet wide. The snow was at least eight inches deep and still falling.

I stopped.

“The snow is light when it falls but it gets heavy when it piles up,” I said. I suggested he shovel the top layer of snow and then shovel the bottom half. It would be more effective.

He said it was so hard because the shovel kept getting stuck in the gravel.

As we talked and he shoveled, I watched an adult leave the house and a teenager with earbuds in place and smirk on his face walk into the house. And here was this boy, nine-years-old I’d guess, and no one was lending a hand.

I had somewhere I wanted to be so I turned and walked down the sidewalk. I got about a block when I thought ‘do I really have anywhere to be?”

I turned around and walked back up the hill.

“Hey, how bout if I shovel and you take a break?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

As I shoveled, he talked. And talked and talked. He pointed to his bedroom window. He told me there was a snowblower in the garage but his brother’s friend had broken it. $700, he said. And when he was done shoveling the driveway, he was going to make a snowman.

I returned the shovel and he returned to shoveling.

Later, walking home, uphill, I passed a small girl and her mother. The girl was running ahead and leaping into snow banks. Her mom yelled after her to stop, that she was getting her pants wet.

She dropped on her back into a snow-covered yard and moved her arms and legs in a horizontal jumping-jack, creating a snow angel.

The girl looked up at me, big smile, rosy cheeks. Then she blew past me and crashed on her back into another snow drift.

“That looks like fun. What’s your name?”


When I got back to my house, I broke out the shovel and started clearing a path from my doorstep to the garage.

When I finished, I put the shovel down and jumped into a snow bank.

Then I dropped on my back in the fresh snow in the driveway and waved my arms and legs.

I stood up, admired my snow angel then dropped in the snow to make another.

A snow angel fun fact: In 2002, 1,791 people made snow angels on the capitol grounds in Bismarck, N.D.

And if you’ve forgotten the joy–or technique–of making a snow angel, here’s a link to a nifty short instructional video.


What I Don’t Know


Locals keep telling me this has been a mild and gentle transition to winter weather.

“It should be five below by now,” Sherry said, sporting a wool hat with ear muffs plopped on top. We met on Dalton as I was walking to campus this afternoon, snow falling lightly yet relentlessly.

I feel awfully fortunate that the transition has been an easy one. Although my ancestors hail from New England, I haven’t had much experience with snow since I was in middle school. And I’ve had no experience in the Arctic.

Here’s a few things I don’t know.

I don’t know how long it will take me to use 900 gallons of water. I have a sink, a shower/bathtub and a washing machine. (An outhouse definitely saves on water usage.)

I don’t know how much wood I’ll need through the winter. I have a healthy supply in the woodshed and some stacked under a blue tarp. I don’t know if it’s enough.

I don’t know how much diesel fuel I’m using for my Toyo heater. I’ve been told they “sip” fuel. I don’t have any idea what “sip” means in terms of gallons per month. It’s a 300-gallon tank. I’ve been in my cabin almost two months. Maybe I should take a dip and see where we’re at.

And because I don’t know much about taking care of myself in arctic conditions, I’m taking a course next weekend in Wilderness First Aid, sponsored by Outdoor Adventures at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

I also don’t know how to cross-country ski, so I’m joining the Friday Lunch Ski Clinics that Outdoor Adventures offers from 12 to 2 p.m. The chair of the Department of Journalism, Brian O’Donoghue, is waxing the skis that Joy Morrison, director of the Office of Faculty Development, gave me. Julie Wies, whose husband, Richard, teaches electrical engineering, gave me a pair of ski boots. And one of my students, Howard, who works at Play It Again Sports in Fairbanks, checked out my gear for me.

One thing I do know: it’ll take a village–or at least a fair number of UAF faculty and students–to raise this Alaskan newcomer to an arctic adventurer.

Trick or Treat: Dragons, Butterflies and Snow Boots

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Snow in Fairbanks falls like flour from a sifter. Softly. Steadily. Kinda sneaky actually. The snowfall seems light and harmless yet a couple inches accumulates in short order.

With snow falling outside my office window, I took a break from grading papers, donned my boots and headed across campus to the post office and bookstore. I encountered butterflies, dragons, Batman and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, clutching parents’ hands and leaving patches of snow in their wake as the tromped into the building.

Dressed for winter weather and Halloween, children pour into the UAF Bookstore to trick-or-treat and collect candy.

The children from the Bunnell House Early Childhood Lab School were trick-or-treating. I decided to follow. I’m quite sure I’ve never seen trick-or-treating in the snow.

Dressed in a tiny green snowsuit, Leo, 14 months, got a ride in a plastic sled, tugged by a girl in a leopard outfit. A dad adjusted the antennae headband on his butterfly daughter. The butterfly girls eventually inverted their jackets, wearing them on the front to stay warm and leave their sparkly wings free to flutter. Costume adaptation for winter weather is a necessity and an art form in Fairbanks.

After the bookstore, the group headed to the health center and the fire station before heading back to school or bundling into cars and heading home.



Burling Girls


Note: I mean no disrespect to the No Shamin’ Lady-Jacks calling them “girls” in my title. I’m simply like assonance and the “burling girls” sounded good.

On Saturday, I was heading to town to buy groceries when I noticed parked cars lining the road on either side of Farmers Loop Road near Ballaine Lake. Earlier in the week, cars had stopped in the road to let a mama moose and her two babies cross the highway. It was a sunny afternoon and my curiosity was piqued, so I pulled over and parked my car among the others.

Cyclists and pedestrians had stopped to watch, too. I could see a crowd of people sitting on the hill near the lake.

I looked down and I saw two men manning either end of a long birch log and two women balancing on it, trying to stay on as it moved. One fell off and into the icy water. Yes, there was a thin layer of ice on the lake. I don’t know the official temperature. Let’s just call it darn cold. And despite the ice, some of the men competed in shorts only; many women wore tank tops. I ran back to my car to get my camera.

I learned that I’d stumbled onto the 13th annual Farthest North Forest Sports Festival. Burling is the last event in a day-long competition  at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The festival is sponsored by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Sciences and the Resource Management Society, a student organization. There are several events, including bow and crosscut sawing, ax throwing, pulp tossing, log rolling (not the same as burling) fire building and burling.

When I returned, I made my way to the shore and a group of rowdy, noisy women wearing suspenders and signature orange caught my eye..and ears.

“We’re the No Shamin’ Lady-Jacks,” said Emily Schwing, 27, a natural resources management major. Sporting braids, a wool hat and a skirt held in place by red suspenders, Megan Perry, 26, a major in fisheries and biology, sat beside Emily and answered all my questions. The women and men compete for the titles of Belle and Bull of the Wood, respectively.

Erin Trochin, 27, a hydro engineering major, was the No Shamin’ Lady-Jack’s best shot at the title. She’d made it to the semi-finals; she credited her success to her lucky purple unicorn socks. Megan tied an orange band around Erin’s bicep before she went back into the water to meet her challenger.

Erin defeated last year’s reigning champ in the semifinals then entered the icy lake one last time. The No Shamin’ Lady-Jacks were on their feet, cheering and screaming encouragement as Erin tottered and teetered, trying to stay on the log. She fell before her competitor lost her balance.

“I thought we were going to win that,” Megan said.

“I should have just run her,” she said, referring to her competitor in the finals.

After the event, competitors warmed their feet by a fire and changed into dry clothes before the awards ceremony.

As they passed out the medals, the No Shamin’ Lady-Jacks traded good-natured grumbles.

“I’m disgruntled,” Megan said. Their team didn’t win any awards.

“Team spirit award? Most spirited? Most orange?” Emily said, suggesting awards the Lady-Jacks might take home.

“It was the highest placing all-women’s team,” a woman said.

“Were we the only all-women’s team?” Megan asked.

Yep.  No shame in that. And more power to you, No Shamin’ Lady-Jacks.