You read that in every How-to novel writing advice, the call of adventure that the hero or heroine spurns at first… I wish to share this incredible moment when I boarded and rode an experimental hovercraft.
The name of the vehicle was… Starship. Don’t laugh. It was a miniature orange two-person hovercraft, in demonstration at an event organized by my father (a hovercraft specialist) for an aerospace association that do not exist today. A jobless geographer atthe time, I had volunteered to help him with small things. We were in a hangar by the St-Lawrence River, under a gray sky.
One visiting engineer had been invited to test it, but he said he would get drenched (and he was an experienced, gray-haired guy, I suspect he knew what to expect bouncing in a small craft next to the engine, while I didn’t). So, I offered to go instead. I put on a thick and loose and dark wetsuit over my light and elegant September clothes and sat behind the pilot.
The first assault on my senses was the deafening noise of the main engine (see in the pic, right in my back) and the propeller pulling the air down to lift the hovercraft, screaming at one hundred and ten decibels that made even the red composite hull shake. It was impossible to talk, and the earmuffs might have been cotton candy for all the protecting they did.
After the flat concrete, the cold, cold September water of the St-Lawrence River rushed at us, sprayed droplets everywhere. Water seeped through the seams of the wetsuit, enclosing my legs in a moist embrace. The smell of tar and exhaust, the stench of dead fish coming from the posts of the bridge we were passing nearby gave a moldy taste on my tongue. But nothing beat the excitement of flying over the water in an experimetal hovercraft!
The hovercreaft jumped over chopping waves, propelled so fast every bone of my spine and basin was vibrating at the same pace. I grabbed the hull on my sides, not sure the orange lifejacket would be of any use if a sudden swerve shook me off. The craft reached the faraway bridge at piers in less than a minute!
At our dizzying speed bouncing over the wavelets, the air rushed at my face with countless droplets, my carefully combed hair was askew, but I still remember today how exhilarating those five minutes had been!
My grateful thanks for the gallant Starship pilot, who may have retired since the pic ws taken (I didn’t get your name, alas, so say hello if you recognize yourself!) Note how on the pics the pilot did not wear the earmuffs; he probably lent those to me for the test drive.
And kudos to the fellow engineer who took this picture and sent it to my dad, Jacques Laframboise, a few weeks later. We thought you might like this as a little memento of a happy day, he had written, noting the dsate September 23rd, 1987, and a time 2 min 45 sec, which may be the time elapsed in the hovercraft test drive. Alas, that friend didn’t write his name, and my father has flown into the great unknown in 2014.
It had been 34 years, and I still count those three minutes as the most exciting in my life!
Everything in this bird tour has gone awry: Lady Byrd wakes up too late, because the tour guide forgot to arrange the calls. In a foul mood, she has to get to the site herself. Then, her path crosses that of a pregnant birder in the throes of an abusive relationship, and cornered into a hard choice only women have to face. What can an expert birder can do to lift this fog of sadness?
A spirited and hopeful story with the energetic Lady Byrd !
(This is an extract of the story. The ebook is available on paper and ebook formats at Echofictions.com.)
Chicks and Chickadees A Fearless Lady Byrd Adventure
by Michèle Laframboise
The fluted call woke me from my heavy sleep. That chant was as familiar as my living room couch, coming from the tiny throat of a black-capped chickadee. The rest of the year, that small quick bird emitted a short chip, or a gleeful nasal, ha-han-han-haan, more reminiscent of a duck quack. They were the life of the party in any forest; hanging a lump of fat in a net is a sure way to invite them to any backyard.
But, as the snow melted, the perky chickadees’ thoughts turned away from food. They started singing that soft whistle.
The bird was enjoying the morning; I wasn’t. At all.
A budding headache reminded me how foolish I had been to accept that glass of wine yesterday evening, even the light white brand that complemented the meal served at the hotel hosting our birding group. One blond lady was endlessly raving about her 150 mm cam, but I lost most of her words.
I pushed off the big fluffy down hotel coverlet from the bed, striking with my feet like I would a nighttime aggressor.
(I am lucky to never have experienced the event, but my niece had.)
(She did OK and sent the stupid horny student to the hospital. Nevertheless, I take extra precautions.)
I balanced myself to sit on the edge of the bed, my feet hanging inches from the floor. Extra-high hotel bed. A tingling feeling of something wrong nagged at me. Not the headache.
Then my eyes fell on the digital clock on the lacquered nightstand.
Ten past six. AM.
I was supposed to get up at five-thirty, eat a small collation and board the minibus that would take me and a dozen others to a secluded spot where a famed warbler had been last observed.
That warbler was that kind of elusive brownish bird, easier to hear than see. Its off-key colors made them the opposite of the chickadees: not only difficult to see, but a challenge at identifying.
Birders woke very early to get to the field at dawn. I winced. By now, the tour bus would have left with the rest of the group.
On my precedent birding tours, the organizers usually managed the morning calls so everyone was woken around the same hour, generally 5h00 or 5h30 AM.
I hadn’t met the Sully Bird Tours manager yet, only the athletic brown-haired girl, a Lucy Something (I should have remembered her name but the flight had left me slightly zombified) who greeted me at the airport and lifted my bags without breaking stride. She had driven me to this three-star hotel, where I later met the birding party, but the Sully of Sully’s tour had been apparently busy elsewhere.
If the manager was around her age, maybe he had left a Facebook message, Twitter notification or I don’t-know-what-tech alert to the tour members, not thinking that some tour members could be old enough to be his mother. Or grand mother, if he was that young.
I felt a surge of wrath towards this Ronald Sully. A competent birding tour manager would have made sure all members were up and seated before taking off. Especially when said members had paid north of one thousand dollars for one week-end, all-inclusive package.
The love call tempered my disappointment. A chickadee’s spring mating call was a soft flute, not migraine-inducing at all. Maybe Ron Sully had called my room number, and I had been sleeping too soundly to be roused?
I checked the hotel phone.
No blinking red light. So no calls. I thought fast.
If I skipped breakfast and toothbrushing, I had a thin chance to catch the 6h30 AM hotel shuttle and get to the Park entrance in time. Normally, I would have called a taxi, but the town abutting the gigantic park didn’t have a lot of those, and no way at my age would I adopt the Uber application my tech-savvy nephew was raving about.
My hands went to my night gown, holding my full bladder.
To the bath-cave, my numb brain ordered.
While scurrying to the bathroom to get my three essentials “U” (Urine drain, Uplifting cream, UV screen), I thought about the surprises that this coming day held in reserve.
Birding expeditions were a fascinating adventure I had shared with Paul, my husband for thirty-two wonderful years. Then Paul’s strong body had been grabbed by the Crab, and nothing had been the same ever since.
Only our common love of birds had saved me from spiraling into depression and alcohol after Paul’s death. Each bird tour was a way of reconnecting with the man who had meant so much to me.
I got dressed, bundled my dog-eared Sibley Guide to Birds, my 8×25 Bushnell field binoculars in their case, and filled my water bottle at the sink.
Next, I put on my “fearless lady explorer hat”.
Strapping it under my chin, I looked like a Victorian-era explorer matron. The vintage pith jungle helmet had been a joking gift from Paul. I wore it without qualms: besides being well-padded, the off-white pith hat was a fine conversation starter.
I even got to learn what the word steampunk meant.
Minutes later, I walked up to the front desk among enticing smells of breakfast prepared at the restaurant, my soft-soled walking shoes plopping softly on the waxed oak floorboards. The morning clerk looked up at me from his screen, all fresh face and pimples.
“Can I do something for you?” he asked, his eyes squinting at my Victorian pith hat.
The first words coming to me were: Wasn’t someone supposed to wake me up? But I chose a more diplomatic approach.
“Yesterday, did I leave instructions for a wake-up call?”
The boy (I write boy because he couldn’t have been more than 16) bent on the screen raising like a flat obsidian monolith between us. I could only see his combed auburn hair, like waves.
“No, you didn’t.”
Oh, I thought. So I had forgotten.
No wonder. The plane trip had been exhausting.
Two hot-headed (and thoroughly inebriated) guys were spreading their politics around in loud angry voices with scant regard for their fellow passengers. As they sat on the row before me, it had been impossible to doze off.
Eventually the flight attendant got tired of the hate spiel and shushed them. As the attendant was a brown-skinned, petite Indian-looking stewardess, they scoffed and leered at her politeness, making me wish I had some knitting needles or hat pins to prod them in the ribs with, or more stamina. Only when the head steward, a burly, fortyish man with a military buzz cut, came to back up his colleague, did the two goons tone down, relenting under a male authority.
So I had accepted the complimentary wine glass on board to complement the kneaded napper meal.
Later, at the three stars, medium-sized hotel, I had been only too happy to meet fellow birders to care. The local brand offered at supper proved one sip too much, but I would discover this only in the morning.
The rumbling under my seat lulled me to a better mood. I munched on a soft ChocoPower bar, the one with nuts, while the shops and motels of the outskirts were replaced by fields and forested stretches. My multipocketed coat was rolled under my back to provide a support for my spine, and I rested my slightly pounding ball against the fabric headrest, the explorer hat on my knees.
It was past 6h 45 when the hotel shuttle grinded to a halt on the blacktop of the parking near the Conservatory entrance. (A conservatory was the same thing as a natural park, but without the noisy camping grounds.)
The parking lot was bare, except for a pine hut contained a pit toilet, and a green and blue minivan with the words Sully’s Birding Tour printed in another shade of blue across a pale grey seagull outline. Which looked strange because, this far inside the continent, the only seagulls I had seen were the ubiquitous ring-billed seagulls actively checking out the hotel’s waste containers.
I stepped off the shuttle in a deflated mood. At this hour, most morning birds would have flown off to ensure their survival. I would get the obvious customers, robins, woodpeckers and the happy-chirping chickadees.
The group’s route must have been another useful info the organizers had trusted to the Internet. Hence, I wasted another two minutes of early morning observation to consult the large wooden map, discolored by years of exposition to the elements. The paths were marked by vivid-colored plastic ribbons.
More disappointment piled as I discovered that most of those brightly-colored paths were over four kilometers long, and crossed higher slope gradients that I cared for.
I pulled out the tiny flat green cell my nephew had given me.
I didn’t care much for using a phone while birding, but I needed to know which path the group took. I punched the main number. After three rings, a primp, happy-sounding voice announced that Sully Bird Tour were unavailable and would I like to leave a message?
Of course, they would have disconnected their cells, because a sudden noise erupting from a pocket could scare the birds away. Even the more discreet vibration setting was picked up by the birds’ tine-tuned ears, resembling a low-throated alarm buzz that most species heeded as a predator presence warning.
I puffed my cheeks. Looking at the tour bus, I decided to leave a low-tech message. I sacrificed a page from my small do-it-all notebook for the busy woman (a gift from my niece) and wrote my cell number and my name, plus “on Trail 4”.
Trail 4 was the shortest circuit available, which would let me amble at my own pace and make the best of this day. And, with luck, one of the guides would check on me.
After a cautious stop at the pit toilet (making sure my cell phone did not fall at the bottom), I set on the path winding between tall pines.
This story was up for one week only, for International Women’s Day, but I left it on this blog five months because: this Covid period needed hopeful stories. If you liked it and want to support my writing, please buy the ebook and offer it to someone. Available on paper and ebook formats at Echofictions.com. Bird Pic (c) Shutterstock / Bruce MacQueen
For the first time, fearless Amanda Byrd must mind her turbulent grand-niece while on a special birding excursion, on the day of the SuperBowl.
Our sharp-eyed guide pointed silently towards one of the husky, snow-powdered spruce branches. There, its mottled cream and caramel-brown plumage almost invisible against the tree background, its pale heart-shaped face marked with the dark marbles of its eyes, was a discreet nocturnal bird doing its best to avoid the sharp daylight.
You rarely got to see a Barred owl from such a close distance, in a cold February afternoon, a meager dozen feet from the trail our small gaggle of birders was following. I didn’t even need my 8×42 Bushnell binoculars to take in its 22-inch long body from head to tail. I felt I could just stretch an arm to brush the fine down on its roundish head.
Well, not that I would do such an impolite gesture in front of my small niece. But my sister’s first grandchild had no such qualms herself.
“Hooo, hooo!” Mona said, her bright red mittens cupped in front of her mask, her brown eyes full of glee.
The owl’s neck moved like a tank turret to investigate the disturbance, one abyssally-dark eye blinking under a fluffy cream eyelid.
Most owls had gaudy-colored irises, orange or gold, framing round pupils; Barred owls had obsidian eyes, like black glass, the irises indistinct. Owl’s eyes were not slitted like cats’ to minimize incoming light, so the nocturnal bird protected its sensitive retinas.
Its downy eyelids, lowered at half-mast, gave him a perpetual air of either wisdom or sleepy annoyance.
Some owls’ tufted feathers reached out in points, like the Great horned owl, but this owl’s tapered along the round head.
When the owl’s head moved, Mona hooted happily.
“He looks like caramel ice cream with nuts!”
Count on children in the dead of winter to talk about ice cream, I thought, shivering.
The bird’s colors rather reminded me of an ill-fitting wool pull one of my own “aunties” had knitted for me (forgetting that teenage years were also growing up years) with a pattern of creamy whites and spatter of light brown stitches, at odds with the gaudy colors the sixties era favored.
I wore it for a time, to please my aunt, and as a camouflage to observe birds, Eventually, the mites found it. My mother unraveled the pull and knitted a warm scarf with it. Now that scarf, decades later, I wore in my winter bird watching, those muted hues being less aggressive.
I breathed in the cold air through the scarf and my thin face mask. The low temperatures prevented me from getting the scents of pine and fresh snow, but the odor of old wool impregnated with my mom’s patience remained present. I wore a heavier daypack with a thermos and collation.
But at least, it was a rewarding activity to go birding on the ‘Superb-Owl’ Sunday, as birders called this day. The name had been coined by a passionate birder in the 90s, and since then, many bird-lovers found out, in cities and woods alike, how quiet that peculiar Sunday was. The usual troves of weekend hikers also dried out on that day.
At this moment, my nephew, along with half the United States population, was lounging on his living room couch watching football players as colored as birds disputing a spectacular waste of money. (I’m told the commercial spots alone cost several millions.)
Meaning that, on Superbowl day, our small group of dedicated birders had the huge park near Albany, NY – and all its birds– to ourselves.
Including our own elusive, superb owls.
That is, if one of us did not scare said birds away with her bubbling enthusiasm.