Thursday, November 11, 2021

Roamin' with the Red Pandas

On Veterans Day, Sarah and Emily accompanied me to the Cincinnati Zoo for an encounter with the red pandas.  This was my combination Mother's Day and birthday present that was delayed due to the pandemic. 

Emily and I left our house about 10:00 AM for the trip north on a sunny, warm fall day. On the way, Emily got a phone call asking if we could arrive early since rain was predicted to start about 1:30, the time of our tour. After verifying the earliest that Sarah could meet us after work at The Christ Hospital, Emily let Andrew know that we would be ready between 12:15 and 12:30.  After a quick stop at Menard's to pick up an order for Steve, we drove to the zoo.  Emily picked up her new zoo card while we waited for Sarah.  

We were met by Andrew who greet us warmly and let us know that he would be taking hundreds of pictures so that we could focus on the tour.  This was great news since Steve, the normal cameraman, was at home.  We made our way through the children's zoo to the back of the enclosure where we met Mary, one of the zookeepers.  

Mary explained that the keepers used apple or banana pieces to train the red pandas so that they could get proper daily and veterinary care.  We first met sisters, Audra and Lenore, who were about two and a half years old. Lenore was very eager to great us through the cage in exchange for apple slices.  Once we went into the panda's yard, Andrew got to work taking pictures.  Lenore stayed in her behind the scenes home, but Audra eagerly joined us for pictures and apples. 

We spent about 30 minutes learning outside about the red pandas (Ailurus fulgens), which are the only true pandas. There are two distinct species, the Chinese and the Himalayan; these were Chinese.  The great panda is actually a bear.  

They eat bamboo leaves, not the stalks, and are less picky about their diets than the great panda.  They will eat other leaves, fruit and meat since they are carnivores. The zoo only provides them with a plant based diet, but they supplement it with insects, moles or small garter snakes when they can find them.  They feasted on cicadas during this summers emergence of a 17-year brood.  

Red pandas are solitary, spending most of their days in the trees. They can turn their rear ankles around, allowing them to climb down trees head-first.  They also have a false thumb that they use to hold food. They are black underneath to camouflage them from the snow leopards, their main predator. Their bushy tail is used for balance and typically has 6 white rings. 

Since they live high in the mountains, they are much more visible in the zoo when it is cool or cold. While they have 24-hour access to the outdoors, in the summer they prefer to remain in the air conditioned dens.

The zoo currently has five red pandas.  The male is number 4 in the desirability index of captive red pandas.  Lin, the mother, has produced a number of off-spring including Audra, Lenore, and the new baby, Shenmi.  Shenmi, which means Mystery, has an appropriate name.  Lin was verified to be pregnant, then later ultrasounds revealed no baby.  Later in the summer, they thought she was fat from cicadas, when the baby appeared in the nest box. 

We spent the next 30 minutes in Lin's den area with the family as we learned more about them and their care..  Their fur is quite luxurious, unfortunately leading to the desirability of their skins for hats.  Shenmi was very soft as well.  Once the apples were gone, they clambered around us looking for more treats. Being raised in a zoo, they were very sociable.  

We enjoyed our visit and were glad to find out that they cost helped care for them in the zoo and wild red pandas via the Red Panda Network. It began to rain as we left, so we were happy to have started our tour early.  We finished the day with lunch at Dusmesh Indian Restaurant, where we shared a meal of chicken dal, lamb rogan josh and vegetable biryani with Keshmeri naan. We even had enough to take home a few leftovers.

This tour was well worth the cost, and the 120 pictures Andrew provided are a wonderful remembrance of the day.



Tuesday, November 9, 2021

International Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum

World's largest sassafras tree
The bed at the Super 8 was very comfortable and appeared to be new. After 9 pm the second floor room was quiet, so we slept well. We walked down to the motel’s breakfast area where scrambled eggs, sausage links, fresh fruits, cereals, toast and the ever present Dunkin Donuts were available. 

After checking out and assuring that there was no charge, we drove north on Frederica Street to what is reported to be the world’s largest sassafras tree in the yard of an insurance agency next to the Owensboro Public Library. The sassafras trees were quite impressive and believed to be over 100 feet tall and 250-300 years old. 
Fountains in Smothers Park

We then drove to the river where we parked at Owensboro’s Smothers Park along the Ohio River. This was one of the nicer riverfront parks that we have visited. It reminded us of the river walks in Pittsburgh and other revitalized cities. There were a good many locals walking on the wide concrete path overlooking the river. A geotrail has several easy geocaches for visitors to find. Three fountains sprayed water in orchestrated patterns to the music. There were nice public bathrooms and a fantastic playground. We spent a lot of time walking on the paths that were being decorated for Christmas and through the playground. An older lady approached me because I was wearing a Marshall University sweatshirt. She said that she was inspired by the We Are Marshall movie and had a lot of respect for the football program. She told us that she once made a detour on a family trip to stop by the Marshall campus. While leaning over a railing, a pair of sunglasses got dropped into an empty water feature, so I jumped the fence and retrieved them before security could see me.

We made the short drive to the Green River Distillery, formerly the O. Z. Tyler Distillery, early for our 10 am tour and tasting. Our guide, Taylor, welcomed us at the door, and we spent a few minutes in the gift shop until we left on the tour. Taylor was well acquainted with the history and process at Green River Distilling despite having worked there less than a year. She took us through receiving and milling the grain to where the mash is blended and cooked then to the stainless fermentation vats. 
Unlike cypress mash tuns that we have seen at some other distilleries, these are sealed containers to precisely control the temperature and environment of the fermentation. In addition, Taylor told us that the stainless vats can be completely steam cleaned permitting the fermentation of different mashbills in the vats from one batch to another. The large Vendome column still produces the low proof distillate that is then sent to a doubler where the high proof “new make” whiskey is prepared for entry into the char 4 barrels. 

We learned that Green River Distillery is the tenth distillery to be licenced in Kentucky (KSP-10) and is now the fourth largest producer of bourbon in the state. Green River Distillery began operation in 1885 and produced award winning whiskey. A fire at the distillery in 1918 caused the distillery to shut down before prohibition. The distillery was rebuilt in 1936 and the property changed hands many times since. In 2014 the distillery reopened as the O. Z. Tyler Distillery and in 2020 the distillery regained the Green River Distillery name. 

We have had the O. Z. Tyler Bourbon and liked it and were disappointed that it is no longer being made. However, we were familiarized with the other excellent bourbons being produced. At the tasting we sampled Kentucky 10 Bourbon, made with wheat as the secondary grain, and Yellow Banks, named for the frontier name of Owensboro, with rye as the secondary grain. We also saw several bourbons that are made at Green River including Bradshaw (for Terry Bradshaw), Duke (for John Wayne’s estate), Quarter Horse and others. We also tasted Ladder 9, a cinnamon flavored bourbon. We expected it to be like Fireball but were pleased that the cinnamon was very subtle in the finish of the bourbon. We were very impressed with the quality of the spirits made at Green River and purchased a bottle of Yellow Banks for us and a bottle of Ladder 9 for one of Mary’s former co-workers.

Moonlite Bar-B-Q
After leaving the distillery, we drove to Moonlight Bar-B-Q for more Western Kentucky mutton barbecue. After looking at the buffet, we decided on that option since we could try many of the menu choices to see what we liked best. Both of us enjoyed the mutton barbecue as well as pulled pork and the buttered corn.

After lunch we drove to the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum, which is very near the park where we walked this morning. Our senior admission was $10 each down from the regular fee of $12. The first area we entered had 20 or more stringed instruments hanging that visitors were welcome to play. The guitars, mandolins, banjos and violins were all good quality instruments from makers such as Martin and Gibson. From there we walked around the displays documenting milestones in bluegrass music. 

Uncle Pen's fiddle
Large video screens positioned around the museum’s first floor featured interviews with notable bluegrass musicians such as Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury as well as others like Yale University’s president who is a bluegrass fan. Artifacts such as Earl Scruggs’ banjos and a fiddle belonging to Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen are displayed.

Earl Scruggs' banjos
From there, we went to the second floor where we stopped at a set of touch screens that accessed interviews with bluegrass musicians and industry officials. 
Disposable earphones for listening to the videos were provided. One room held a display of banjos produced by a notable maker showing various stages in the production of a hand-crafted instrument. The last room we visited held biographical plaques of all inductees into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. We enjoyed reading these and had seen most of the performers at live shows or on the televised Grand Ole Opry.

Although the museum was not large, the exhibits were well displayed and interesting. There are several events at the museum in most years and we would seriously consider returning if an event interested us.

We left Owensboro around 3:30 pm and arrived back home around 6:30. Traffic around Louisville was bad but the trip was otherwise uneventful. We both agreed that the trip was a great time and we plan to return to Owensboro soon.

Monday, November 8, 2021

John J. Audubon State Park

A stretch of warm dry weather in early November we decided to take a couple of days to drive to parts of Western Kentucky that we hadn’t seen. After our normal omelette breakfast, we drove toward Eagle Slough Natural Area, mostly on I-64. This area is near a part of Kentucky that is across the Ohio River into Indiana. This is because the Kentucky state line is defined as the low water mark on the Ohio River as of 1792. The New Madrid Earthquake of 1812 caused changes in the river’s course making an area approximately one mile wide by four miles long on the north side of the river part of Kentucky. An elevated path through the area followed an abandoned railroad bed overlooking wetlands and leading to a small open lake. We were surprised to see bald cypress growing native in this area. We were used to seeing cypress swamps in the Everglades but not in Indiana and Kentucky. The trail has a number of interpretive signs and a few boardwalks in need of repair. We saw one gentleman on a bicycle going out the path to enjoy his morning coffee. We chatted briefly and he recommended Sloughs Wildlife Management Area for a hike. A nice observation deck at the end of the mile-long trail overlooks the small lake. We saw numerous Canada geese and some smaller waterfowl but didn’t spend much time there. We found a few small geocaches along the trail then returned to the car to drive to Sloughs WMA.

Great Blue Heron at Eagle Slough
Because we started our walk around 10 am (Central Time), the air was still a little cool so we were wearing jackets and hats. By the time we returned to the car, it was nearly noon and the air was much warmer so we took off our jackets and hats along with the binoculars and cameras for the short drive to Audubon Wetlands across the river near Henderson Kentucky. As we turned from the Eagle Slough access road onto Rt. 41 south, we heard something bounce off the roof of the car, hit the trunk and land on the road. Because the divided highway was very busy, we had to drive a couple of miles into Kentucky before we could do a U-turn to come back and retrieve the item. It turned out that Mary’s Samsung A51 was on the highway after being run over by many cars and large trucks. There was little remaining of the cell phone to pick up, although we gathered up what we could.

We drove back across the Ohio River to the wetlands. The Island Loop Trail begins with a 750-foot boardwalk across the wetlands, followed a mile long dirt trail through the woodlands.  We saw several Great Blue Herons and turtles from the boardwalk. The forested path was surrounded by lots of pawpaw groves and led by a lake and slough.  We walked the loop then made the short drive to the main part of the John James Audubon State Park.

The main trail at Audubon State Park
Upon arriving at the park, we ate the packed lunch of a turkey sandwich and apple in the parking lot at the park visitor center. Like many of the state parks in the area, buildings here were constructed by the WPA and appeared to be well built and in good repair despite being over 80 years old. It appeared to us that the craftsmanship was better than some of the parks built by CCC camps that we had visited before. We were a bit surprised that the visitor center had almost a Tudor look with an unusually steep roof. 

We learned that the swamps in the area were drained in the 1930s by a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) group from West Virginia. The CCC team also built roads and constructed the lakes in the area that is now Audubon State Park. The WPA built the major structures in the park. There are a lot of interconnected trails in the 700 acre Audubon State Park of all levels of rigor. We hiked out Warbler Road and were amazed by the number of pawpaw trees in groves along the trail. We took the Scenic Overlook Trail and the Wilderness Lake Trail, chatting with several other visitors as we walked. On our return to the parking area, we took the short King Benson Trail where we saw a large black rat snake sunning on the path.

Turtles basking at John J. Audubon State Park
While there, we learned that John J. Audubon lived in Henderson, Kentucky from 1810 to 1819 when Henderson was a small town on the Western frontier. Although we didn’t take time to visit the park’s museum, we learned that it houses one of the world’s largest collections of Audubon’s art as well as artifacts from his nine year stay in the area.

We drove further west to Sloughs WMA, but it appeared to be a few small observation towers overlooking wildlife food plots. 

We drove about an hour east to Owensboro, Kentucky, where we would spend the night and the day on Tuesday. Like Georgetown, Owensboro is a fast growing small city in Kentucky. The city has capitalized on their Ohio River frontage, frontier history and proximity to population centers to become a mecca for festivals, hosting about 30 each year. I had been to Owensboro in the mid 1980s while a UK graduate student, but I really didn’t remember anything about the city. Our first stop was to Best Buy and Target to shop for a replacement cell phone for Mary. She decided on a Samsung A52 to replace her damaged A51. Although it was more than she hoped to pay, she was happy with the phone’s features. Once at the motel, we recovered the SIM card and memory chip from the old A51 and put them in the new A52. To her surprise, once she logged in to Google, all of her apps and settings returned to the new phone.

The Super 8 in Owensboro was very nice, having been remodeled recently. The room was spacious and had new flooring, furniture and bathroom fixtures. Because we have points with Wyndham Hotel Group, we were able to stay without charge. The lobby had fresh Dunkin Donuts for free through the day including the seasonal pumpkin spice donuts.

Sliced mutton dinner at Old Hickory Bar-B-Que
Friends have been telling us about how good the mutton barbecue is from Western Kentucky. One of the restaurants in Owensboro getting top reviews was Old Hickory Bar-B-Que. After looking at the menu and consulting the waitress, Mary had smoked turkey, barbecued beans and coleslaw, while I ordered the sliced mutton shoulder barbecue with coleslaw and a cup of burgoo. Burgoo is a traditional stew that was made on the frontier using a variety of wild game with available seasonal vegetables. This burgoo appeared to be made from mutton, beef and pork with a few beans and potatoes. It was quite good and reminded us a bit of chili. Both of us enjoyed our meals greatly and were glad that we came. 

We returned to the Owensboro Super 8 and turned in after a long day of hiking. Since our bodies were on Eastern Time we were happy to go to bed a little early.