Monday, November 30, 2015

LEONA CANYON: a Pleasant Walk in the Hills of Oakland, CA

Leona Canyon Trail
Leona Canyon, popular with runners, bikers, dog walkers and hikers, is one of many trails in the Oakland hills in California and one of my favorite places for a short walk. Descending through oak woodland and open space along a seasonal creek, it is a pleasant escape from nearby urban life. The trail head is close to the fields where my granddaughter’s soccer team practices, so on the occasions that I drive her to practice, while she and her teammates are honing their soccer skills, I have enjoyed a walk in the canyon.
Trail head near Merritt College
Leona Canyon Regional Open Space Preserve is a  pristine wooded canyon that is protected in a 290-acre parkland near Merritt College in Oakland. A range of habitats in the canyon support a variety of wildlife ranging from hummingbirds and hawks to butterflies, lizards and snakes. On my recent visit I spotted a flock of robins, which I assume were on the way south for the winter. More than 150 different kinds of plants grow in the canyon ranging from ferns in the shady spots to native grasses in the sunnier areas.
An introduction to Leona Canyon Creek wildlife

The Leona Canyon trail is a one-mile round trip. For a trail map, a teacher’s guide to the plants and their use by the Native Americans who once lived there, and other information about Leona Canyon go to .
The hills above Leona Canyon in the late afternoon sun

Monday, November 23, 2015

KENYAN SAFARI: Maasai Mara National Park, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Gretchen and Safari companions, Kenya
Last month my friend and fellow children’s book writer Gretchen Woelfle flew to Nairobi, Kenya, and joined a group of volunteer doctors and nurses working with the organization Preventing Cervical Cancer (PINCC) on a medical mission. See her post last week for her report. Then she went to on a safari to see African wildlife. Here's what she saw:

Following my two weeks as a medical volunteer I booked a five-day safari. How could I go to Kenya and not see the world-famous Maasai Mara National Park?  A few hours out of smoggy Nairobi, down into the Great Rift Valley, we left the paved road and proceeded down a lumpy bumpy rocky road. Our van driver didn’t feel the need to slow down so we bounced and jounced for a couple of hours farther into the country. 
When we saw our first giraffes we screeched to a halt and gawked out the windows.  A small herd of zebras down the road brought another shout from us to stop.  Wildebeests, ditto.  We wanted to stop for every animal, but our driver assured us we’d see a lot more up ahead. He was right.
For two nights we stayed in platform tents, with bathroom attached, near the entrance to the national park.
Gretchen and Maasai family
We visited a traditional Maasai village, where (for a fee) the men welcomed us with a leaping dance, then gave us a tour of the village including the interior of a dark adobe hut, and the corrals for their goats, sheep, and cattle. Exiting the village we encountered the “gift shop” – women selling beaded jewelry, blankets, and carving. I doubt if any of it was made in that village, but I couldn’t resist a bright red Maasai wool blanket. (It’s now a tablecloth.)
We first entered the Maasai Mara near sunset – jostling over roads and dirt tracks. Drivers kept in touch with each other via radios, and a call from one would have us streaming down the road to reach something special. That evening we saw our first lioness – calmly sitting in the grass while her four cubs scrambled and played nearby. They are indeed regal animals.
First thing next morning we saw another lioness, finishing a meal of a cow (a weak one left behind by Maasai herdsmen,) with two cubs grabbing a bite or two. After she had dragged most of the carcass across the road, three vultures descended and attacked the two legs left behind. A dozen more, then another dozen swooped down to tear apart the stomach. Four different vulture species came for breakfast.
On that day-long trip and another at daybreak the following day, we saw all the usual suspects: elephants, hippos, elands, impalas, Cape buffalo, hyenas, baboons, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, crocodiles, eagles, tiny Thompson’s gazelles, the hind end of a (shy) leopard sleeping in a burrow by a river, and, from a distance, a pack of African wild dogs. These are said to be the most dangerous of all, because they will attack humans.  They live in the hills and rarely come to the plain, where rangers shoot them on sight.  
Gretchen and her guide, Kelvin
At Lake Naivasha we took a (smooth and gentle) boat ride and saw more species of beautiful birds than I can remember, a flock of flamingos, and two lolling pods of hippos. On my last day I longed for a more active outing and found it in nearby Hell’s Gate National Park. Kelvin, my friendly guide, and I cycled five miles down a canyon where I got fairly up close and personal with some zebras, warthogs, impalas, and even giraffes.  After five miles, we hiked down into a deep gorge and along a stream bed. A sign had warned us about pesky baboons, but we only encountered two well-behaved hikers.
At the end of that same day, I was in the air, beginning the twenty-four hour trek to Los Angeles. I felt like a time traveler, whisked from the timeless world of the African savanna, back to twenty-first century urban life.
I booked with Big Time Safaris Ltd., which offers a wide range of prices, schedules, and customized itineraries.

Monday, November 16, 2015

VOLUNTEERING IN KENYA: Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Muhoroni, Kenya. Gretchen holding a beautiful baby before the mother was examined.
Last month my friend and fellow children’s book writer Gretchen Woelfle flew to Nairobi, Kenya, and joined a group of volunteer doctors and nurses working with the organization Preventing Cervical Cancer (PINCC) on a medical mission. Her report on her experience is below.
We set up shop in the maternity wing in the second hospital we worked at, in Muhoroni.
People have adopted a solemn tone when asking me about my recent volunteer work in Kenya with Preventing Cervical Cancer.  They tend to be surprised when I say, “It was really fun!”  I think they expected “difficult” or “eye-opening” or “inspiring.” But overall, it was great fun

I traveled to West Africa several years ago, giving author talks at international schools in three countries. I’d met many interesting ex-pats, but few Africans.  This time I wanted to connect with the local people. The PINCC project seemed just the ticket. The fact that we were not a group of foreign experts coming in and taking over, but training the resident staff to run their own treatment programs also appealed to me.
Nursing students at Nyabondo joined us for lunch.
It was a novelty for non-medical me to work with a great team of American doctors and nurses for two weeks in two hospitals in western Kenya. I watched them teach their African colleagues to screen for cervical cancer and treat abnormal results. I supplied and checked all the curious bits and pieces they needed each day in the examination rooms, and I even viewed a few cervixes myself.  
But best of all were my interactions with patients: interviewing the English-speaking women who came for screening – usually for the first time – and comforting them during their exams and treatments. With illustrated charts I explained to patients about HPV (human papillomavirus) and how cervical cancer can be prevented. I learned the women’s results when I entered the data into our computer.
Kenyan countryside near Muhoroni
Getting a glimpse of Kenyan village life, walking down lanes past small homesteads in the evenings while attracting a Pied Piper-esque entourage of children, seeing the local medical staff beam as they received their PINCC certifications to continue their work after we left – was all part of the fun.

Another delight: I spent two evenings speaking to several groups of children at the Catholic compound in Nyabondo, with its hospital, nursing school, two boarding schools, a day school, and a home for disabled children. Two overflowing classrooms of girls listened enthusiastically as I talked about my work as a children’s author.  After I read my latest book, Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, about an 18th century Massachusetts slave who won her freedom, they had lively comments and questions.  And I was mobbed in a most friendly way when I stood among them for a photo op.  The next evening I gave a similar presentation to a group of ten lovely disabled boys.
Gretchen with schoolgirls at Nyabondo.
 "I felt like a celebrity!"
Yes, Kenya with PINCC was eye-opening and inspiring, and occasionally difficult, but the pure pleasure of the adventure surprised and delighted me. 

Note: Preventing Cervical Cancer, a non-profit in Oakland, California, has been working in Latin America, Africa, and India since 2005. Volunteers travel to each site three times, six months apart, after which local staff are certified to conduct their own treatment and training programs.  At present the group is running projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. For more information see

At Nyabondo, new friends pause for a chat and a photo.