Category Archives: All Things Mammoth

Unbound Chamber Music Festival goes over the top

Exhilarated and depressed. At the same time.

The best chamber music festival ever in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., recently concluded. Thus the depression. As summer festivals go, this one is way too short, but it has taken its place in the culture of festivals in the classical music field.

The 2014 Unbound Chamber Music Festival was stellar. In every way. The musicians brought together by the Felici Trio were an ecstatic group of musical individuals. Ron Selka played the clarinet as if he were at sea level. Selka has chops. He’s the principal clarinet of the Israel Philharmonic. Violist Amadi Azikiwe, music director of the Harlem Symphony Orchestra, looks more like a basketball player than a violist, but his fingers fly over the strings. Guillaume Sutre’s mastery on the violin enchants as you watch and become entangled in the fine web of music he weaves.

Those are just a few of the guest artists, who join a more or less regular cast of musical characters. Mark Kosower’s cello playing has such amazing heart. Each note registers in his facial expressions as much as the exquisite tone of his cello.

And the music. It did not matter whether a piece was familiar or new, the musicianship was impeccable. From the violinistic fireworks of festival favorite Corey Cerovsek to eight cellos taking the stage for Villa-Lobos, or the aptly titled “A Perfect Storm” concert that took place on a rainy night in the mountains, or for the phenomenal finale that went from fantastic to out of this world with performances of Schubert’s “unfinished” string quartet, Brahms’s heavenly cello sonata performed with passion and perfection by husband and wife musicians Mark Kosower and Jee-Won Oh, and finally the Mendelssohn piano sextet in which Felici Trio pianist Steven Vanhauwaert’s virtuosic playing brought the audience to its ecstatic, appreciative feet.

I slight none of the musicians here. There is just not the time to paint thumbnail portraits of each of them, which does not diminish the joy at hearing them play.

Perhaps the greatest surprise with summer festivals is the magic. As if the small amount of rehearsal time is inversely proportionate to the power and beauty of the music performed.

Holiday cheer in a ski resort bubble

My visions of the Christmas holidays have always been couched in snow — drifts of it snugged up to red New England farmhouses, sleigh bells and sleigh rides, making snowmen and building forts at the end of the driveway to provide shelter for snowball fights. Lots of family and friends and gales of laughter piercing the cold air from toboggans whooshing down the hill.

That was childhood. I no longer live down a country lane. I live in a ski resort, a place that many, many people like to visit for the holidays.

This is a land of contrasts — hot summers and cold winters, mountains and desert, times when making a left turn is a no brainer and times when left turns are impossible. This time of year a day that begins with a Robert Frost snowshoe trek in the quiet woods can segue into an encounter with herds of wild city people running amok in public places.

On one of the first mornings of the New Year, my husband and I bundled up for the cold temperatures and headed out snowshoeing with our dog to the deep woods and meadows just outside town, a place crowded only with drifted snows and pines. We drove past flocks of people sledding and building snowmen. They used what was at hand — pine boughs and needles to cover the snowheads with bushy pine dreadlocks.

Up at the tops of the several sledding runs, dads gave their charges a push and shouted encouragement as they slid down the hill. Kids shrieked with fear or glee as their round saucers picked up speed. Anxious mothers in fashion boots rocked from one cold foot to the other, watching, ready to catch or rescue.

A mile or two farther down the road, we parked, slipped into our snowshoes and set off into the track of a snowmobile. In this deep snow we would have been postholing without the symbiotic trailsetting of snowmobiles. Clods of snow fell from branches, landing with muffled thumps. And except for the occasional discontented raven squawking at our intrusion, the only sound was the squeaking of snowshoes on snow. Our contentment was complete. I looked around at the graceful pines hung with snow, the almost-fluorescent blue sky above and wooded snowfields that seemed to stretch forever — grateful to be lucky enough to live in the mountains, in a town of human scale, without big boxes to supersize our needs.

Back home, we settled in for the afternoon. But a sudden craving for a chicken pot pie dinner propelled me to the market. Off I trundled in search of puff pastry, frozen peas, mushrooms and white wine. Never satisfied to do one errand when I can gang a bunch of them into one trip, I stopped into Tailwaggers, which is next to Vons, for homemade dog cookies. There I ran into two friends. One of them is a crackerjack storyteller, often unspooling tales of drama and trauma. This tale was no different, and I was hooked, listening intently, so completely captivated that I lost track of time.

There are few times during holidays in a ski resort to grocery shop without the accompaniment of hundreds of strangers, all packed into the grocery box. Sure enough, I’d missed the narrow window when I could breeze in and out of Vons in a scant few minutes. By the time we’d finished hashing out possible outcomes for my friend’s story, and I walked into the market, the cacophony had reached highest decibels.

Vons is the sole market in town. Its prices are high — Mammoth is a resort market five distant hours from suppliers. I grabbed the second-to-last cart, imagining supermarket bumper cars — a greater challenge even than maneuvering through rush-hour mobs in Grand Central Station. My strategy was to shift into low gear, not be in a hurry, and enjoy the amusing show scrambling in front of me.

Snowboarder dudes ambled with sailors’ gaits in their droopy pants, baggy tops and odd headwear. Gaggles of girls in pastel parkas, couples with overtired tots, middle-aged folk in toasty UGGs — vied in every aisle for space and merchandise in an odd dance of reach and pull, dodge and grab, scowl and smirk.

Checkout lines oozed to the back of the store, carts knitted in and out of those lines in a weird frenzy. People with their carts overloaded to point of groaning waited in express lines, ignoring the sign that limits the take to 15 items.

Now working their tenth day in a row, checkers were on automatic — bobbleheads with deer-in-the-headlights eyes and weary smiles that trembled. Baggers fled from one checkout stand to the next, stuffing plastic bags full of groceries. “Twenty-one days of hell,” a bagger whispered hoarsely, begging me to let him carry out my bag so he could get a few minutes’ respite.

I exhaled upon emerging from the supermarket’s north side entrance onto the parking lot of treacherous ice that can last all winter. SUVs — gigantic white or black behemoths — parked wherever they pleased. Their engines left on, seething with power, they could be transformers, primed to turn into road warriors on the way back to L.A. Small vintage Hondas in shades of teal and turquoise squeezed between them, diminished by the gigantism of the SUVs.

“Made it.” I exhaled again. As I drove home, the calm, wonder and gratitude of living in a small mountain town re-surged. I have lived in the city, rushing here, bustling there, stressed by the knowledge that there was so much to do, and so little time. I remember the feeling of being a tourist, of leaving my life and arriving in some version of paradise, moving in a magical bubble throughout my visit. There is much to be said for coming to the mountains and untying the knots of city living. While I no longer live down childhood’s quiet country lane, I can’t imagine living in a more perfect place, where eyes lift to a vertical, mountainous horizon. And despite the squeezed feeling of a very full town, I welcome holiday revelers to come and explore their individual touristic bubbles.

Unbound Chamber Music Festival goes over the top

Exhilarated and depressed. At the same time.

The best chamber music festival ever in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., recently concluded. Thus the depression. As summer festivals go, this one is way too short, but it has taken its place in the culture of festivals in the classical music field.

The 2014 Unbound Chamber Music Festival was stellar. In every way. The musicians brought together by the Felici Trio were an ecstatic group of musical individuals. Ron Selka played the clarinet as if he were at sea level. Selka has chops. He’s the principal clarinet of the Israel Philharmonic. Violist Amadi Azikiwe, music director of the Harlem Symphony Orchestra, looks more like a basketball player than a violist, but his fingers fly over the strings. Guillaume Sutre’s mastery on the violin enchants as you watch and become entangled in the fine web of music he weaves.

Those are just a few of the guest artists, who join a more or less regular cast of musical characters. Mark Kosower’s cello playing has such amazing heart. Each note registers in his facial expressions as much as the exquisite tone of his cello.

And the music. It did not matter whether a piece was familiar or new, the musicianship was impeccable. From the violinistic fireworks of festival favorite Corey Cerovsek to eight cellos taking the stage for Villa-Lobos, or the aptly titled “A Perfect Storm” concert that took place on a rainy night in the mountains, or for the phenomenal finale that went from fantastic to out of this world with performances of Schubert’s “unfinished” string quartet, Brahms’s heavenly cello sonata performed with passion and perfection by husband and wife musicians Mark Kosower and Jee-Won Oh, and finally the Mendelssohn piano sextet in which Felici Trio pianist Steven Vanhauwaert’s virtuosic playing brought the audience to its ecstatic, appreciative feet.

I slight none of the musicians here. There is just not the time to paint thumbnail portraits of each of them, which does not diminish the joy at hearing them play.

Perhaps the greatest surprise with summer festivals is the magic. As if the small amount of rehearsal time is inversely proportionate to the power and beauty of the music performed.

Stupid Shoe Season

Summer took its sweet time in coming to Mammoth this year. But when it finally blew in, soft and warm and fresh, I threw off my shoes and chose a pair of sandals I had despaired of ever being able to wear this summer.

I felt like dancing. The sandals were so light, it was like shrugging off, with great delight, the cumbersome vestiges of winter, and welcoming in golden sunshine.

When my husband saw me with sandals on my feet, he stopped in the middle of his words. “Uh, oh,” he said, “stupid shoe season.”

His response is understandable. He grew up in New York City, where places to stub naked toes lurked on every street corner, down every set of subway stairs, and where parks provided untold numbers of opportunities to step in dog poop. His belief in “sensible shoes” comes from his personal experience. Not the sensible brown oxfords matrons used to wear as they walked up and down Second Avenue pushing little shopping carts, but sensible in the sense of completely wrapping the feet in protection—in things like sneakers, boots, preferably ski boots.

In California, people are born with sandals on their feet. They can maneuver in them, run, hop, throw Frisbees, dance and hike in sandals. They wear them year round, hot weather or snowy.

I grew up without sandals. When summer came to my childhood neighborhood and the grass—coddled by my father into a thick green carpet shining with morning dew—I begged my mother to let me “wear bare feet.” I’d rather go barefooted than anything.

We had rites of passage every summer when we were between four and 10 years old: Walking across our street without running, without getting up on tiptoes; and walking the entire length of the graveled driveway; then running on the burning-up, melting-tar streets of summer without feeling the burn. All these challenges became moot as soon as the soles of our feet toughened. And it always felt like prison in the fall when we had to put our shoes back on.

My first pair of sandals came when I was in college, when peer pressure dictated that we wear blue jean skirts and Bernardos. Good thing the Italian sandals came in lots of colors, because they were awkward and uncomfortable—kind of flimsy and floppy, not good to run in, and they always made the space between my toes itch like crazy.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago on a hike up McGee Creek with a friend who sallied forth up the trail in light, airy Tevas while I trudged in closed-in, hot hiking boots, that I finally realized how far sandals have come. I made a beeline for Footloose Sports, found what I was looking for, and now, needless to say, my feet are much happier, my toes protected and my hikes much cooler.

So, welcome to stupid shoe season, another word for summer—wonderful, warm, sparkly summer. I, for one, am happy it’s here, no matter what you call it, no matter what you wear on your feet.

Steve Searles, Mammoth’s wildlife officer

Every small town has its characters and its heroes. Steve Searles is both character and hero in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Mammoth Lakes Wildlife Officer Steve Searles stops to talk during a bear patrol in the Lakes Basin.

Known as the Bear Whisperer to the millions of people worldwide who have watched him on Animal Planet, this wildlife officer is known simply and belovedly as Steve by those who live in this Eastern Sierra mountain town.

He’s hard to miss, towering over six feet four inches, looking every inch the rugged mountain man, yet gentle enough to whisper to bears.

“I’m the luckiest guy you’ll ever interview,” he told me one gorgeous fall morning as we sat outside his house and talked about his work with bears.

“I love my job,” he says, spends most of his time at it, and has come to know well the 26 bears that inhabit the greater Mammoth area – the Lakes Basin, Mammoth Mountain and out to the airport. He works seven days a week, whether patrolling 10,000 miles along 61 miles of road in a single year, or talking to people about bears. “I love meeting people who are afraid, telling them the truth. No one in California has ever been killed by a bear.”

In this interface between wild lands and developed towns is the place where we learn to adapt to living with wild animals. Bear, coyote, cougar, raccoon – all roam this mountainous habitat that is overlaid with the town of Mammoth. We coexist, holding the animals in as much respect as we do fellow humans, sometimes more.

“Coexistence with bears is a metaphor for any challenge to coexist, whether it’s with people of different colors, religions, or ideologies,” Searles says.

It’s Searles’ approach that is so irresistible. He talks to the bears, scolding them when they’ve gotten into something they shouldn’t, talking gently to a mama bear worried about her cub that has gotten stuck in a dumpster, shooing them away. “I’m sensitive to their body positions, they’re sensitive to my tone of voice; I use that constantly,” he says.

The majority of bears in Mammoth are males, both adult and subadult. The five sows gave birth to two cubs each while in hibernation last winter. Searles says the high birth rate was caused by two wet years that produced an abundance of currants and berries for the bears to chow down. The plentiful food gave them enough bulk to sustain multiple births.

Steve works with the Mammoth Lakes Police Department in a proactive way, the only one monitoring bear activity.

“Steve and the officers work very effectively as a team,” says former Police Chief Dan Watson. “They are enhanced by Steve and he is enhanced by them.”

On his patrols and in his call outs, Steve carries no fear, although he does carry an arsenal of noise and nonlethal charges for sending a nuisance bear on its way. The bears know Steve, have learned from him. For instance, the other day a bear was somewhere he shouldn’t be, and “he heard me cock my gun,” and hightailed it out of range. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, bears learn; it’s the greatest thing in the world,” he says.

Watson relates an interesting story of a bear (#86) that wandered into Mammoth tagged as a Yosemite bear. He’d broken into at least five Yosemite houses (he was captured, tagged and released), and disappeared. In July he showed up and got into a Mammoth house. Steve shot him with rubber rounds. “That bear is still here and hasn’t been a problem,” Watson says.

“This is the number one place in the world for coexistence with black bears,” Searles says, giving credit to the people of the town, the water district, police department, hospital board. … “They do the bulk of the work. I’m the front man.

“It fills my heart to do the work and I’m so proud. It’s heady stuff…we’ve learned to coexist and set an example for other communities for what’s possible.”

When he came to Mammoth 35 years ago, there were no bears here. “We destroyed the Grizzly bear in California (by 1922 they were extinct in the state). Grizzlies were black bears’ natural predators. Now they have none.”

The first three black bears that found their way to Mammoth had Yosemite ear tags on them, Searles says, and they multiplied, to a point in the last decade when Mammoth’s police chief hired him to kill the bears. “I was an avid outdoorsman and hunter. The chief asked me to shoot seven or eight bears, wait a few weeks and shoot seven or eight more.”

Steve asked if he could study the bears first, and came up with his plan to manage them, rather than kill them.

“I’m preaching common sense,” he says. “We in Mammoth feel a sense of stewardship. We started with the stickers that say don’t feed our bears.” He adapted the old slogan don’t feed the bears and substituted “our” so people would feel that stewardship. His program is acknowledged around the world for its quality and success.

“Today, we don’t feed our bears. I have found no cases of people knowingly feeding bears.” Sure people inadvertently leave dog food outside, or food in their cars, and the bears have phenomenal noses. For example, just the other day, someone left a just-purchased case of high-priced soup in his truck, and one of the bears smelled the contents through the sealed cans, opened the truck door, pierced the cans and devoured the soup. “Bears are problem solvers,” Steve says, “They smell the food, they find it.”

Before people really grasped that dumpsters need to be locked against these clever critters, there were fifty hits a night. Today, Searles says, he maybe sees two hits a day in the more than 450 dumpsters in town. He gives huge kudos to the restaurants; they’ve gone from being the worst offenders to being the best at locking their dumpsters.

Mammoth did experience some hard times with learning how to coexist with bears, but now, Steve says, “we have zero issues, and people are not acting irresponsibly.”

On a typical day, Searles patrols, talking to people, checking dumpsters, checking for problems. “I start in the middle of town and work out in bigger and bigger circles, checking in on roosting trees, known daybeds, making sure the bears are where they should be,” he says.

Since most people know his number (760.937-BEAR) he gets a lot of direct phone calls that are mostly welfare calls…there’s a bear in a car, a deer with a limp, etc.

Late October was bear hunting season in California. It’s also the time when bears are packing on the poundage, preparing to spend six months in their dens. Because of all the water with the late spring, the currants and berries are plump and plentiful. “Between the natural food and people locking their dumpsters, the bears are not causing trouble.”

Mischievous, not malicious

That doesn’t mean, however, that they are not still mischievous. Many of the dumpsters in Mammoth condominium complexes are “bear proof,” yet some bears have learned how to manipulate the latches.

A bear approaches one of these dumpsters, stands on his back feet and slides the latch with his lips, opening the door and lumbering in. It’s dinner hour, just after dark, and he rustles around, finding a meal. After a few minutes, his head appears in the opening, he looks around, then meticulously emerges, slowly and quietly, and scampers off.

Steve tells a sad story of the 500-pound, light-colored, more than ten-year-old bear that turned up dead at the end of September on Rusty Lane.

“How great it was that this big gentle giant had his home here,” Steve says. People continue to send the wildlife officer condolences on the loss of this bear.

Once a bear is gone from its habitat, at least two and a half bears are ready to move into that area. In this case, it’s Ace that’s moved into the big blond bear’s habitat. Fans of Animal Planet and locals remember Ace, the rascally young bear a few years ago that got into considerable trouble. The pitch-black bear with the white diamond on his chest wasn’t intimidated by people, but Steve worked with Ace and eventually got him to move away from trouble. And now the bear’s got his own habitat.

It is a bonus to live among the bears. “The bears brighten everyone’s day. They have a positive effect on people,” Searles says. “Since the beginning of man bears have had a special place in our hearts.” They’re a symbol not only of strength and great love, but of clean air and water, and of living together.

This entry was posted in All Things Mammoth and tagged Animal Planet, Mammoth Mountain, Steve Searles, Town of Mammoth Lakes on October 31, 2011 by Diane Eagle Kataoka.

Turn, turn, turn

At the acme of any cycle – the seasons, the moon – a sweet poignancy holds us in thrall. Like a carnival ride that shoots us to the top, where we pause for the briefest of breaths. And then we begin the free fall into the next cycle.

The fall equinox, September 23, will hold us for just such a moment between waning summer and waxing autumn. It is fall, not spring, that quickens my step, dawning each day with excitement and anticipation.

It is that feeling of anticipation I’ve experienced since I was a kid… Fall has always meant new beginnings… one year older and a brand new school year.

It is also that time of great fishing and hiking, the saddle between summer and winter, the off-season. It is a miraculous time. In the burnished light of autumn, people seem to walk around in a daze, as if internal springs have loosened, less tension on them.

Up here in the mountains, where seasons have distinct personalities, we stretch out into fall, savoring every moment of daylight on hikes and walks through aspens lit up from behind as the sun goes down. Fingers of yellow and gold inch up gulleys in the turning of autumn. Nights grow imperceptibly longer, pulling us toward close winter nights indoors.

We preserve summer’s bounty so we can enjoy fresh tomato sauce or squeaky green beans at our winter dinners. It’s a genetic thing in humans as in animals to store up for the winter. Cravings for bacon and heavier food signal an ages-old physical preparation to add bulk against the cold. Bears do the same thing, filling up for their own dark winters. And squirrels scurry, stripping myriad pinecones of precious seeds.

Out come parkas and hats, ski equipment examined, dollars counted for new gear or a visit to yard sales and consignment shops. Cross training is in full gear, to be ready for opening day on the Mountain.

We take trips in this interim time, lying on beaches, traveling to spots all over the world or across the country. They provide perspective on our lives and businesses, a chance to fill up on theater, music, museums, to spend luxurious time with friends or relax with a good book. Because returning to Mammoth, whether by car or plane, causes an intake of breath, a sureness that we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.