five and a half

On Monday our eldest grandchild turned five and a half. That gives me pause. “Slow down,” I plead silently. “Don’t grow so fast.” I should know how chids grow, having raised three of them. Even faster now, with so many activities and more intense schedules. I don’t like it one bit.

A few weeks ago I was thinking about this phenomena and lit on the concept of “half birthdays.” Frankly, I never really got it. Suddenly it made perfect sense. Take time to celebrate mid-year, just because. Winter in the North Country sets some limits. It’s cool that two of our six grands can enjoy a summer “birthday” this way. Oliver is first up!

I was careful to emphasize this wasn’t a party-and-presents event but a field trip and fun day with GiGi and Pops. The grands were all over it, no problem. I was curious to revisit some local attractions we’ve ignored for decades. Funny how things change. Or don’t.

The Hubs arranged coverage at the farm. I packed a picnic lunch. We were off “like a herd of turtles,” as my dad would have said. Three grands had settled into car seats with snacks in hand, singing along to their favorite children’s church tunes.

Our route took us on a scenic drive along fifty miles or more of farmland, wetlands, riverfront and international border. We made our first pit stop inside eight miles. #GiGiFail. Salty cheese crackers. Inaccessible drinks.

The first point of interest was the St. Lawrence-FDR Power Project Visitor Center. The U.S. and Canada cooperatively manage a massive hydro power dam spanning the St. Lawrence River. Following 9/11 terrorist attacks, the visitor center was relocated from atop the dam and turbine tours were discontinued. I was disappointed to hear the latter but the “new” (to us) visitor center (2003) made up for it.

Picturesque Hawkins Point, complete with boat launch, was perfect for relocation. The modern facility is lovely and spacious with lots of natural light and interactive displays on energy and electricity. It was very quiet on a mid-summer Monday morning. The parking lot was empty. Staff were helpful and friendly, no doubt glad for the diversion.

 

Nevertheless, this turned out to be a quick stop. Our preschoolers were a bit young to fully appreciate the exhibits. They pushed every button and pulled every lever just for fun. No complaints.

Our second destination was the Eisenhower Locks, one of only two U.S. locks on the Seaway. A series of fifteen locks on the St. Lawrence River enable large ships to traverse from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. It is an amazing feat of engineering and international cooperation (c.f. interactive map; promotional brochurewebsite).

I have fond memories of watching ships pass through as a little girl, sparking an early interest in world travel. It was exciting to see ships raised or lowered a hundred feet to continue their journey upriver or down. Deck crews waved as they chattered in unintelligible tongues. Ships bore names I couldn’t pronounce and flew flags from countries I could only hope to visit.

 

Our grands, however, were not impressed! I’d called for the schedule in advance just to be sure we’d see the locks in action. We could see a ship approaching in the channel. A few small boats had just been released from the chamber and were speeding on their way. The lower gates were closing to refill for the Canadian ship hauling salt.

This venue was also very quiet, perhaps a couple dozen visitors. I noticed changes here as well. The presence of a security officer examining my handbag was a first clue. The two-story observation deck was enhanced with additional chain link and some plexiglass. Another visitor noted that since 9/11 the upper tier is closed off when a ship carries explosive materials. The original facility and signage is rather tired and dated. The concession stand is closed; no food or drink service whatsoever. We didn’t even enter the gift shop.

We distributed another round of snacks and drinks from our stash and stood on the observation deck to watch the ship approach. Ever so slowly. The chamber filled. Slowly, slowly. The upper gates opened. Slowly. The ship continued her approach. She only had a foot to spare on either side as she entered the chamber. Slowly, slowly.

“This is bo-oring for a five-and-half birthday,” observed Oliver. He was just stating fact, not complaining. I had to agree. It was moving kind of slow.

“Yeah,” Sadie chimed in. “I want to gooooo.” Her face was flushed. She looked as hot and uncomfortable as I felt.

We’d done our best to distract them with swallows feeding their young from mud nests under the eaves and activity on the lock. A few adult visitors joined in our game, asking questions to help keep them engaged. The Hubs’ jaw was set in that “we’re going to get what we came for” way that I know all too well. But I knew we were beat. As the ship started into the chamber, we descended to the parking lot.

Then the coolest thing of all happened: we drove directly under the ship still entering the chamber! “That was a good call, Oliver,” I said sincerely. I was glad to be out of the sun and on our way to final destination.

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We’d saved the best for last, by all accounts. The brand new Nature Center was a huge hit. Our grands were as happy as clams, clambering from one thing to the next. Who knew we had nine different types of turtles in this area? Not I, for sure. They are all accounted for here along with a variety of live fish, toads and frogs and a reclusive eel.

Oliver was especially into the fish. He loves to fish! He identified nearly every fish in the tanks, from sturgeon to bullhead, long-nosed gar to minnows, and amazed us with his knowledge of local species. I promised to take him back for fish feeding on a Friday.

A surprisingly wide selection of mammals and birds local to the region were preserved in life-like stance and settings, eliciting many comments and questions. There was a large classroom with live turtles and various games, which Rosie loved, and other activities and more turtles outdoors. A honey bee and butterfly garden surrounds the property. Inside there is a see-through section of bee hive. We were perfectly timed to witness a monarch caterpillar transform into a cocoon. Coolness.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch in the shade and entered again for another pass. They still didn’t want to leave. Alas, the sun was beating, GiGi was fading, and ice cream was calling. A final pit stop at Dairy Queen made a perfect end to a pretty great day.  Happy five-and-a-half birthday to Oliver Lloyd!

~ Sondra (a.k.a. GiGi)

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