Friday, July 15, 2016

Chow Time!

I don't think I've ever before witnessed a bonafide humpback whale stampede. Hell, prior to a few Sundays ago I didn't even know such a thing existed! Sure do now, though.

Father's Day 2016 dawned with bright blue skies and nary a puff of wind, the San Francisco Bay a placid, shimmering expanse of gray-green glass in the rising sun. A busy Saturday night at work in the restaurant biz kept me up well past midnight, and it seemed that I had just powered down for some shuteye when the alarm startled me awake at 6:00am. Undeterred and excited (once I remembered why I had set the thing so damned early), I popped outta bed and hopped in the shower, sipped a quick cuppa Peet's Costa Rica and packed up for an 8-hour day on the Mighty Pacific, then walked over to the Marina Safeway for provisions: a coconut-almond Kind Bar (I need more coconut in my life), a hefty, freshly made turkey sando from the deli (delicious), and a bag of dried fruits and nuts (just in case). Out the door and once again toward the bay, at 7:30am sharp I found myself huddled with a group of adventurous, like minded souls by the Saint Francis Yacht Club harbormaster building, listening to our naturalist from Oceanic Society give a detailed introduction on the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, that incredibly productive and thank goodness protected patch of Pacific Ocean outside the Golden Gate. That wonderful watery world I love so much.

Under the GGB on Fathers Day 2016

Five hours later we were twenty-seven miles west of the mainland, hunkered down on board the 56' Salty Lady, and had just finished a somewhat leisurely, closeup look at the craggy, desolate Farallon Islands. I write 'somewhat leisurely' because things had changed quite a bit since we cruised under the bridge; the wind was howling in from the northwest, the sea was choppy with whitecaps, the afternoon swell was building - all of it a typical spring and early summer weather pattern in northern California - and our trusty whale watching boat was a rocking! Captain Roger Thomas, a 40+ year veteran of the bay and beyond, kept us in the lee of the islands, however, where the wind and the waves were a little less fierce. Slowly he motored back and forth from Saddleback Islet to Fisherman's Bay and guano-covered Sugarloaf, allowing us a chance to observe the lay of the land, the thousands and thousands of noisy, nesting seabirds - including several colorful tufted puffins, dont'cha know - the local pinniped population of gregarious, acrobatic California sea lions, homely elephant seals and endangered Stellar sea lions, and one juvenile California gray whale that had decided to linger by the Farallones instead of up in Alaska for the summer.

By this point in the day we had already seen several humpback whales, and the trip was shaping up to be a very good, if very blustery, adventure. Our first whale sighting was a surprise, lunge-feeding adult about 4 miles west of the Golden Gate; a whale we didn't even know was there, but a whale that was astutely predicted by a 12-year old boy standing at the bow of the boat. I was up there with him, searching searching searching for a blow, a fin, anything, when he noticed a mad swirl of seabirds diving into the ocean ahead of us. "Look, dad!" he exclaimed, "There's probably a big school of fish right under those birds, right under the surface."

I swear not 30 seconds later, right in the midst of all those birds, a gargantuan humpback came charging up from the deep, took an enormous gulp of water and whatever food it was hunting, then settled back into the ocean with a misty blow. I turned to Mikayla, a nice young woman from Dallas who was sitting next to me, and said, "I don't know about you but I'm sticking close by the amateur naturalist over there." Kudos, kid!

We were almost to the islands when Salty Lady swung hard starboard and headed south toward another whale watching boat in the distance. Based on the abrupt maneuver I figured our captain had received some good news via radio: good news meaning animals, animals meaning whales, and whales meaning...well, you never know. Ahead we could see spouts  - lots of spouts, and one looked so different, so tall and vertical, I immediately thought (hoped) whale? - and were soon treated to our second closeup encounter, a large humpback that sounded in front of us with a beautiful, broad fluke salute high in the air. Like he usually will when a whale dives nearby, Captain Roger slowed the boat, idled the engine, and waited for the whale to surface. We waited, too, but not for long, as smack dab right in front of us, maybe 75 feet from where we stood on deck, rocking back and forth with the motion of the ocean, the whale rocketed from the water in a full on, super spectacular breach! Amazed, shocked, in awe, hooting and hollering our delight, we waited for the humpback to breach again, as they often do, but this time to no avail. Instead, after a few more looks at some other beautiful humpbacks here and there, we turned north again, straight into the howling wind and waves and swell for a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride to the Farallones proper.

Humpback whale fluke.

California and Steller sea lions at the SE Farallones.

Pelicans! And a seagull.

The Farallon Islands, aka the Devil's Teeth, shrouded in fog.

The north Farallones from a previous voyage: the weather and ocean have
to be just right to see these three bumps up close and personal,
so most trips to the islands visit just the main southeast group.

During our close up inspection of the southeast islands, while our naturalist educated us on their history and present day importance,  I continued to see blows south of us, back in the area we had already been, but there seemed to be more and more of them with every passing minute. Apparently captain Roger noticed as well, and before long Salty Lady doubled back for a rendezvous. And in this case, by rendezvous I mean whale stampede.

Sugarloaf Islet on Fathers Day 2016

The southeast Farallon Islands on Fathers Day 2016.

I swear it was like somewhere way up by the north Farallones someone had clanged a cetacean-sized dinner bell and a slew of hungry hungry humpbacks to our south heard the call. For 20 minutes, maybe more, we bobbed about with the wind and waves, scrambled back and forth across the boat in disbelief, as dozens of humpback whales - two, then three, then two more, then three again, then sometimes five or six together - swam around the boat, right under our boat, at times it seemed directly through the boat...and these whales were bustin' a move! We watched fluke after gorgeous fluke as they sounded one after another, glimpsed the occasional pectoral fin above and below the wind-whipped water, saw their bizarre and bumpy snouts as they hightailed it to who knows where, accompanied by blows and trumpets and quivering blubber and stinky whale breath. It was totally awesome! And each time a group passed there were more spouts to our south, heading directly our way.

In my mind I imagined an enormous neon sign suspended in the sky, pointing to the surface of the ocean above the Cordell Banks perhaps. "FREE KRILL! FREE KRILL!" it flashed, as humpback after humpback sped by the Salty Lady in pursuit of food glorious food. And then, lo and behold, amidst all the fantastic commotion, a call I have not (personally) heard out at the Farallones for several years: "Blue whale!"

The GGB, seen heading back in from the Farallones.
"The only thing we guarantee," Captain Roger avows, "is that
we're gonna pass under that bridge twice."

Yup...we were blessed with three different baleen whale species that day - one small gray at the islands, a good look at one gargantuan blue amidst the stampede (possibly two, we couldn't tell for sure), and, oh...I don't know, 50 humpbacks? More? Plus harbor porpoises and harbor seals and sea lions and sea birds by the zillions! It was, in retrospect, a very special day on the Pacific Ocean, in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. A windy and wild day for sure - several trips have been cancelled this year due to weather - but a beautiful, glorious and very memorable one to boot.

See ya' next time, landlubbers!
Peter J. Palmer

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Point & Shoot

I love when wildlife and urban life collide.

Relaxing on the small, grungy, outdoor 4th floor fire escape-cum-utility roof at Farallon in the Kensington Park Hotel building (we used it for restaurant break time, for smoke time, for Angry Birds time), surrounded by the vertical urban thrust of Union Square and downtown San Francisco, over the years I learned that if the cooing, courting, copulating pigeon population that also shared the area suddenly flew off all at once they'd no doubt spotted a raptor in the sky.

Took me a while to figure out the reason for the avian mad dash, but once I did I could predict it like clockwork. Boom! En feathery masse the pigeons would make like a bat outta hell, quickly escaping the dangerous confines of their dirty little ledges and nooks and crannies, their hiding places, their nests. Moments later I'd look up and sure enough, in the patch of blue between the tall buildings, a soaring, patrolling red-tailed hawk would appear.

I was out there one day, nose down in the iPhone, no doubt, when I felt a rush of air above my head, sensed the close encounter flap of wings. The pigeons had scattered a few minutes before, and I had since returned to my thoughts. Roused that second time from a game of online Scrabble, perhaps, I glanced up and caught my breath. Time briefly stopped, then I remembered the camera in my hands. To this day I'm still not sure if it was a red-tailed hawk or some other bird of prey (it seemed small, any help out there?), but it was a perfect little raptor - for an instant my little raptor - perched atop a security lamppost at the edge of the roof...alert, ruffled and primed for the kill.

Point and shoot, baby!
Peter J. Palmer

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Veg Out

Spring has definitely sprung here in San Francisco's beautiful Fort Mason District, my trusty cyberpeeps, and with its return comes some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that, thanks to El Niño, many reservoirs in northern California have been substantially replenished by winter rains and snowmelt (the drought ain't over, but it helps). The good news is that a record numbers of California gray whale calves were born in the lagoons of Baja California and are now heading north to Alaska with mom. The good news is that the annual Technicolor display of native wildflowers is peaking in Golden Gate Park, in the Marin Headlands, in the Santa Cruz Mountains and beyond.

The good news is that, without a doubt, the burgeoning bounty of fresh, local produce on display at my Sunday morning farmer’s market (yours too, I hope) is just now hitting its glorious, dewy springtime stride.

The bad news, alas, is that it looks like I’m gonna need to pick up a couple extra sommie shifts hawking wine to support my asparagus and daffodil habits. Even in the massive quantities I desire, the flowers alone aren’t much of an issue, as a bunch of ten stems is only $2.50 and usually last a full week or more, but coupled with the armloads of Asparagus officinalis I’ve been scarffing down daily (organic, freakin’ delicious right now, and $7.99 per pound) the cash quickly adds up. Throw in various handfuls of this and that, of all the other freshly plucked offerings; throw in a basket or two of (gasp…talk about expensive!) organic strawberries, and you may soon find me standing at the intersection of Van Ness Avenue and Pine Street with the other panhandlers, sheepishly brandishing a cardboard sign: “Will Pull Corks for Spring Veggies”.

My favorite way to cook asparagus in a flash is to pan roast it atop the stove (the really thin ones I just munch raw). Heat a large frying pan, pour in a hefty drizzle of really good extra virgin olive oil and wait a moment. Add the trimmed spears (I don’t peel) and a dash of coarse sea salt, cover the pan and, still on high heat, blast away. Vigorously shake the pan every so often, and in literally a minute or two they’re done. Depends, of course, on the thickness of the the asparagus spears, but this method is, and should be, fast. You want them still bright green and crunchy.

Asparagus gets a bad rap when it comes to wine. (Artichokes do too, but my savings account isn’t in danger because of fresh, local artichokes.) Alas, the reputation is true, as many wines can take on a weirdly sweet yet metallic, artificially canned fruit kinda flavor when paired with this iconic spring delight.

Not to worry, tho, for two reasons.

The first is that you’re probably not sitting down to a lonely platter of asparagus for lunch or dinner. Unless you’re me and do do that, it’s probably just one part of a larger meal, so grab a nice bottle of whatever you find works with the main event and sip away. If, however, asparagus is the star attraction and you wish to try and hone in on something a bit more focused, you may want to bear in mind a basic rule of thumb (we’re talking white, here): choose something really fresh, crisp, lean and acidic even, with zero oak treatment I would suggest. Much depends on the preparation, on how you cook and accent the asparagus, but Sauvignon Blanc naturally comes to mind, and worldwide this wine is better than ever as winemakers learn to leave it alone and let the grape’s aromatic, pungent personality shine. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley in France are two classics, or try a Touraine Sauvignon for a less expensive choice. A slightly less tropical and less bodacious New Zealand offering might do the trick, as can a balanced California version from Lake County, Sonoma County or Monterey County, to name but a few. Italian suggestions include an honest, zesty Pinot Grigio, of course (thinking Friuli or the Alto Adige), a Roero Arneis from Piedmont in the northwest, or a Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Tuscany. From Spain a citrusy Albariño, Rueda or Txakoli; from Portugal a lean and zesty Vinho Verde. And definitely search out Grüner Veltliner from Austria, one of the current darlings of the wine world: a slightly peppery, grapefruity, mineral laden white wine, and a great foil for many vegetable-based dishes.  Finally, perhaps a pale, firm and dry (and ever so slightly earthy) Mediterranean-style rosé, another of my favorite springtime indulgences as the newest vintage comes to market, and a wine that needn’t be fussed over. There’s a bevy of other interesting options out there, and most of them can be easy on the pocketbook, so chat with your neighborhood wine merchant to get some more suggestions. Then cook up some damn asparagus and have fun.

Grüner veltliner was going to be my second tip (especially a lighter and leaner expression), because it’s so damned adept at succeeding where other wines fall a bit flat, but I already mentioned it.  So my second suggestion is to squeeze a bit of fresh lemon and a couple grinds of cracked pepper on top your log-jam mound of asparagus (maybe some minced chives, too), a no brainer as the threesome (foursome?) goes hand in hand, but a finishing touch that seems to help mitigate the sometimes difficult or awkward food/wine match.

Unfortunately, none of this advice will help later when a quick jaunt to the restroom lets you know for sure you’ve been indulging asparagus-style (you and anyone else nearby).
Eat real food, people, and eat your veggies.
See you on the trail, or in the Poor House!

Peter J. Palmer

Monday, April 4, 2016


What the fuck, Palmer!

Oops, sorry...Let's try a different opening line, one that doesn't remind me so much of my accolade-filled (not) high school years at Western Reserve Academy back in Hudson, Ohio.

Something's afoot, cyber-folk, and as you very well know by now it sure ain't me cranking out post after scintillating post for my blog, The Headlands Report. Shocking, I know, how much you've missed the whole kit and caboodle. How, since August 6, 2014, you've no doubt waited with baited breath for the next riveting installment. The beautiful pictures! The captivating prose! The complex issues concerning Mother Nature and population Earth! All of it delivered instantly from the nerve center here in San Francisco to wherever you sit, firmly plugged in, or wherever you go, constantly connected.

Instead, this: LIVE! from the beautiful Fort Mason District...absolutely nothing.

I'm not sure what happened, or how it happened, but it happened alright. "It" being good old fashioned writer's block (okay, so perhaps I do know). Doubt-filled, nagging, persistent writers block, intertwined with lethargy and procrastination, my two middle names. Days became weeks, weeks became months, and after a while, after so much vacant time spent kowtowing to The Block and The This and The That, even when I did feel slightly inspired, even when the passion briefly burned and I wanted desperately to write something, anything, it had already been so damn freaking long I thought...well, I thought "Why bother?"

In addition, there was (is and always has been) the whole "Do I really have a voice, a vital one, and a unique style?" thingy looking over my shoulder. A voice and style that people want to hear, and read, and give a shit about? Like, does any of this really matter?

Seems to be a little bit of a pity party in those last couple lines, and a dangling preposition, I believe, but hold your horses because there's also the word MATTER...and speaking of MATTER what about somebody's theory of something from my junior year physics class with Mr. Turner? You know the one: "Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest."

Might not be how the saying goes, exactly. Can't remember, as I was stoned for most of the high school, but I know you've heard it before. Lethargy breeds lethargy, and action breeds more action.

So, that there's the answer, plain and simple: get my ass back in motion and write. "Write forward," my nephew Alexander told me, as his own writing teacher had advised him. Don't get bogged down; don't scrutinize and re-scrutinize yourself into immobility. Have fun, be creative (one way or another I have the hankering), and while you're at it include some pictures, because people love pictures. Doesn't have to be earth-shattering, mind-bending subject matter (not that this blog ever was); simply pick an easy subject to get the ball rolling, an experience, one you know and love, and just do it man. Can't be that difficult to start again, can it?

Okay, then...Eureka! With all that in mind, here's a picture of some damn corn!

Not just any corn, mind you, but high summer Ohio corn, accompanied by some ripe-ass Ohio tomatoes and insanely tasty Greek feta from The Greeks (the store has a name, Athens Foods, but we've always called it The Greeks). You stalwart followers of The Headlands Report are no doubt familiar with me and my love for the home-grown culinary delights chez Ohio in the month of August, and pictured here is one of my favorite repasts - so simple and so delicious - from the annual two-week family visit last year (last many years). I swear it seems like a person can't leave the house without coming back in toting a dozen ears or two, no matter where that person was heading in the first place.

But wait, there's more!

Above is a somewhat current photo of mom and dad Palmer - Georgene and George (I know, right?) - and a towering stack of red Solo cups for beer and pop and lemonade and what have you at their annual family and friends summer lawn party last August. Ginger and George are both mid-80s now, living large in Rocky River, twenty minutes west of Cleveland proper, and I cherish them and the time we get to spend together throughout the year! The picture at the top of this post, by the way, is of the downtown Cleveland skyline, seen from the west side as well, from Edgewater Park.

So, readers-mine..there you have it. A real page-turning entry, eh? Told you it might not be spellbinding stuff, but I did promise (myself, mostly) to just write, and that I did. Do it often enough, methinks, and it could get easier. Better, even!

With those brief words of encouragement, I'll leave you until the next installment - oh my stars, what a cliff-hanger! - which I promise will be soon(er than later).

I hope.

Ciao for now.
Peter J. Palmer