Birds of Prey on Christmas Day

It snowed all night. By dawn on Christmas, there was a good ten inches to shovel from the driveway and sidewalks. It was around 15 degrees and still snowing lightly. Perfect for snowshoeing.

Mid-afternoon I drove a few miles to an old mining trail. The Subaru fishtailed in the deep snow to a stop a couple yards off the paved road, off far enough to not hinder other traffic, but not so far I couldn't get back on it with a little luck. I had a shovel and could dig out if the county snow plow came by and walled me off, but likely the driver would let the road go until the next day when people had to go back to work. Hopefully he was home with his family, sipping eggnog.

When I got out of the car and cleared a spot to cinch on my snow shoes, I heard ravens cawing in the distance somewhere up the hill. A few were flying in circles, looking like grey ghosts in the snow. I had run on paved road a couple days earlier and heard lots of ravens then too. Usually it is pretty quiet up there in the winter, with few birds to be found. Something unusual was going on.

I remembered reading a very entertaining and informative book by biologist Bernd Heinrich entitled "Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds." After reading this book, you never think of corvids (the crow family, of which ravens are the largest) the same way again. These birds are very smart and able to communicate information, emotions and even intentions. They have developed very sophisticated relationships with other predators and raptors, who make the kills from which they feed. Once while hiking in Grand Teton National Park, my wife and I saw two coyotes traipsing through a meadow, followed ten yards above and behind by two ravens, looping back and forth. As the coyotes passed out of view, the ravens disappeared with them.

I got my poles, got Zorro (my dog) leashed and clipped to a belt around my waist, locked the car, and we headed up. The trail was perfect. No one had been up since the heavy snow had come. Here and there were the dimpled patterns of old deer or elk tracks, but no tire tracks, no footprints.

The sound of the ravens got steadily louder as I trudged up the first of several climbs on this trail. When as I got to the top, I saw a few ravens above on a juniper. They were really carrying on. Zorro had his nose lifted to smell the air and pulled in the direction of the cawing. I clacked my snowshoes together to knock off a clump of snow under my heel and suddenly the sky blossomed with ravens, rising up and swirling in every direction against the grey sky. I couldn't count them fast enough. Then I realized one of the birds flying well above me was a bald eagle. I watched it sail away, then as turned back another bald eagle soared by in the direction of the first. Usually I spotted eagles in the barren cottonwoods along the creek in the valley below, not up there. Very strange.

A lot of ravens stayed perched in the trees up on the hillside forty yards away. I was curious what had generated such a gathering. Zorro pulled hard in their direction. He smelled something. We followed a unpacked trail that broke off the main trail and curved into an arroyo on the hillside.

As we rounded the bend, we stopped in our tracks. A huge golden eagle stood atop the bloody carcass of a cow elk, ripping meat from the ribcage. The carcass lay in a ten foot circle of packed snow, littered with bits of red flesh and entrails. The eagle was so absorbed in feeding that it didn't notice us. But after fifteen seconds it saw us. It stared at us, as if trying to decide if it was willing to surrender the carcass.

Then it panicked. Flapping bent wings, it tried unsuccessfully to run up the hill, slipping and flopping in the deep snow. Then it ran back our direction on the firm snowpack, opened its wings a full six or seven feet, and hopping, gradually got airborne. It flew so close to my head that I had to duck to the side, like George Bush dodging the shoe thrown by the Iraqi journalist. Its fierce yellow eyes glanced at me as it passed a couple feet over my head and sailed away.

I looked around. All of a sudden it was quiet. Every bird was gone. It was just me and Zorro. The elk had been completely eviscerated. All the meat had been picked off the ribs and spine, though most of the neck and head were still intact. The skin was in a pile next to the carcass. Missing were the front and hindquarters. I wondered if a poacher had killed this animal just before the heavy snow came.

When I got back to the house after our trek, I excitedly told my wife about what I saw. I recalled a book we both enjoyed in college: "The Teachings of Don Juan" by Carlos Castenda.He claimed to have spent time with a Yaqui shaman in northern Mexico and learned how to, among other things, turn himself into a crow. I felt there was something mystical about seeing all those birds of prey in one place at one time. Half joking (half not) I told her that I wondered if these birds were trying to tell me something, if they were shamans.

She looked at me skeptically, then said, "Probably not. It's winter. Those birds are hungry. There was something to eat."

Maybe so. But either way, to me it was a Christmas miracle.

Mixed Up Muscles

For me, each season brings a change in the type and intensity of exercise, so different muscles are stressed and my body knows it. As I guessed in the video introducing this blog, my hips and shoulders were sore the next day after snow shoeing for the first time this winter. Soon I will climb on x-country skis for the first time this season, and the next day my lower back and abdominals will be sore. Next spring after I get back on my mountain bike for the first time, my thighs, forearms and hands will take their turn.

In his book "FrameWork," orthopaedic surgeon Nicholas DiNubile says this is due to "delayed-onset muscle soreness" or DOMS. It is caused by tiny tears to muscles, and usually occurs 12 to 24 hours after vigorous exercise. Sometimes there is also a burning sensation caused by metabolic debris like lactic acid accumulating in the stressed muscles. Surprisingly, Dr. DiNubile cautions against popping aspirin and ibuprofen to alleviate the soreness because these drugs can interfere with muscle repair by blocking the production of prostaglandin. Instead, he recommends eating soy and other antioxidants.

Dr. DiNubile also dismisses the rubbing on ointments like Icy Hot or Tiger Balm because they don't cure the muscle damage but just hide it by creating a more intense sensation on the skin. He suggests if there is any benefit, it is from the massaging action of rubbing on the ointment. Of course, any TOJ knows if it is a question of distracting the brain away from the soreness, that can just as easily be accomplished by a Guiness Stout, plus you get the added benefit of some B vitamins.

Dr. DiNubile observes that many negative changes which were once attributed solely to aging, like bone and muscle loss, can usually be traced to physical inactivity. Fortunately physical activity is to a TOJ what flight is to a bird. But love of exercise can easily cause a TOJ to fall into an exercise rut.

We all have physical activities we enjoy and those we don't. The problem with being in an exercise rut is that one set of muscles, and all the blood vessels, nerves a tendons involved with them, may thrive, but many others simultaneously atrophy. Have you ever noticed how some marathoners look emaciated and anorexic? And with too much repetition of one type of exercise your joints take a beating. Dr. DiNubile has seen these ruts cause basic imbalances in the muscle and skeletal systems which lead to long term, chronic injuries.

Body builders have a concept called "muscle confusion." The idea is that any weight routine repeated over and over eventually leads to a plateau where the muscle stops developing altogether. To avoid this they systematically change their lifting routine every few weeks so their muscles develop continuously and faster.

A TOJ can extend the concept to all his or her activities because it is more important than ever to mix up your muscles to maintain your strength, balance, flexibility and endurance. As you age, if you allow yourself to decline in any of these fundamentals of fitness, it will take much more time and effort to restore them, plus you increase the risk of injury.

TOJs exercise mainly outdoors, year around. The change of seasons creates a natural cycle that keeps not just your muscles, but your entire body confused. You adjust to run in mud, snow and ice. You adjust to extremes of heat, cold, and humidity. You balance one way on skis and another on a bike. You propel yourself over ups, downs and flats. You vary time and intensity. You rest, then do it again.

For a TOJ, variety is just what the doctor ordered. Yep, your muscles are often sore, but that's okay. There's always a cold six pack of medicine waiting in the refrigerator.

TOJs and the Young Mind, Old Body Problem

As we age, most of the physical activities we enjoyed when young don't become impossible, but more risky. Assessing your own risk of injury as a TOJ can be difficult because of an age related delusion regarding your physical condition. Here's how it works -- strange as it sounds, when you turn 30, you think you are 24, or 6 years younger than your actual age. Then when you are 40, you think you are only 32, or 8 years younger than your actual age. Then when you are 50, you think you are only 40, or 10 years younger. Then when you are 60, you think you are only 45, or 15 years younger, etc. See a potentially dangerous non-linear trend here?

One summer almost 20 years ago I went to the track at the local university with my son, who was headed to college that fall to play soccer. He had to run 2 miles in 12 minutes, and I was clocking his time with a stop watch and calling out his lap times. While he was cooling down after his run, I jogged a couple of slow laps. It had be a long time since I had run on a track, and never on one with a nice rubberized surface like it had.

On an impulse, I decided it would be fun to run a fast quarter mile under the clock. I ran the quarter mile one season on my high school track team . Back then I did it in the low 50s. So I turned on the stopwatch and took off. I felt good, and I ran hard. When I crossed the finish line and looked at the watch, I was stunned. My time was in the high 60s. Something had to be wrong. Afterall, I was pretty fit, having completed numerous 10Ks, half marathons, and even a 50K cross country ski race in the past few years. I ran 8 -10 miles on most days.

It got me wondering if they had changed the distance of the track. I walked around to study the various starting lines that compensate for the curvature of the lanes. I knew at some level it was an unlikely scenario; if they had changed the distance, it would be to a 400 meter track, just a few feet longer than a 440 yard quarter mile. But at the moment, I just couldn't admit that I was slower, lots slower.

When I got home, I called the athletic department to confirm that the track was a quarter mile. The receptionist didn't know and bounced me to the track office. I could tell from the tone of voice of the guy who affirmed that it was a quarter mile track that my question was one they didn't hear very often, if ever. It was right then, when he confirmed that distance, that I realized a sobering fact: by the time you reach middle age, even though you think you're strong, you are inevitably weaker. You might feel you are fast, but you are slower. When you exercise, your mind just can't see your body as it actually is.

Most TOJs are not so self-deluded that they give serious thought to trying out for a Division I college football team or stepping into the ring with an Olympic boxer. Luckily our fear and vanity hold us back -- it's bad enough to get hurt, but worse, who wants to look like a dumb ass doing it? We know we're a long ways from a young athlete in his or her prime, but TOJs are inclined the see the performance gap as less than it really is.

Maybe it's too protect us that our competitive culture starts putting us out to athletic pasture when we're still relatively young. Even if we un-youngs don't personally realize it, everyone else does: no matter how good you feel, there are physical activities that our bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and hearts just aren't up to anymore. That's why the Senior Olympics has sports like archery, badmiton, bowling, horseshoes, shuffleboard and table tennis. You don't find any gymnastics, much less boxing or Greco Roman wrestling.

In 1970 there was a great short film called "Sticky My Fingers Fleet My Feet," based on a story that appeared in the New Yorker. It was about some middle aged, out of shape businessmen who would meet in Central Park to play flag football. One day a talented teenage kid who is hanging around is invited to play. The teenager is too fast and skilled for the soon-to-be TOJs, and runs circles around them.

After the game, one of the businessmen is sitting in a hot tub of water, trying to soothe his bruised and aching body. After his wife pokes her head in to make sure he is okay, he sinks deeper into the steaming water, to be alone with his thoughts. He contemplates what it is that makes him and other great athletes like Joe Namath strive for greatness. A couple years before this film was made, Broadway Joe lead the New York Jets to a victory over the Baltimore Colts in the first Superbowl. It is a hilarious and poignant moment when this average guy fantasizes he's in the same league as Namath.

We all fantasize, especially when it comes to competitive sports like running races. Fantasies are fun and usually harmless. But a TOJ needs to be on alert for the young mind, old body problem. If you don't know your limits, you can get hurt. For their own well-being a TOJ needs to be realistic and humble. That's why most of my competitive days are over. By going easier on my body, maybe it will last longer

After my epiphany at the track a long time ago, I know I'm inclined to fool myself, so I don't. I'm happy to be able to run, even it it is slow. Sometimes it seems really fast to me. Early one morning a few days after watching Jamaican Usain Bolt run that incredible world record 100 meter dash at the Olympics in Bejing, I went to a track to run some 100 yard intervals. On one of them I fantasized that I was running against Bolt. He beat me by only a 100th of a second. I could have beaten him, but my knees would have ached for days.