|Why They Play Croquet:
Spring Unites Johnnies & Middies
photo by Christopher Heagy
Paige Postlewait fires off a shot as fellow St. Johns students Lucas Ford, David Jennings and Jonathan Polk watch on.
Another of Chesapeake Country's spring rituals is here. As the races of Roedown kicked off the spring season three weeks ago, the annual St. John's/U.S. Naval Academy croquet match on Saturday, April 28, brings the month to a close, laying another marker on the way toward summer.
Like Roedown, where the horses bring us to the field but the party keeps us there, the annual five-game croquet match between the Johnnies and the Middies is the centerpiece of a long day of watching, talking, drinking, laughing and enjoying a spring afternoon in the green grass on the St. John's campus.
With three games taking up most of St. Johns' "back campus," croquet dominated the fields on a recent Friday afternoon as St. John's team captain, Imperial Wicket Paige Postlewait, and a group of friends started a game.
"When the weather's warm, it's packed like this," said St. Johns senior Wyatt Dowling. "Every good spot is taken. There's lots of people practicing. I think maybe 20 percent of the school is interested in croquet. Almost everybody comes and plays a game at some point."
In many ways, croquet is the ultimate leisure sport. Combining aspects of billiards, golf and chess, it's a game of angles, strategy and touch. It's also a great way to spend time outside on nice spring days. The pace allows for chatting, joking and even the occasional chest thump.
"To me croquet was one of the coolest ways to waste time that I've ever had," said Dowling, explaining his discovery of the game during his sophomore year.
With games lasting anywhere between one and a half to three hours, croquet can waste the hours away.
"Some people take a lot of time between shots," Dowling noted.
Viewed from above, the croquet course looks like two staked diamonds. At both ends of the court are two two-wicket alleys marked by a stake. A single wicket stands in the center of each. Completing the diamonds are four wickets, two each to the left and right. Starting a mallet's length away from the first wicket, players follow the same path through the nine-wicket course.
"You go through the center wicket twice and alleys twice," Dowling explained. "The two wickets on either side you only go through once. It's sort of like a funky circle."
The object is to beat the other team around the "funky circle" and "stake out" your balls by hitting the finishing stake. The game sounds straight forward, but it is full of strategy.
Players can gain bonus strokes by passing through wickets. They can also gain bonus strokes by hitting, or roqueting, their teammates' or opponents' ball. After hitting a ball, the player is given a croquet shot. This shot can direct the ball just hit, helping a teammate or hindering the competition. Once a ball is roqueted, its player is "dead" on that ball and can't hit it again until passing through a wicket.
"You have to plan your moves," Dowling said. "You have few opportunities to move the ball, so you have to pay attention to who's next. You don't want to get caught dead far away from the wicket. The game's all about ball placement."
The focus on ball placement, whose turn is next and who's dead on which ball brings deeper strategy to a seemingly simple game.
"If you can learn how to use your opponents' balls, you can really put them at a great disadvantage," explained Imperial Wicket Postlewait.
Based on St. John's domination of the annual match, it seems their superior tactical strategy has put a large public military institution at a disadvantage.
Which, says Postlewait, makes the match between the two schools a little bit friendlier:
"The main reason the croquet match gets so much attention is because it's a social event. There's not that much competitive spirit between the schools anymore.
"I guess that used to be the case. Now the middies come over, and we hang out. It's not such a huge competition.
"But we do normally win. So as years go by," the Imperial Wicket said, "the Middies become more and more used to the idea of us beating them."
Check out the St. John's-Naval Academy croquet match on the lawn of St. John's College at 1pm on Saturday, April 28, or - if it rains, Sunday, April 29.
Rules of the Road: Bikers Coming Through!
photo by Bill Lambrecht
50-mile rider Susan Woodward answers the questions of junior reporters Mary Brewer (bottom), Sarah Brewer (center) and Nikki Marcinik.
Instead of relaxing in bed this April Saturday, some of more than 1,500 cyclists chose the challenge of a long, hilly 50-mile bike ride.
Cyclists set off from Southern High School in Harwood for 15-, 30- or 50-mile bike rides along some of Bay Country's most scenic and sometimes grueling byways in search of cookies during the 12th annual Subaru Great Cookie Bike Rally.
By 9am, cyclists gathered geared-up to begin. Soon they peppered country roads throughout Southern Anne Arundel County.
The CAM Corporation, also sponsor of the July Cycle Across Maryland Tour, put together something for everyone.
Besides the various rides, folks could participate in hands-on workshops. Olympic medalist Brian Walton offered Introduction to Racing and Cycling Fitness.
The day was a winner. "Our kick-off for cycling season was highly successful," said rally organizer Amy Bognaski. "Thousands of cookies were served."
This year's Cycle Across Maryland will be a Magical Mystery Tour covering 300 miles from Frederick to Elk Neck. Besides the cycling, riders will get a surprise route plus steaming hot mobile showers in an 18-wheel truck at end of each day.
The 50-mile Western Shore route is one of the Chesapeake's most scenic, especially as trees are getting new green leaves and there are lots of flowers, birds and butterflies.
Cyclists pass through Deale, Fairhaven, Rose Haven, Chesapeake and North Beach and enjoy majestic views. Over the Fairhaven bridge, riders can see the wind blowing on the water and see all the way across the Bay.
Stopped along Town Point Road across from historic Tacaro Farm, Doug Newlon and Debbie Taylor ride tandem. "We love to ride, and this is a great route. The scenery is fantastic," said Taylor. "It's nice to go with other people and it's safer too," adds Newlon. Newlon and Taylor picked up the pace again as other riders approach.
Part of the ride is hard when you have to go up steep hills, but they are helpful too because when you get to the top they give you a big boost and you can cruise all the way down.
Most riders dressed in biking clothes; others wore T-shirts and shorts. Bikes were of all kinds including road bikes, mountain bikes, plus a scattering of recumbent bikes. Some pulled trailers holding little kids, while older kids rode their own bikes. Some bicycles had two seats, called a tandem, and some bikes even had three seats.
We'd set up a place where cyclists could stop and rest and we could interview them. We offered trail mix and chips. Even so, it was hard to get people to stop because they had just gone down a hill and wanted to keep going. Many were more hungry than thirsty, but almost all of them were sweaty. Some people gave us tips as well as cycling pointers.
For cyclist Karen Hamelton, this 50-mile tune-up is just a drop in the bucket. "I have been riding since 1982. Last year we rode the length of the Mississippi River and plan to ride from Southern Maine to Georgia," she said.
Inspired by Earth Day weekend, several cyclists mentioned concern for the environment. "Yesterday was Earth Day, and bicycling is the best environmental way to get around," said Richard Reese "I love to ride and watch the scenery go by."
Gillian Bowsern, from Joshua Tree, California, was visiting the Bay area on business. "An organized ride like this, is good to help raise my bicycle safety awareness," she said.
The thousands of cookies, gobbled up at rally rest-stops, supplied extra power and didn't seem to slow the bikers down a bit. Most cyclists on the 50-mile route were full of energy. Having already ridden for over two hours, Bowsern was still fresh, "I'm not tired at all," she said. By the time the last cyclist rolled into Southern High School, some 55,000 combined miles had been ridden.
Teeming with sweat as they flew by in search of the next cookie, the riders had found a great way to spend a Spring Saturday.
-Sarah & Mary Brewer with Nikki Marcinik
Counting by Ear: Spring Frogs Rule the Night
With the moon full and the April night warm and humid, conditions were perfect for the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary's Frog Calling Survey. We began at sunset, following moonlit trails to several wetland habitats. At each site, we listened for five minutes to identify frogs.
Amphibians are good indicators of environmental health. Their skin is extremely sensitive to toxins, excess solar radiation and extremes in temperature. Because amphibians depend on two types of habitat - forest and wetland - during different life stages, their populations give information about the health of both types of habitat.
Beginning as early as mid-February, frogs and salamanders emerge from their forest homes, usually on rainy nights, and migrate to their breeding ponds. There, male frogs and toads begin advertising themselves to females through their calls. Calling peaks on warm, damp nights.
Each species has its unique call, so identification is done simply by listening. The size of breeding populations is estimated through a calling index, a numeric value ranging from none calling (0), very few (1), several calling so they "step over" each other's calls (2), and so many that individual calls can not be separated (3). The data documents the breeding season for each species, habitat preferences and year-to-year variations in frog and toad populations.
At the intersection of the Otter Point and Railroad Bed Trails, forest and marsh meet. Here the sound of thousands of spring peepers calling from the wetlands bordering the Patuxent River was impressive and loud. Joining the peepers were pickerel frogs and leopard frogs
Next to a beaver pond along Two Run Creek, a small tributary, we heard not nearly as many peepers, but we also heard green frogs, American toads, pickerel frogs and leopard frogs. The sky was clear and the moonlight so bright that we did not need a flashlight except to read my watch; the forest floor as well as the trunks of trees seemed to almost shine. In the water, we glimpsed a beaver.
Surveying that same spot on a hot and muggy night last summer, I heard a different sound mix. That night we heard a spooky but very cool combination of bullfrog, barred owl, crickets and katydids. I wished for a tape recorder.
Our April circuit included two more stops: a pond in the woods and a vernal pool. There are a number of small ponds in the woods at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. One hundred years ago, the Chesapeake Beach Railway came throughout this area. Engineers dug a number of "borrow pits," using the earth from these pits to fill in low areas to smooth out the grade for the train tracks. Now these pits provide habitat for turtles as well as the salamanders and frogs that lay eggs there.
Vernal pools are naturally occurring wetlands. By early spring, these low spots fill with rain water and melting snow; as the weather warms, they dry up. They are typically smaller than a backyard swimming pool and shallow, less than a meter deep. These temporary wetlands and the adjacent woods are habitat for many species of amphibians that lay their eggs in water but live as adults in forests. Habitat loss from development threatens local frogs and salamanders.
Amphibians are experiencing disturbing population losses globally. Golden toads in Costa Rica, for example, seem to have vanished and are assumed extinct. Scientists have speculated on myriad causes: acid rain, increased UV radiation from the declining ozone layer, pollution from lawns and farms, introduction of invasive exotic predators such as large-mouthed bass and bullfrogs. Bullfrogs eat other amphibians. Native to the Eastern U.S., they have become a problem in California, where they are an introduced species.
There are important ecological reasons for concern about the loss of any native species. Ecological damage from species loss has the potential to create real and significant damage to agriculture, the economy and public health. Problems and lost opportunities beyond our present ability to predict can result from the loss of even the humblest creature in the web of life.
Another concern is what writer Robert Michael Pyle calls "the extinction of experience." In The Thunder Tree, he mourns the incremental local extinction of beautiful, colorful, interesting and inspirational species of all kinds. Pyle was a precocious boy naturalist in the '50s and '60s, but today someone like him will not have the breadth of experience of amazing and beautiful creatures that have inspired his award-winning writing.
Here in North Beach, I think of what I would have seen or heard not far from my door when my house was built around 1920: whippoorwills, meadowlarks, native azaleas, hepatica.
Modern-day Americans have a multitude of entertainment options: good movies, great recorded music, books, even television. But if you want real entertainment, something wild, find a CD of the calls of frogs and toads. Yes, there is such a thing. You'll hear a surprising variety of weird and funny sounds. Even better, get out there and experience it live.
-Gary Pendleton and Karyn Molines
In Virginia, Best Buy last week announced an electronics recycling program, thereby becoming the first retailer giving customers the opportunity on "collection weekends" to get rid of old computers, printers and the like responsibly (but with a small fee) ...
In Florida, the state agreed last week to a legal settlement that will protect endangered manatees from speeding boats, which have killed over 100 of the gentle giants since last year. The settlement calls for 14 "safe havens," where fishing and boating is banned, and boat speed restrictions in "hot spots," where manatees live ...
Our Creature Feature this week comes from Thailand, where a conductor who goes by the name Professor Elephant is truly tickling the ivories. The conductor, an American named Richard Lair, has put together an orchestra in which 12 elephants have been trained to play percussion, string and woodwind instruments with their trunks.
The sounds aren't always in sync, but the result was sufficient to put out a CD that conservationists hope can call attention to Thailand's dwindling elephant population, which is down to 2,500 from 100,000, according to the Associated Press. Elephants also have been taught to paint and they might have more tricks up their trunks. Said Lair: "The next step is to teach them how to write novels."