Three amazing teenagers. How did that happen?!? Parenting tips from the pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Dakota
 When she wandered into town, she had no name. In fact, nobody had ever seen her before. Until that fateful day in April of 2003, she had lived in the vast untamed forests of Southern Alaska and had no need for town. She was wild and she was free.

Juliet didn’t receive her name until years later, when her story became fully known. On the day she came in to town, tied to the back of work vehicle, she  was just one of the many nameless wolves killed by humans each year.

Hit by a car on it’s way into Juneau as it came around a darkened bend on the densely forested Alaskan Highway – Juliet had yet to receive her name or have her first litter of puppies.

The driver reported the accident but by the time Juliet’s body was recovered, it was too late for the four pups that would have been born just a week or two later.

The winter following Juliet’s death, the people of Juneau began to hear mournful cries of a lone wolf. Hearing howling is a common enough thing in this part of the world, but a solitary unanswered voice – repeated night after night – caused the towns people to talk.

Was this the cry of a wolf without a pack? Was he calling his mate? Why didn't he move on and call somewhere else? Was Juneau special to him for some reason?

There are few places in the world where you can still see wolves in the wild. And even fewer where those wolves feel comfortable enough with their human neighbours to visit.

In Juneau, Alaska just months after Juliet came into town, and just weeks after the soulful searching howls, a large black male wolf, was noticed searching the outer areas of town. The intentions of this large inquisitive black wolf were making people nervous.

Humans have long been afraid of wolves, and for good reason. Wolves are hunting machines and do not see people as friends. What was unique about this large male was he did not seem to see humans as enemies either. They were just people.

The large black wolf was, instead, very interested in the dogs in Juneau. Photographer Nick Jans saw wolf prints while out skiing one day. Hoping to get a good photo, he followed the tracks.

When he found the wolf, it took an instant interest in the two dogs Nick had with him. His dogs were well trained and stayed at his side. They focused on the wolf with every fibre of their being. Nick took a few photos and then headed home. The wolf followed them.

Over the next few months, the wolf occasionally visited their lakeside house. He would walk across the frozen snow covered lake and sit a few hundred metres from the house and watch for the dogs.

It wasn’t just the Jans who were visited by the black wolf. Many other residents of town began reporting seeing him. Most of the encounters happened when people walked their dogs along the lake and outside town.

Some months after their first encounter, Nick and his wife Sherrie were out walking their dogs on the frozen lake when the black wolf stepped out of the trees along the shoreline. Dakota, the Jans’ yellow Labrador broke free from her lead and bolted toward the wolf.

Unable to stop her, Nick and Sherrie watched with fear and then wonder as Dakota slid to a halt and faced the wolf – nose to nose. The huge wolf towered over the full sized Lab. His head easily twice the size of hers. Frozen in strikingly playful poses, the two canines sized each other up.

Then, Dakota turned and bounded back to her owners.

The wolf started spending a lot of time coming over the Jans’ house and watching for Dakota. So much so that one day, looking out the kitchen window and seeing his dusky form on the ice just a few hundred metres away, Sherrie said, “There’s that Romeo wolf again!”

The name spread across town like wildfire. The wolf had been wooing numerous dogs with his prowess and charisma. Everyone thought Romeo was the perfect name.

They had no idea how right they were. His Juliet was in town and he was searching for her. Normally Alaskan wolves have a territory that spans hundreds of miles. Over the years of Romeo’s visits, Nick tracked him repeatedly and deduced Romeo was limiting himself to a territory of just seven miles. He never went far from town.

Some people said this was not good for Romeo or for the people flocking to town to see the wild wolf who played with dogs. Hikers, Campers, holiday makers – they all came to see the wolf for themselves.

“He’s trying to make a pack out of our dogs,” many locals said. “He needs to be taken into the wild where he can join a wolf pack.”

“We like having him here!” Other people said. They had fallen in love with Romeo.

It was a very difficult situation for the authorities who wanted to protect the people but also didn’t want to upset Romeo. Moving him near other wolves could get him killed if they rejected him. Perhaps Romeo was demonstrating a new kind of interaction between wolf and human – a friendly coexistence between species.

Had anyone been able to ask Romeo, he would have said, “Have you seen a beautiful black female wolf? I last saw my wife just near this town. We were out hunting when I lost track of her. I returned to our den and waited. I waited for weeks. She never came back. She was almost ready to have our first family. I tracked her scent to this town. Something feels right about this town.”

Maybe that’s what Romeo was saying to all the dogs he met. Maybe they understood him. Maybe they didn’t. But one thing was clear, all the town dogs and most of the town people loved Romeo.

And Romeo loved Juliet. Enough to give up his life in the wild. Enough to search for her until his dying day. There are hundreds of photos of dozens of dogs that prove, Romeo made lots of new friends. But his heart always belonged to his Juliet.

When the towns people realised that their love story with Romeo the black wolf was over they erected two monuments. One, in the park that Romeo loved, displays an artistic sketch of a wolf above words of tribute:

Romeo's Plaque

The other monument is behind a glass display window in the park office. Beautifully stuffed and mounted, a black wolf – the pregnant female hit by the car that April 2003 day – her name underneath: Juliet.

The people of Juneau loved Romeo enough to honour his memory. Greater love was shown by Romeo who searched with life long loyalty for his Juliet.

If you were to go to Juneau and visit these two memorials, you would become part of the story of the last two wolves in the Juneau pack. And perhaps, your heart would be challenged to show such love and loyalty.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Learning to See

Daniel Kish has been blind for as long as he can remember. He was born able to see but developed eye cancer as a baby. The doctors took out one eye when Daniel was just seven months old. His second eye was removed a few weeks after his first birthday.  

This disease, called retinoblastoma, is a rare form of cancer. It develops in the immature cells of a retina. This means, it is almost always found in young children. 

Daniel grew up without his eyes, but he doesn't consider himself blind. "Many people regard blindness as a tragedy," Daniel says. "But it doesn't need to be." 

"Close your eyes," Daniel says. "Now, imagine that when you try to open your eyes – they don't open. They won't open. Ever again. What are you going to do?"  

Many people who go blind feel stuck. They feel like they are trapped because they can't see. 

"Eventually you'll need to get up, go somewhere, do something." Daniel says, "What if you are handed a stick? You have taken the first step toward freedom."  

Most blind people learn to use a cane to see the world around them by taping and scanning the ground in front of them as they walk. Daniel uses a long cane because it gives him a good picture of what's coming up.  

Some blind people take the arm of someone else and let them do the seeing. Daniel didn't like to do that, even as a boy. "If you grab on to someone, you might just not let go," he says. He decided to learn to find his own way through the world. 

When he was a young boy, a friend loaned Daniel a small bike. He learned to ride it in the hallway of his house. He got very good at riding the small bike. So, his parents bought him a bigger one of his own. It took time to learn to ride the bigger bike, but soon Daniel was riding up and down the street and through the park like any other boy. 

"But, how?!" I can hear you say, "He couldn't see!" 

Well, yes he could. Daniel taught himself to see with his ears. Believe it or not, that's what he learned to do.  

Those of us with two good ears can tell where sound is coming from. If someone calls your name, or even makes a noise, you can point at them with your eyes closed.  

Daniel took this hearing ability a step further. He noticed, when he made a certain noise – a clicking sound – he could hear it reflecting back to him. But the sound that returned to him sounded different than the click he had sent out. 

Some click-echoes came back fast. That object was close. 

Some click-echoes came bake slow. That object was farther away. 

Some click-echoes came back sharp and clear. That object has a solid smooth surface – maybe a door, window, wall – something you can't go through.  

Some click-echoes came back muffled and quiet. That object is absorbent or soft – maybe a tree covered in bark, a person, a bush – something else to avoid.  

And sometimes, the sound doesn't come back. That means open space – a place to ride! 

Daniel learned to see the way a bat sees in the dark, using echolocation. Every echo told him something. Every click Daniel would send out would return from a thousand directions.  Daniel calls it 'flash sonar.'  

Today, as an adult, Daniel teaches blind people how to see. He teaches them how to use a long cane. He teaches them how to click and hear the reflection of that sound so they can see a 3D soundscape of the world. 

Brain doctors have discovered something amazing about Daniel's brain. Using an MRI machine, they have recorded Daniel's brain as he uses flash sonar. Amazingly, Daniel uses the same part of his brain to 'see' with his ears as people who see with their eyes. Other people Daniel has taught to echo-locate have also been studied by these doctors. They also use their visual processing centre to 'see' the world around them. Their brains have learned to see using their ears.  

Daniel is the president of World Access for the Blind. They teach people to see life in new ways. "The brain is like a muscle," Daniel says. "Strength comes from use. We train the brain to access the visual centres through reflected sound instead of reflected light."  

While Daniel doesn't see himself as amazing, he does see the people he trains as courageous. Many of his students have been holding on to someone's arm for years. It is very hard to let go and navigate the world on your own when you have always believed you could not. 

These people are the true heroes, in Daniel's eyes. They have the courage to try. For nearly 20 years, Daniel's organisation has been helping people learn to see in new ways. Daniel doesn't limit this new sight to people who are physically blind.  

"What we hope," Daniel says, "is to help everyone see more clearly to greater freedom!" Some people are afraid to be brave and face problems in their lives. If you can see, Daniel puts a blind fold on you and teaches you to click and use flash sonar. When people realise they can learn to see without their eyes, they become more courageous in other areas of their lives and try to see those problems in new ways.   

One of Daniel's first students was a boy born blind named Juan Ruiz. Juan had already learned to do many things – like play soccer with a ball in a bag. The ball made lots of noise because of the bag. He could find the bag and kick it. When he learned flash sonar, Juan was able to learn to ride a bike. He loved the confidence and freedom that echolocation gave him. Daniel asked Juan to come work with him teaching echolocation to people around the world.  

Juan had an idea of how to get their message out to more people. Go on Television and do something amazing. So, he decided he would break a world record. "Fastest 10 obstacle slalom on bicycle – blindfolded" was his goal. On April 8, 2011 he set the record – 48.34 seconds. Then, two years later he broke his record nearly in half – 25.43 seconds.  

Juan says the most important part of the event wasn’t the records, it was the message he gave in his speech. "This obstacle course is not just poles; it represents a goal, and the bigger our goals, the more obstacles we will face. And, if you should fail, you just pick yourself up and try again. But, at the end we will experience victory!"