Trash is piling up on Texas beaches – please help clean it up

Trash is piling up on Texas beaches – please help clean it up

I picked up lots of trash at North Padre Island National Seashore this weekend.

If you need convincing that we’ve got a plastic problem on our planet, take a stroll on the beach.
When a weekend scuba diving trip got cancelled, I headed to the Texas coast to dip my toe in the surf.

Some of the trash had washed in from the ocean.

I got distracted between sets of leaping through the waves at North Padre Island National Seashore. Fishing nets, ropes and other flotsam had washed up on shore, and beach goers had left plastic bottles, empty plastic sacks and broken bits of plastic toys all over the beach. Pulverized bits of colorful plastic, along with enough plastic bottle tops and utensils to fill a backyard swimming pool, littered the edge of the dunes. I found a couple of dead seagulls, too, and wondered if their bellies were full of plastic chips.

I know some of the junk had floated in from the ocean, but plenty of it was tossed there by lazy beach goers. I’ll never understand the mindset of someone who ditches their single-use items in a national park – or anywhere. I wish I could load it into a dump truck and deposit it in their front yard, or fill their car with it.

I found a bunch of plastic sacks. Pam LeBlanc photo

A sign posted near the beach encourages visitors to take away more than they bring. As I walked up and down the beach, I picked up some of the trash. Imagine if everyone took away more than they brought.

And it’s not just Texas beaches. During a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, a walk on a beach turned up a bunch of plastic doll heads. (Creepy!) A trip to surf camp in Costa Rica last summer introduced me to a whole beach coated in pinky fingernail-sized chips of plastic.

I wonder if any of the dead birds had eaten plastic. (Sorry, I know this is not pretty, but it is reality.) Pam LeBlanc photo

I can’t stand to see beautiful places choking in garbage. We’ve got to all do our part to use less plastic in the first place, and properly dispose of what we do use.

Remember that saying? Take Three for the Sea. Any time you’re at the beach (or lake or river or back country) pick up three – or 103! – pieces of trash.

Our most beautiful places appreciate it. And I do too.




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Today’s adventure: Making gin!

Today’s adventure: Making gin!

Rob Sergent mixes up ingredients I’ve chosen for my own gin. Pam LeBlanc photo

Me and gin, we’ve got a thing.

Last week, during a trip to Park City, Utah, I mixed a blend of botanicals to create my very own gin, suitable for sipping.

Rob Sergent, owner of Alpine Distilling (which, besides making booze, has a pie bar!) walked me through the process.

But first, he poured me a cocktail made with the distillery’s Preserve Liquor, flavored with blood orange, black tea, lemon balm, raspberry and ginger, and told me a bit about the business.

I sipped it. Yum. And at first my notes were clearly legible.

I chose from this list of ingredients. Pam LeBlanc photo

I carefully jotted down that Alpine Distilling, at 350 Main Street, makes vodka, gin, bourbon, whiskey and a few liquors. I also noted that the distillery’s gin is crafted with juniper berries imported from Croatia. Depending on what type of other botanicals are added, you can vary its taste.

Sergent handed me a small card listing a whole array of ingredients, from coriander to rose hips to grapefruit peel. He explained a little about each one, and what it would add to the gin – or take away.

All gin contains juniper, but botanicals are what make them taste different. Pam LeBlanc photo

I sipped a little more of my cocktail.

First, I had to decide whether I wanted my gin to have light, medium or heavy juniper flavor. At Sergent’s suggestion I chose light, since I wanted my gin for sipping instead of stirring into a gin and tonic. He also recommended that I add a dash of coriander. Check, and check.

From there, though, things got creative. Also, my notes got sloppy.

Here’s my secret brew, topped with some orange slices. Pam LeBlanc photo

I know that I chose orris root as a binder, then added licorice root, ginger root, and dried orange, lemon and grapefruit peel. (Fresh peel – and I did add a little fresh orange peel to my special brew – tends to add a bitter note).

Sergent then presented the ingredients that, used too heavily, could ruin a gin – lavender, cassia bark, chamomile, rose hips, grains of paradise and cardamom. I picked a little cassia bark (cinnamon) and a bit of chamomile, to smooth out the mouth feel. Hopefully it didn’t ruin my gin, but since I haven’t tasted it yet, I can’t tell you for sure.

Sergent placed everything in a copper bowl, tossed it like a fresh salad, then handed the whole kaboodle to an assistant, who dashed back into what looked like an upscale chemistry lab crossed with a Kentucky still. (Sergent hails from Kentucky, and photos of his relatives distilling their own booze hang on the walls).

The assistant went to work in the chemistry lab. Pam LeBlanc photo

Alpine Distillers’ gin is built on a base of strong vodka, which is heated and mixed with the botanicals. So is some other stuff, but by this point I’d quit taking notes.

I do remember the assistant hovering over the copper pots in that glassed-in back room, wearing safety glasses and looking like she was having lots of fun.

Now I’m just waiting for my gin to age a few more days. Then I’ll bake a pecan pie, because Sergent says gin and pie make good company.

Or I’ll just take it on my next winter hike in the woods.

“Everything we do is inspired by nature. Put it in a flask, get outside. That’s why Alpine Distillery exists,” Sergent says.

I crafted this bottle of gin during a recent trip to Park City, Utah. Pam LeBlanc photo

This, by the way, wasn’t my first gin rodeo.

Last year, I traveled to West Texas to harvest juniper berries with Molly Cummings and her Wild June Gin. Read that story here.

For more information about Alpine Distillers, go to


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At Iron Fly, learn about fly fishing, then help clean San Marcos River

At Iron Fly, learn about fly fishing, then help clean San Marcos River


I caught two brown trout while fly fishing the Provo River in Utah last week. Aaron Bible photo

I just got back from Utah, where I caught two brown trout while fly fishing in the Provo River.

Something about wearing waders, standing thigh deep in a chilly mountain stream and casting a fly rod fills me with contentment, even if I don’t reel in a fish. Doing all that and actually pulling out two foot-long fish made me swoon.

Guide Mason Osborne from Jan’s in Park City casts in the Provo River on Sept. 21, 2019. Pam LeBlanc photo

Fly fishing, for me, qualifies as a near Zen experience, and you can learn more about it at a couple of events in San Marcos this week.

Pig Farm Ink, a lifestyle brand that encourages people to get outside and fish, will host an “Iron Fly” competition at 6 p.m. Thursday at Sean Patrick’s, 202 E. San Antonio Street in San Marcos. Contestants tie flies while blindfolded, using non-standard materials. (Spaghetti strands? Who knows!) Coaches will offer assistance, and organizers say no experience is necessary.

A participant at last year’s Iron Fly event ties a fly. Photo courtesy Pig Farm Ink

“One of the reasons we hold this event in a bar is so we can engage with people who have never even thought about tying a fly or fly fishing,” Donovan Kypke, owner of ReelFly Fishing Adventures in Canyon Lake, said in a press release. “A little alcohol helps things along, too.”

On Saturday, the organizers will host a Get Trashed river cleanup and fishing tournament.

The event will be headquartered at Texas State Tubes. Prizes will go to whoever brings in the largest item from the river, the most trash and the most fish. Rookie anglers get bonus points for their first fish, as do those who catch a fish using a fly they tied at Thursday’s Iron Fly event.

Blindfolded patrons attempt to tie flies at last year’s Iron Fly competition. Photo courtesy Pig Farm Ink

If you’ve been on the San Marcos River this summer, you’ve probably seen the massive amount of trash left behind by summer crowds.

Participants in last year’s Get Trashed event pull trash from the San Marcos River. Photo courtesy Pig Farm Ink

To compete, you’ll need some sort of paddle craft or raft. Boats will be available free of charge, as will shuttles from the take-out points back to Texas State Tubes.

The event starts at 8 a.m. at Texas State Tubes, 2024 W. Old Bastrop Highway in San Marcos. Real Ale Brewing Company will provide beer at the after party, scheduled to last until 6 p.m.

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At Woodward in Park City, athletes will hone high-flying skills

At Woodward in Park City, athletes will hone high-flying skills

Woodward Park City is scheduled to open in December. It’s the first Woodward facility with its own ski mountain. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Picture yourself at the top of a halfpipe at a ski resort, trying to work up the nerve to try a new high-flying trick for the first time.

What if you miscalculate, and slam yourself into the hard-packed snow? What if you land wrong or lose control?

Tucker Norred gives a tour of the new Woodward facility being built in Park City, Utah. Pam LeBlanc photo

When Woodward opens its sixth sports playground in Park City this winter, it will provide space where athletes can progressively build their way up to skills.

I got a taste of how it works a few years ago, when I skied down an indoor, carpet-covered ramp and into a pit filled with blue foam blocks at the Woodward facility in Copper Mountain, Colorado. (You mean I can launch myself off that ramp without breaking bones? Cool!)

During a trip to Utah last week, I stopped by the busy construction site where Woodward Park City is scheduled to open this December.

Woodward started 45 years ago as a camp for gymnasts in Pennsylvania. Since then, it’s expanded into winter sports like snowboarding and freestyle skiing, plus skateboarding, mountain biking, BMX biking and more. It also operates training facilities in Colorado, California and Mexico.

Woodward’s new facility in Park City will feature indoor and outdoor training grounds for mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, BMX, tumbling, skateboarding and more. Pam LeBlanc photo

The 125-acre campus in Park City will mark the first Woodward with its own ski mountain and lift. When finished, it will also include its own tubing hill, BMX dirt jumps, indoor and outdoor parkour space, and a 66,000-square-foot indoor facility where guests can learn the basics of balance and coordination.

We donned yellow hardhats as Olympic bronze medal gymnast Phoebe Mills (who also had a successful career as a diver and snowboarder, then earned a law degree), now director of programming at Woodward Park City, explained more about the facility and Tucker Norred, director of communications for the new park, toured us through the grounds as a light rain fell.

At Woodward, everything is about progression. Athletes learn balance and coordination and boost their confidence indoors, where a crash landing means flopping into a pit filled with foam blocks or airbags, where they’re less likely to get hurt. From there, they advance to a larger version of the same thing, then to the real thing, outside or on concrete.

“We’re a training ground for athletes, whether it’s just learning a sport or wherever you’re at in your career,” Mills said. “All of these progression tools are designed to make learning a trick safer.”

Inside, we tiptoed around welders creating handrails and carpenters sculpting huge curving walls that skateboarders will one day ricochet across. Head designer Nathan Wessel, who has helped design other Woodward facilities, told us that this park will be the first with indoor parkour space.

Outside, eight ski and snowboard runs will fan out from the top of the ski lift, and guests will have access to an array of features, from an enormous halfpipe to terrain parks bristling with jumps, rails and boxes. There’s even a tubing hill. Snowmaking will keep everything frosted in white.

“We take people from never-ever to the Olympics,” Norred said.

Woodward will also offer classes in digital media and video production, for those who want to capture all the eye-popping athletic feats and share them with others.

Woodward is banking on the idea that people coming to the Salt Lake City area to ski at Park City, Deer Valley, Snowbird, Alta and other resorts will tack on an extra day to experience Woodward.

The new park, which will have its own café and bar, will be open 365 days a year and will offer monthly memberships and day passes.

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Keith Bell notches 11,111th day in a row of swimming

Keith Bell notches 11,111th day in a row of swimming

Milt Hein, left, manager of Deep Eddy Pool, stands with Keith Bell, right, who just logged his 11,111th day in a row of swimming. Family photo

Chalk up swim number 11,111 in a row for Keith Bell.

The retired Austin sports psychologist and former University of Texas swim coach slipped into the cool waters of Deep Eddy Pool this morning and knocked out 111 laps, continuing a streak he started more than 30 years ago.

You could call Bell a swimming enthusiast. That would be putting it mildly. He usually swims between 4,000 and 6,000 yards – or between 3.5 and 4.5 miles – each day, although some days he logs more than that.

He prefers Deep Eddy, which is filled with spring water, because the water is cooler than at most other pools around Austin. (“But don’t go there, it’s terrible,” he says, chuckling.) Sometimes, he swims in the lake. Monday, he kicked upstream on the San Marcos River, in a current so brisk he only moved forward an inch or so every minute.

Keith Bell, right, closes to lane line, swims laps with his wife, Sandy Neilson-Bell. Family photo

Bell’s current streak began in April 1989. 

“I wasn’t thinking about a streak, I was just swimming every day,” Bell says. “On my 60thbirthday, we had a big party and (my son) Bridger did a quiz about me and included how many days in a row had I swum. It was 6,000 or 7,000. Sometime after that it, occurred to me that I was closing in on 10,000 days.”

To mark that milestone, Bell swam 10,000 yards (that’s about 6 miles) and raised nearly $10,000 for charities that provide swim lessons. A portion of the money specifically went to adults, because Bell believes that if parents know how to swim safely, they’ll encourage their children to swim, too. And swimming, he notes, can enrich almost anyone’s life, no matter their age.

Bell swims whether he’s feeling great or not, although he rarely gets sick.

“If I don’t feel well, I just go and swim a couple of thousand (yards) easy,” he says. “It’s like going for a walk.”

Bell swam at Kenyon College in Ohio. He served as an assistant coach of the men’s swim team at Texas, then coached the first intercollegiate women’s team there. He’s also coached U.S. Masters programs and high school teams. He and his wife Sandy Neilson-Bell, a former Olympian, currently run a swim program for adults in Austin.

Does he plan to quit swimming anytime soon?

“Uh, no,” he says, like that’s the silliest question anyone could ever ask. “It’s a really nice part of the day for me.”



Deep Eddy Pool celebrated its 100thbirthday in 2016. Here’s an article I wrote about that.



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