Capturing Jupiter Opposition 2019

Living in Houston, I don’t do much astrophotography. When I do attempt to capture the night sky, it’s usually with a wide angle lens and a long exposure, like this shot from the Lick Observatory in California a few years ago.

However, this month all of the news outlets in Houston were hyping up Jupiter and claiming that you would be able to see not only the planet, but also its four largest moons with only binoculars June 10. I decided to had to check it out.

I pulled out my vintage Leica R 400mm f6.8 Telyt and stacked both a 2x teleconverter and a 1.4x teleconverter before attaching it to a Sony A7II and bolting it all to a good tripod.

I’m not a big fan of teleconverters since you lose stops of light and some detail, but I was going for maximum magnification, and this rig got me the equivalent of a 1120mm lens.

For reference, this is how close 1120mm gets you to the moon on a full-frame, 35mm equivalent camera.

I have the StarTracker app on my phone, so I knew right where to look in the sky. The hardest part of the evening was waiting until Jupiter made its appearance above the neighbor’s trees about 10:30 p.m.

I took a couple dozen shots at varying shutter speeds and ISOs, but it seemed like f8 (plus the lost stops from the teleconverters, so actually f22), 1/500 second at ISO 1600 gave the clearest results. However, I had to develop the RAW files twice — once to properly expose Jupiter and once to expose the moons. Then I combined the two files into one photo.

There is Jupiter with Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s pretty cool that you can see at least some amount of detail on Jupiter even using old lenses from the 1970s.

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The difference a dink makes

The wind was a steady 25 knots, gusting over 30, blowing straight off the shore of the small island behind which we were anchored. Both of our dogs, whom refuse to to soil our boat (at least while we’re there) hadn’t relieved themselves in more than 24 hours and looked absolutely miserable.

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I held tight to the standing rigging as I stood on the cabin top and looked over my small kayak trying to decide if I could even make any headway towards the island or if I’d be blown back past the boat and out into the middle of the bay if I attempted the trip to shore.

It wasn’t so much that I was worried about what would happen to me and two dogs in life jackets on a kayak — we’d just be carried ashore somewhere in San Leon. The problem was that if I couldn’t get back to the sailboat, Mary would be stranded there, unable to lift the anchor and leave.

That was the weekend we really began dinghy shopping.

But what type and size of a dinghy did we need and how would we power it?

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Luckily we had many boating friends also looking for dinghies, so we waited and learned from their experiences.

Our friends on the Tina Marie Too had a big double floor West Marine inflatable with a 20hp 4-stroke engine. It was comfortable. It planed up. It held a lot of people. It was way too big for our boat. We ruled out a fiberglass floor inflatable.

Our friends on Escondida had an 8′ slat floor inflatable with a 5 hp. It was small, light and could easily be lifted on and off the foredeck. It could also be rolled up and stowed in the cabin. It didn’t hold much, and it was very slow.

Our friends on Folie a Deux bought a Port-a-bote. It wasn’t too heavy, and it folded flat to tie against the lifelines. However, it was only rated for a 2.5 hp motor, and they got caught with a strong headwind in Matagorda Bay and couldn’t make any forward progress.

What we really thought we wanted was a Takacat. However, actual Takacat inflatables are quite expensive, so we started looking at the generic Saturn inflatable catamarans available. Our friends on Hippokampos got curious about them as well and bought one.

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Not tapering together at the bow makes for a very wide dinghy. In fact, we referred to it as the barge. It was sort of a strange ride because you could feel the flex in the middle when a wave raised one pontoon and then the other. They’ve been cruising with it for over a year now, and you can actually read their entire review of it here. While they had no major complaints, we realized there was no way we could put a boat that wide on our foredeck, and we weren’t sure we’d even have the space to inflate and deflate it anywhere on Gimme Shelter.

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We went back to thinking we would go with an 8′ slat floor roll-up with a 5hp Lehr propane engine. While small and slow, that seemed to be the best option for our 34′ sailboat. We also wouldn’t have to carry gasoline along with the diesel and propane we were already carrying. We started saving and kept waiting for the big sale at West Marine.

However, sometimes the right dinghy finds you.

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Our friends over at SVMimzy.com asked if we were interested in a 10′ AB rigid floor inflatable with a Mercury 9.9 hp 2-stroke. While it was about ten years old, it was in really nice shape. I just didn’t think we could lift it or that we’d have space for it on the boat. I was incredibly surprised when the boat only weighed around 100 pounds, and I could pick it up and move it around myself — and it just barely fit on our foredeck. I have to lift it up and bit to open and close the anchor locker, but it works.

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We’ve anchored out more times this year than in almost all of our past years of sailing combined thanks to being able to easily get the dogs back and forth to shore.

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Of course, it’s been useful for more than just carting dogs around. Mary and I have made runs up and down the ICW from Bolivar to Stingarees.

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We can finally explore islands and anchorages together instead of taking turns on the kayak.

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It’s also been great for carrying my photography equipment to shore. I’d never risk it on the kayak, but now I can get the camera, lenses and tripod all safely to shore to set up for great shots like this.

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While we’re getting by with raising and lowering the dinghy and motor using our halyards, the next question is to davit or not to davit.

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Backpacking Guadalupe Peak

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Our backpacks were too heavy. Nobody had trained. Nobody had even worn their packs before except me, and mine hadn’t left the garage in at least ten years.

On paper, the hike seemed easy. It was four miles up the trail with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, reaching a final height of 8,600 feet above sea level. The logistics of getting to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and back to Houston in one weekend were what had me the most worried … at least until we stepped on the trail.

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We formulated a plan to leave Thursday after work and drive to Kerrville, then get up Friday morning and drive the rest of the way to to the park. Once there we would obtain the limited backwoods camping passes for the Guadalupe Peak Trail from the rangers, then hike up the mountain. After we set up camp, we’d hike the rest of the way up the peak to watch the sunset. Then I’d take some amazing milky way photos, maybe even do some starry sky timelapse videos before heading to bed. Then we’d wake up before dawn to hike back up to the peak to watch the sunrise before walking down the mountain to go explore other things like Carlsbad Caverns or the strange Prada store in Marfa.

Things did not go exactly as planned.

We did leave Thursday night, and we did make it to Kerrville.

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The Holiday Inn Express had a fancy Texas-shaped pool. Unfortunately it was far too cold and late in the evening to try it out. The next morning we were back on the road.

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We made it to Guadalupe Mountains National Park around 1 p.m. and were very lucky to snag one of the few remaining backwoods camping permits. We unloaded our gear and headed up the mountain.

I’d done a fair amount of backpacking when I was in the Boy Scouts, and I was lucky that I still had my gear. However, nobody else had really tried out their packs, some of which had been procured through eBay, so everyone was starting the hike with discomfort.

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I also didn’t have time to open each person’s pack and ruthlessly throw all their belongings back in the car saying, “Nope, can’t take this,” like the guides and counselors did to me back in the old days. No deodorant. No extra batteries. Not even a toothbrush unless you break off the handle. What’s worse is I didn’t even follow my own rules and packed in two camera bodies, three lenses and a tripod in anticipation of all the amazing photography I was going to do. (So glad I brought a tripod for this …)

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Let’s just say it was a very long hike up the mountain.

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We stopped to rest often.

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We really should have paid attention to the fact that the trail was marked strenuous.

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Although we made sure to find plenty of photo ops.

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Five and a half hours later, we finally reached the sign for the camping area.

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Unfortunately that arrow on the sign doesn’t actually point in the right direction. The trail is off to the right of the sign, so the girls took a break while TJ and I wandered the mountain looking for any sign of a camp.

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It turned out to be just over the ridge of lower peak, so we made the last march of day into the camping area and set up our tents.

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We started cooking dinner just as the sun was setting. No, we weren’t going to be able to watch sunset from the peak, but there were times throughout the day when we weren’t sure we were even going to make it as far as we had.

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As I set up my cameras to capture some stars, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen rose into the sky. I thought it made the night look a bit unique, so I set up a timelapse anyway. Then, since the moon hadn’t been able to dissuade me, the clouds moved in as mother nature had a good laugh about the fact that I’d carried all that camera equipment for nothing.

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The weather in the desert makes massive shifts between day and night, so we all layered up to fight the cold. The dehydrated food never tasted so good. Our friends passed around a flask, and we all took a nip of Scotch before climbing into sleeping bags and quickly falling into a deep, black sleep.

Around 2 a.m. the wind had picked up to better than 25 miles per hour. It had been impossible to drive stakes into the hard ground where we were camping, so Mary sent me out with rope to tie the tent down to whatever rocks and trees were within reach. The moon loomed over me, lighting the work. I never even had to turn on the flashlight.

We slept through sunrise.

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The dehydrated egg scramble had never tasted so good, and spirits were high as we knew we didn’t have to carry our backpacks up to the peak.

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Yes, we’d missed the sunrise, but it would still be a nice hike.

 

I packed some water and my camera into a sleeping bag stuff sack, slung it over my shoulder, and we headed for the top.

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The last mile was full of beautiful scenes. We couldn’t get enough photos, but even without packs, everyone was still having a bit of a struggle.

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Once we passed El Capitan, we knew we were almost there.

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A few portions of the trail crossed steep rock face, which had Mary crabwalking, but she overcame her fear of heights to cross them.

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Despite various threats of quitting, we all made it to the tallest point in Texas together.

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Inside the ammunition box at the base of the monument was a log book, signed by all who make the hike. Some people put serious thought into what they write. The book is full of poetry and quotes. We added our own signatures to the pages.

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Had we had more time, water and a permit, I think everyone would have been content to stay another night before breaking camp and hiking down the mountain, but we didn’t have that luxury. We made a quick lunch and then reluctantly put on our backpacks.

Mary had a sore knee, so it was slow going. Even so, it only took us about two hours to get down the hill — a marked improvement compared to our ascent.

I left my pack with everyone at the base of the trail and hiked over to the ranger station to get the car. Everyone was very excited to sit down.

We drove to Van Horn and celebrated our achievement with dinner and drinks at the El Capitan Hotel.

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We made the long drive back the Houston Sunday with one question in mind, what mountain do we conquer next?

Our Best Photos of 2016

Happy new year and welcome to 2017. I hope all of our readers made it, unlike all those celebrities that didn’t.

I haven’t had time to write anything new for the new year, so I thought I’d kick things off with a photographic retrospective of 2016. Deciding on our “best” photos is very subjective, and I didn’t actually ask Mary’s opinion on these. I just scrolled through all the folders of photos from the past year and picked my favorites. So, in no particular order, here are my favorite photos that we took during our adventures in 2016.

The Winchester Mystery House

I have always wanted to visit this delightful maze of a victorian mansion. While we were visiting San Jose, California for a wedding, I was finally able to convince my family to come along for a tour.

In 1881 Sarah Winchester lost her husband, William Wirt Winchester, to tuberculosis just a month after losing her infant daughter to Marasmus. Deciding she was cursed, she visited a spiritualist who proclaimed that there was only one way to escape the spirits of all the people killed by Winchester rifles. If she began construction on a house, the spirits couldn’t touch her as long as it remained under construction.

winchester01Mrs Winchester inherited several million dollars as well as a 51% share of the Winchester company. This gave her a comfortable daily income of $1000 in a time when a normal daily wage was $1.50.

In the height of its glory the property had 161 acres of farmland including many orchards and beautiful gardens, and the house was seven stories tall. Today the property takes up about one city block.  The house was damaged badly in the earthquake of 1907, and instead of repairing it. Mrs. Winchester blocked off that portion of the house to never be used again, considering it cursed.

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After her death her niece quickly auctioned all of her furniture and sold the house for next to nothing. When she died the estate was huge but sprawling and unfinished. It contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It however had extensive earthquake damage on one side that was never repaired, and upkeep required a large crew of people.

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Today as you visit the Winchester House there is a confusing mix of modern tourism and historical preservation. After walking through the gift shop full of all sorts of junk and knick knacks which have absolutely nothing to do with the house, paying a heavy fee, then being forced to take a photo while holding a Winchester rifle for possible later purchase (by the way, there’s no photography allowed inside the house), you will begin your tour of the house led by a historically costumed guide. While the guides provide historical information for different aspects of the house, they don’t really know a lot about Mrs. Winchester or the house specifically. This is because she never kept any journals or did any interviews. She also didn’t see many guests. Only a few of the rooms in the sprawling mansion are furnished. The rest are just bare walls, with a few scraps of old wallpaper here and there. This gives the house a feel that is more like a bizarre construction site than a haunted mansion.

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The assortment of windows to walls, windows on the floor, doors to nowhere, stairs to nowhere, etc. are pretty cool to see. They don’t really add an air of “mystery” though, as you can see the train of thought that went into them however bizaar. Mrs. Winchester would just build a new room next the house, then build a door to connect them.  She just didn’t deem it necessary to remove the old doors, windows or stairs. While it’s a little odd, I wouldn’t call it creepy.

Overall I enjoyed the trip. It was a bit more touristy than I expected, but there was a lot of interesting things to see, and our tour guides were very knowledgable about the history of  the region and technologies of the time. They explained to us the systems for gas power, and how the estate pumped and stored its own water. The house also had 4 elevators. It’s not very often you get to see the very best that 1900 had to offer, especially on this scale.

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Shooting Stars at Lick Observatory

On the last day of my cousin Andrew’s wedding weekend he and his new wife Saara invited all of the friends and family out to Lick Observatory for a Sunday evening of desserts and star gazing.  The drive up to Lick was almost as exciting as the place itself.  We wandered over three windy mountain roads to get to the semi-secluded Mt Hamilton. The Observatories large domes make it a beautiful sight. The view from the top is breathtaking.

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Of course everyone wanted their picture taken in front of the sunset.

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After the wedding party had finished with all of their pictures, docents from the observatory treated us to an entertaining lecture on James Lick, the wealthy entrepreneur who funded the creation of the observatory back in 1888.  Lick was a colorful character who explored the world, buying and selling goods, and made his fortune in California real estate. As Lick aged he had a considerable amount of money to decide what to do with, and having no family, his two main ideas were to build a giant pyramid in downtown San Francisco in his own honor or to have a Statue of Liberty size statue made of himself in the harbor. Luckily the science community was able to convince him to instead fund this lovely observatory.

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One of the greatest treats of the evening was sitting in the room with the Great Lick Refractor.  This telescope is 57 feet long, and 4 feet wide.  When completed it was the largest in the world, and today is still the second. While honestly to me, the images were not that exciting, sitting in a room with that giant machine was.  Operated by a man spinning a ships wheel halfway up the telescope the telescope spins and so does the whole dome to match.  The men shout back and forth coordinates and directions to each other over the mechanical noise of everything moving. Meanwhile you walk your way up a metal ladder in the dark to a thin observation walkway, where you can see the whole thing taking place beneath you.

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Operating in the dark I think ads a bit of magic to all of it. They only use red lights like you’re inside a submarine or something. Also my mom and I decided that the thing sticking out of the side is obviously a laser.

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We were treated to a viewing of the Ring Nebula through the refractor, and then a nice close-up view of Saturn at the other end of the observatory looking through the 40-inch reflector. In addition to the big telescopes the docents also had some smaller but more modern telescopes set up outside. Many people took turns asking for specific constellations. Not knowing a lot about stars I asked some basic questions about our galaxy and really learned a lot from the people there helping.

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Fred was in heaven finally being somewhere without any light pollution, so that he could get photos of the Milky Way. I think he enjoyed taking those wide angle photos than seeing the stars close up through the telescopes.

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We wrapped up the evening with a sing-a-long inside the great dome. The acoustics were amazing. It gave me that perfect mix of warm feelings and an inspiration to continue to learn and better myself that always comes from time with my family. Love you guys!

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Kemah Friday Night Fireworks are Back

This year the Kemah Boardwalk is putting on an incredible fireworks display every Friday evening in June and July, as well as Monday, July 4. I took a break from playing guitar on the dock to snap a few photos this week.

The show starts at 9:30 p.m. and is visible from almost everywhere in the Clear Lake area. From Watergate Marina we get a nice view over Clear Lake Shores.

Remaining 2016 dates for fireworks are June 24, July 1, 4, 8,15,22 and 29.

Hopefully we’ll get to anchor out in the bay to watch them soon.

Sunday on the Bay

We tried something new last weekend. For the first time we loaded up all of Mary’s sewing stuff, and we set up a tent at the monthly Galveston Market near the strand.

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Unfortunately, weather wasn’t too great, and we didn’t have much traffic. We did manage to break even on the purchase of the tent and tables and even made a few dollars to put towards our annual WordPress renewal fees, but if we were having to pay ourselves, it would be far less than minimum wage. Now there are a few more bags and business cards out there in wild, so hopefully that will spur more online business for Mary. However, I think we both decided that sitting in a tent for seven hours isn’t our thing.

Thankfully the weather cleared up Sunday, so we had a few friends join us and got off the dock for a few hours.

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I have no idea what race/practice was going on, but there was a line of J boats going back and forth. It was quite interesting to see. I wish we’d been in the right place when they all turned around and popped their spinnakers. It would have made an amazing photo.

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There weren’t many boats out at Redfish Island. Our buddy Tony brought his inflatable SUP and impressively paddled his way to the island against 17 knot winds.

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None of the rest of us were brave enough to try it as we were all pretty sure we’d be swimming our way back to the boat.

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Eventually we had to weigh anchor and head back to civilization. I envy those who can cruise with no schedule, but for now it’s back to the office for me and back to sewing bags for Mary.

Wandering Paris

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Léa Seydoux, Midnight in Paris (2011)


I dashed across Avenue de la Grande Armée and ducked under the awning of Café de la Terrasse just as the rain re-commenced Friday evening. If Paris really is most beautiful in the rain, I’d already experienced a full week of beauty.

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The waiter presented me with a menu featuring specials for “happy beers” and “happy wines.” Perhaps it was just a poor translation by the copywriter, but I liked the idea that the drinks were as happy as the hour.

We’d spent the past three days exploring strategies and innovations meant to cut costs and streamline workflow in a declining industry, and we weren’t just happy to be having a drink, we needed one. Despite the intensive brainstorming sessions and extended dialogue, one important question had remained unanswered — was I or was I not supposed to eat the flower?

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Cigarette smoke wafted over the sidewalk tables as my colleagues from France, Scotland, Italy, India and Malaysia took turns asking me questions about Donald Trump and whether or not I owned a gun. Yes, Trump and guns, this is the cultural impact the US has upon the rest of the world.

As we all said goodnight and headed back to our respective hotels, I was left alone in Paris. I had no big plans this time, just a day to kill. I usually travel the city via Metro, but as the rain had finally stopped, I decided to walk. I passed the Peugeot headquarters and this curvy, winged car called out to me, but unfortunately the museum wasn’t open.

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I made my way to Trocadero where a quartet of troubadors were strolling café to café around the circle hoping for tips. They were mostly just having their pictures taken by tourists (myself included).

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For the first time all week the sky cleared, and the Eiffel Tower came into view in sync with the golden hour. I stopped to snap a photo since my previous attempts at a nice tower photo came with brown smoggy skies.

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I made my way down to the bridge watching both the tourists and the dozens of peddlers with their wares spread out on blankets. They still had models of the Eiffel Tower in many different sizes, but this year they were also hawking small robotic dogs that bark and walk, which I haven’t seen in the US since the 1990s, and of course, selfie sticks.

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The smell of crepes fills the air around the tower. I’ve never actually tried one, but I do enjoy the aroma and plenty of people were lining up for both crepes and ice cream.

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Since I had no plans, I decided to stick around and do some people watching. I guess I looked trustworthy enough that I wouldn’t run away with a camera as three different couples asked me to snap their photo in front of the tower.

I’d already done the Seine tour dinner cruise on a previous trip, but I always enjoy checking out the various boats — big, small and stationary.

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At 9:30 p.m. the tower finally lit up, which was the photo I really wanted to capture. I snapped a few shots and then walked through the night back to my hotel.

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Never underestimate how lost you can get even when there should be a large river to block you from going too far in the wrong direction.

Saturday morning was gray and dreary. I set out down the same road towards the Catacombs, but I must have taken the wrong exit at one of the roundabouts.

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However, as I wandered through the streets I got a nice insight into a Parisian Saturday. I passed soccer fields full of kids running and laughing while parents looked miserable on the sidelines. I watched people walking their dogs, trying to keep them from peeing on the motorcycles parked along the street. I saw young people carrying home bags of groceries while older people pushed their groceries home in strollers. I even discovered how new refrigerators are lifted into those tiny apartments.

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When I finally made it to the Seine I was two bridges down from where I was supposed to be, but I did get a nice view of the Statue of Liberty. The French version is a bit smaller than the one they sent to America.

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I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the catacombs — aside from a long line. Only 200 people are allowed in the tunnels at a time, so there gets to be quite a queue. My plan to get there early had been self-sabotaged by wandering the streets for an extra two hours.

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I think I was hoping for a spooky experience, but I didn’t feel that at all. The first section is an exhibit regarding the geological history of Paris and the formation of the limestone with a few fossil casts. Then several boards detailed the excavation and history of the catacombs. Then you finally reach the bones.

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I don’t even know how to explain how many bones are in these tunnels. If every man, woman and child I’ve ever known were entombed together, it wouldn’t come close to matching this number of bones. In some places the stacks are 10′ high and go 20′ back. And those were just in the tunnels open to visitors. There were more tunnels shut off to the public. There’s an estimated six million skeletons in the catacombs.

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In case you’re wondering, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, is the man who can be thanked for the creative stacking of femurs and skulls. I thought this skull heart was a nice touch.

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Once I finally returned to the surface, I started the walk back to the hotel and stumbled across this interesting army surplus store.

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But just as I was about to go in, I got distracted by this table of people cycling by while drinking beer. I’m not sure what kind of tour that is, but I think that’s the one I want to take next time I visit.

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The 2016 Southwest International Boat Show

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The boat show is always one of our favorite things to do in Kemah.  We make sure to go at least one day, but it does run Thursday-Sunday.  We went with our friends Tina and Ray who are power boaters, and so naturally they wanted to head down the power boat row first.

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This Cruisers Yacht 45 was the first one we were drawn into.

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We were mesmerized by all its buttons. The shade outside retracts, the cushions on the back go flat and then recline anyway you’d like, and it has an inside sunroof.

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The next boat we wondered into was the 50 ft 2015 Maritimo M50 offered by Galati Yacht Sales.

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It seems like the fully enclosed fly bridges are the new standard. 2016_BoatShow_10

The downstairs had a somewhat small master, but a really cozy cubby of a VIP room that I sort of fell in love with.  Maybe because of my small size, I have always been drawn to small spaces.

The men seemed to be very impressed with the engine room, although I don’t see why.

The winds were really blowing us around on the dock, and climbing on and off boats was getting a bit exhausting, but we pressed on to the end of the power boat dock, and it’s a good thing we did or we never would have seen this pontoon with a water slide.

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After that we headed over to the sailboat dock. A lot of the boats we have already seen at past boat shows broker open houses in our marina. We just yawned as we walked by the 40+ft catamarans.

I did take a second to step onto the 52 Beneteau Sense though, as it was probably the biggest sailboat there.

Boat Show fever hit me hard looking at a little Island Packet 35 named Missy. No pictures of her as we were too busy calculating what we’d have to sell to buy her.

They had a few more toys and plenty of vendors to talk to. What surprised us most this year is how many people we knew. We couldn’t go anywhere without running into a friend. That was my favorite part.

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For us the surprises didn’t end at the festival, the real boat show started when we got back to the marina. Because of the high winds there was a boat stranded outside the channel and slowly dragging its way into the breakwater. I called the harbormaster and the coast guard, but they both just said to keep an eye on it and let them know if there is imminent danger.

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We didn’t get to stay to watch the rescue or demise of the vessel, but we heard from a friend that she eventually got unstuck and is safely back in her slip.