Holidays a time to celebrate, give back

Each year as I get out the tubs of extension cords and Christmas lights I think of Clark Griswold in the “Lampoon Christmas Vacation” movie. I love everything about the Christmas holiday season, and look forward to it every year. Like Clark, I have been known to stand on the top step of a ladder and reach precariously to hang a light on a bough that is just slightly out of reach.

I thought about skipping the lights this year, but the warm sunny weather last week inspired me to get out the ladder and get to work. The colorful lights highlighting the branches and shimmering in the breeze creates a sense of magic.

Another favorite tradition is making a family trip to a local Christmas tree farm to find and cut down the perfect family Christmas tree – at least perfect in our eyes.  We have been doing this since the kids were toddlers, and the trip is associated with fond memories.  Speaking of memories, I can’t remember a year when we have strolled the hills in shirt sleeves and sneakers instead of snow boots.

Fort Calhoun Christms Tree lighting
Fort Calhoun choir members sing around the lighted Christmas tree in the Market Square gazebo.

On Saturday I joined the revelers that crowded around the gazebo in Market Square in Fort Calhoun for the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  The Fort Calhoun choir performed a number of Christmas carols before and after the tree lighting.  In addition to lots of hot chocolate and cookies, some of the children and adults walked away with some nice prizes.   

Sugar Plum festival
From left, Kinzlie Johnson puts money in the Salvation Army bucket with Kaylie Johnson, Andyn Ruwe & Kaiya Johnson.

In Blair, the Sugar Plum Festival kicks off the Christmas season.   It is always fun to see the streets filled with families.  The decorative lights, the Downtown Brass ensemble, the Country Bible Church carolers and hay racks rolling up and down Washington Street were just some of the sights and sounds that gave the city center the appearance of a Hallmark Christmas movie set. As families walked along the streets picking up trinkets and treats at local businesses, many  dropped coins and bills in the Salvation Army red kettle and contributed to other worthwhile causes.


Sugar Plum festival
A hay rack pulled by Jenson Shires gave free rides along Washington Street Thursday evening during the Sugarplum festival

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year are filled holiday concerts, social events and religious services that inspire a sense of wonder, joy and community. When we feel good about ourselves and our community, more than likely we also want to share and give back.

Otte School pig kissing
Dressed as a strip of bacon, Blair Otte history teacher Terry Bellamy kisses a pig held by Sarah Lambrecht.

Schools throughout the county do their part to encourage sharing.  Before Thanksgiving break I stopped by Joseph’s Coat to take pictures of Blair FBLA members unloading around 4,500 food items collected in the Blair schools. Blair students, staff and teachers also contributed nearly $5,000 in cash to the Blair Area Food Bank.  I also photographed Otte Middle School teachers Terry Bellamy and Kristi Baker puckering up and kissing a pig after the students raised nearly $400 for the Food Bank.  Maybe some of the kids donated just because they like Mr. Bellamy but still they experienced the joy of giving.

BHS Food drive
From left, Sydney Andreasen, Alec Tapp, Dustin Hovanec, Mitsy Dasa, Ben Brunick-Clark relay boxes filled with canned and packaged food items at the Blair Area Food Pantry. BHS Food drive

On Thanksgiving Day I attended the Community Thanksgiving dinner. While it is held at St Francis Borgia Catholic Church, it is a community event for all. What a fantastic opportunity for neighbors to come together to prepare and share a festive dinner with friends and multiple generations of family members. In addition to a satisfying meal, you could not come away from that dinner without feeling a sense of gratitude and good will.

Community Thanksgiving Dinner
Michele Dean ladles the gravey on a plate heaped full of turkey, mashed potatoes and dressing. Community Thanksgiving Dinner

A new opportunity to show gratitude and goodwill is to participate in the first ever  “Giving Tuesday” in Washington County which is November 28 -the day this newspaper is published.  The Blair Area Community Foundation and the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce have combined forces to create awareness and inspire people to be generous to Washington County nonprofits.  Donations may be made online at  or in person at the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce office and other drop-off locations throughout the county.

Community Thanksgiving Dinner
Blair residents Beverly and Martin Homes enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with family members at the Community Thanksgiving Dinner at St. Francis Borgia Church Thursday. Bev and Martin live at Carter House.

Another opportunity to give and get a good breakfast is the seventh annual Christmas for the Coat to be held at Fernando’s Café and Cantina on Dec. 6 from 6:30 to 9 a.m.  Last year the event raised over $43,000 for the Washington County Food Pantry.

Breakfast for the Coat
Ellie Schrad with mother Angie thanks Santa for the sucker at Christmas for the Coat Wednesday at Fernando’s Cafe and Cantina.

With this column, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.  I hope that we all will take advantage of the many opportunities to celebrate and find our own best ways to give back to our community.

Blair area Band and Choir Concert
Blair Area Community Choir performed five numbers during the Sunday afternoon combined community and and choir concert held in the auditorium at Blair High School.

In the next few weeks I plan to show up at many of the concerts and events throughout the county. Making photographs is my job, but also my way of giving back – of showing appreciation for the generosity and sense of community that has been shared with me.



Snapshot wandering at WC fairgrounds

Wandered around the Washington County Fairgrounds to make some images for some upcoming publications.  The newer facilities are much more comfortable for both humans and animals, but I love the architectural style of the older structures that have been around for many, many years.

I have no idea why they are there, but for some reason, Cinderella left her glass slippers in the swine barn.


BHS presents ‘Guys and Dolls’

Blair High School music and drama departments will present “Guys and Dolls” on Thursday through Saturday evenings and a Saturday Matinee in the Blair High School Auditorium.  The classic ’50’s musical features many memorable songs, and the talented cast does a great job of singing them.  In fact, there is such a wealth of quality performers that BHS director Kelli Westphal and music director Dan Hutsell double cast the roles of Adelaide and Sarah Brown.

BHS Musical Guys and Dolls
Sarah Brown, played by Maddy Nannen, and Adelaide, played by Jenna Carlson sing “Marry the Man Today” during rehearsal for Blair High School’s production of Guys and Dolls” BHS drama director Kelli Westphal double cast the female leads.

Senior Jenna Carlson and Junior Maddy Nannen play Adelaide and Sarah Brown respectively, for the Thursday night and Saturday matinee performances.  Junior Payton Murray and senior Maddie Knudtson assume the roles on Friday and Saturday nights.

Pumpkin fun at South School

Who would have thought that practicing reading, math and science skills could be so much fun?  For more than a dozen years, South School first grade teacher Mariann Andersen has been hauling a pickup load of oversize pumpkins from sister and brother-in-law Rose and Bob Helgoth’s 40 acre patch in St. Libory, NE for this pumpkin fun activity. Each of the pumpkins weighs anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds.

Pumpkin Fun South School

During the Wednesday afternoon activity, parents join in to help supervise, tote the pumpkins, and wield the knives and cutting tools.  Teams of four students to a pumpkin read and follow the instructions in the booklet as they read, record, estimate, weigh, measure and count lines and seeds.  They also read the directions and measure and mix the ingredients to make a batch of pumpkin muffins.

Pumpkin Fun South School
Parent Ashley Bacon watches as a student weighs her pumpkin.

Teachers Anderson and Julia Warner enjoy doing this activity year after year because it gives the students an opportunity to practice math, science and reading skills, and because it is a great way to get the parents involved in a learning activity with their children.  Over 30 parents and grandparents helped with the activity.

“It’s exhausting, but fun!” Warner said.

Dinner is served

Volunteers prepare 850 meals at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Blair

Following the same recipes they have been using for the past 50 or 60 years, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church volunteers served up around 850 turkey dinners to guests from throughout the area and beyond. The dinner featured a tasty and popular home made cranberry and fruit salad and giblet dressing that some say is better than grandma used to make.
St Mary's Church Turkey dinner
From left, Jon Hutchson, Jason Cloudt, Josh Dick, Travis Will, and Bruce Will carved 44 turkeys for the annual St Mary’s Church Turkey dinner. 
Pat Steinke who helps organize the event said many of the volunteers have been doing the same jobs for years, and pretty much everyone knows what they are doing.  Steinke makes sure the veteran cooks have what they need and stays out of their way.
Preparation for the meal began on Wednesday before the dinner with breaking of 145 loaves of bread for the dressing. The work continued Thursday with grinding and cooking up the giblets for the dressing, and cooking up the cranberries for the salad.
St Mary's Church Turkey dinner
Kim Morse mixes cranberry and fruit salad with a canoe paddle. St Mary’s Church Turkey dinner.
On Saturday the cooking crew prepared the dressing, and by Saturday evening the 44 turkeys were stuffed with dressing and ready for the roasters.  Longtime turkey cookers Bill Smutko and Paul Kolbe roasted the turkeys through the night and allowed  them to cool so they were ready for carving early Sunday morning while other volunteers prepared the trimmings and cut and plated the desserts.
Steinke said almost everyone remembers a story about things going wrong, but it always seems to work out.
St Mary's Church Turkey dinner
Rhonda Dick cuts and plates desserts St Mary’s Church Turkey dinner


Evening hike to California Bend on the Missouri River


California Bend
Peeking through the brush at the edge of the trail to view the sunset across a soybean field along the Lincoln trail at California Bend.

I drove down to Optimist Park Tuesday afternoon to hike and snap some fall color along the recently opened Lincoln Trail.  The new trail begins at Optimist Park and extends north to California Bend along the Missouri river.  Officials from the City of Blair and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District held the official ribbon-cutting on Friday, October 13.

Snapshot wandering in Wyoming

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Tourists stream along the boardwalk overlooking the Grand Prismatic Spring In Yellowstone National Park.

From Homer’s Odyssey to works by John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank’s photographs in The Americans, books about travel have always caught my imagination.  I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie when I was in high school, and I knew then that traveling the country in a home on wheels was something I wanted to do some day.

I recently bought a small pickup and fitted it with a pop up camper.  A few weeks ago, I set off on my first adventure in my new wander wagon.

Originally my plan was to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Heavy snow fall helped to extinguish the raging fires in Glacier, but also pretty much closed down much of the park.  I decided to save Glacier for next year and stay in Wyoming.

My trip to Yellowstone was in part sentimental.  My wife and I visited the park on our honeymoon. Driving through the park was kind of like listening to golden oldies from the ’70’s and 80’s that bring back fond memories. The appearance of the park was about what I expected, but there were changes too.  Many of the facilities have been modernized and some completely replaced. After thirty plus years, my appearance has changed too.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Yellowstone Falls from Artist Point – a must see stop on a visit to Yellowstone National Park.

As I snapped frame after digital frame of geysers, mountain vistas and buffalo with my cameras, I remembered that on my trip with Kris I brought along one Pentax SLR camera and maybe a dozen rolls of film.  Now I can click the equivalent of that many frames in one day.  There are always trade-offs to new technology.  When I was shooting film, by necessity I tried to make each shot count by spending more time composing and calculating the exposure.  I think those years of shooting film also has made me a better digital photographer.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
The Grand Geyser is a fountain geyser that shoots higher than Old Faithful and continues to erupt for average of eight to twelve minutes.

That being said, I usually don’t miss using film until I see some of the fabulous prints by some of my fine art friends who use medium and large format film cameras. I am pretty much a snapshot wanderer.  I enjoy the instant gratification of being able to look at the back of the camera to check the composition and exposure.  I like not having to carry around a pocket load of film rolls, labeling each roll, and keeping the exposed rolls separate from the fresh ones.  I like the freedom of trying a variety of framing and exposure combinations without worrying about wasting film- digital media cards are cheap.

The bad thing is that it is too easy to practice the “spray and pray” method of shooting away like crazy with the idea that at least one of the frames will look good.

Today, everyone has a cell phone camera and just about every geyser gawker extended a selfie stick and stopped every ten yards to make another selfie or pose with a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.  Fortunately, by late September the tourist numbers have declined.  I can’t imagine what the crowds must be like in the summer time.  For the most part I tried to be patient, and enjoy people watching and making pictures of people taking pictures.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Tourists take photographs of the hot spring, themselves and each other along the boardwalk at the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone is a national treasure and something everyone should experience.  It is a part of our American Heritage, and the National Park Service does a tremendous job maintaining the parks and assisting and meeting the needs of an ever-increasing volume of visitors.

But it some ways, standing in front of Old Faithful or on the board walks at The Grand Prismatic spring is kind of like jostling through crowds at The Henry Doorly Zoo.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Tourist pose for portraits and selfies as they walk the boardwalk across the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Tourists by the bus and van load move from venue to venue to capture the Kodak moment before hurrying on to the next natural wonder without stopping to take in the extraordinary experience.

But Yellowstone is a huge park, and there are many beautiful back country trails where one can move about in semi-solitude and catch singular views of landscapes and wildlife.  My principal souvenir of my Yellowstone treks along back country trails is a canister of bear spray to ward off unexpected trail companions.

While Yellowstone may have been a sentimental journey, Grand Teton National Park was a new and exciting adventure.  My first stop in Jackson WY was for a tire repair.  While driving through the rain, sleet and snow, I ran over some road debris.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
The calm waters of the Snake River reflect the magnificent, snow covered peaks of the Teton Mountain Peaks at Schwabachers landing in Grand Teton National Park.

Fortunately, it was not a blow out and I was able to cruise into Jackson, Wyoming  after making stops along the way to add air.

Flat Creek Towing and Tire Repair in Jackson was open on Sunday, and in about an hour my tire was fixed and I was good to go. I also happened on to the Virginian Resort and RV Park to hole up during the rain and snow storm.  Since the date was October 1, the official tourist season had ended and the hotel rate was about half of what it would have cost to book the room the night before.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Photo of me (Joe Burns)  taken at Phelps Lake, Laurence Rockefeller Preserve, Grand Teton National Park.

I think the Tetons are the most strikingly beautiful mountains I have ever seen -particularly in autumn when the Aspen trees are iridescent yellow and the peaks are covered with snow from the unseasonably early snow falls.  The Cathedral Peaks rise majestically above the lakes and trees.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Early morning view of the Teton Peaks from Gros Ventre camp ground, Grand Teton National Park.

For three nights I camped at the Gros Ventre campground just outside Jackson and within the boundaries of national park.  As I returned to the campground one evening, the light from the full moon brightly lit the snow-covered peaks against the ink black and star filled sky.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
My Toyota Tundra pickup and Four Wheel pop up camper at my campsite at Gros Ventre campground, Grand Teton National Park.

The next morning as I looked out of my camper window I saw a herd of photographers traipse through the campground following two bull moose and a harem of cows and calves that were heading toward the river.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Bull Moose at Gros Ventre campground on the Gros Ventre river, Grand Teton National Park.

After nearly two weeks on the road, I took the long way home by heading south into national forest preserves.  Near Cokeville, Wyoming I found myself in the middle of a cattle drive.  Driving my camper rig, I navigated a steep and winding dirt logging road that overlooked breath taking scenery.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Sleet and rain was falling on this bronze sculpture of a bull moose at  the National Museum of Wildlife in Jackson, Wyoming on an inclement October day.  The museum holds more than 5,000 works of art representing wild animals from around the world. The sculpture garden is magnificent.

At the summit, I took the wrong turn and rocked and rolled down a log trail through mud holes and past deer hunter camps.  I was so happy I was driving my four-wheel drive Tacoma.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Navigating a logging trail in Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Cokeville, Wyoming in my Toyota Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper.

The trip turned out to be everything I had hoped for and more. I look forward to the adventures to come.