By Naomi Klouda
It’s always interesting to Kachemak Bay Shorebird Coordinator Christina Whiting to hear what a person’s lifetime bird is.
“A woman told me the other day what she really wants to see is a Yellow-billed loon, and I was able to tell her, well, there’s one in the Barge Basin right now,” Whiting said. “For others it’s the warbler or eider or a Sandhill crane.”
Which fits in perfectly with one of the big name attractions to the festival: Mark Obmascik, the author of “The Big Year” a bestselling novel whose book was made into a hilarious, richly layered movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.
It tells the story of three men who abandon their normal duties to spend a year viewing birds in one of the world’s quirkiest sporting contests. With few rules and no referees, there is one goal: to see and identify the most species of birds in a single year. The three main characters will spend a grueling, exhaustive year traveling hundreds of thousands of miles and spending thousands of dollars.
Obmascik was part of a Denver Post team of journalists who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for a series on the Columbine High School shooting massacre.
In an interview with the Homer Tribune, Obmascik said during his 17-18 years with the Denver Post, he alternated during election years covering politics and in the off-years, focused on the environment.
“Our place is like your state – issues aren’t settled yet. There are strong opinions on both sides. I went back and forth between senate, governor, presidential campaigns and the great public land fights,” Obmascik said. “We have the Rocky Mountain arsenal here, the U.S. army chemical weapons for World War II and (environmental catastrophes) such as the guy who built a gold mine in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth 10,000 feet up a mountain – and sure enough, he screwed up.”
That resulted in a cyanide spill that killed 30 miles of river inhabitants.
Then one year, a different kind of assignment landed on his desk.
“I had finished covering a campaign, another Senate campaign that I knew was going to be ugly. I picked up the phone and it was a call from the American Birding Association – who knew? They were in Colorado Springs,” he said. A New Jersey industrialist had spent a “Big Year” chasing across the continent after fragile, delicate little birds.
“And I thought, a competitive bird watch? Who could make up such a thing. In one year, three guys had spent a year of their lives covering 270,000 miles and spending over $200,000 – including getting to the island of Attu where they awaited these Asiatic birds taking flight into air space,” he said.
Obmascik got to know the three men: the New Jersey industrialist and a CEO of big companies who had a dream home near Aspen who suffered 40 years with his repressed bird obsession. He was married to a marriage counsellor and the first year of their long-awaited retirement, he announces it is going to be his “Big Year.”
The third man was a software technician hunting down Y2K bugs at a nuke plant in Maryland. His divorce had just finalized, and he was teaching himself to live again.
“I had spent a career writing about murders, politicians and rapists. I felt like the luckiest guy around to get to write about these three men, whom I actually liked,” he said.
The movie is more “inspired” by Obmascik book. The names are different, the places have changed. Characters’ problems and flaws are altered. “But the movie is beautiful. The cinematography was great – they actually went to the Yukon and built a replica of Attu where they did the filming.”
Obmascik’s next book, “Halfway to Heaven (2009) was about 54 mountains – all over 14,000 feet – that he climbed.
“I climbed all of them. The premise was that my body’s best days are over and this could be the crowning achievement of that. I was fat, 44, and in the market for a vasectomy,” he said.
To get ready, he joins a exercise class of mostly peri-menopausal women. When he begins to slack off, the women prod him into keeping at it. He reciprocates by adjusting the wall fans for them when hot flashes hit. Then summer comes, and off he goes, chasing his dream to climb all 54 summits.
Two discussions and the movie feature Obmascik. The panel discussion “The Role of Environmental Journalism in Today’s World,” is 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday moderated by History Professor Mike Hawfield, with panelists Nancy Lord and Tom Kizzia.
On Saturday, at the Mariner Theatre, Obmascik gives a brief talk introducing “The Big Year” movie at 2:30-3 p.m. followed by a book signing.
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