Tag Archives: California

Escape on Wine Road

October 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Driving into the heart of wine country in Northern California, our chauffeur has to point out where last year’s devastation ravaged the landscape of Sonoma County. At first glance, we only see lush green hillsides. Upon closer inspection from the passing vehicle, the brownish limbs of damaged evergreens indicate where flames once danced over the freeway in October 2017. Occasional construction sites and empty lots reveal the former site of gas stations, fast food joints, and hotels consumed by wildfires. 

“After the recent rains, everything turned so green,” says the driver, Hugo, a resident of Santa Rosa (the largest city in Sonoma County). His neighborhood was almost entirely destroyed, and his home was among the few that survived. “It burned so fast that, as soon as the firefighters got there, everything was gone. The heat was so intense that it was melting aluminum from the wheels on cars.”

Luckily, “vineyards are a natural firebreak,” Hugo says. Hundreds of fires across Northern California destroyed some 8,900 buildings, causing upwards of $9.4 million in damage close to the time of harvest season. But most of Sonoma’s grapes had been picked by then. Although some late-harvest yields could carry a smoky flavor, we can only speculate (as that vintage had yet to begin pouring during our visit in May).

Wine production—the vineyards acting as a firebreak—didn’t merely slow the devastation; the industry and its associated tourism remain a critical part of the region’s economic recovery. As we drive deeper into the grape-producing hills of Sonoma County, evidence of the previous year’s inferno fades from view and memory. We are getting thirsty. Bring on the wine!

Our trip began with a direct flight from Omaha to San Francisco on the morning of Saturday, May 5. Joined by my family, wife Michele and 8-month-old Faye-Marie, it was our first foray into California’s wine country. Neither my wife nor I had much knowledge of fine wines (let alone Sonoma wines), but we eagerly welcomed the opportunity to drink, uh, I mean, “to learn.” Yes, this was an educational trip. 

After some light weekend sightseeing in San Francisco—and gaining firsthand appreciation for the apocryphal Mark Twain quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”—Hugo’s sparkling Chevy Suburban from Pure Luxury Transportation arrived at our hotel. 

We left the foggy city and drove north through the Golden Gate Bridge, stopped for selfies, and (after another hour or so) were transported to the laid-back hillsides of Sonoma County to find perfect weather. It was all blue skies and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The day before in San Francisco was about 20 degrees cooler (a common temperature differential between the two Northern California locales).

We were, literally, traveling the Wine Road. The association of wineries and lodgings in northern Sonoma County, known as Wine Road, had invited us on the trip and arranged our travel itinerary and accommodations. Wine Road even took into account a schedule that accommodated all our interests and limitations (i.e., maximum wining/dining for us with minimal whining from the baby). 

Omaha Magazine’s publisher and associate publisher traveled to Sonoma a month earlier for photos, but they encountered rainy weather that left the hillsides nice and green for our subsequent reporting trip. Our timing, a few weeks before the Memorial Day tourist rush, seemed ideal. June through October is widely noted to be the best time to visit Sonoma, but tourism is also more packed during those five months heading into the grape-harvest season. 

Nine Sonoma wineries together established Wine Road in 1976. It now includes about 200 winery members (close to half of the vineyards in Sonoma) and roughly 50 associate lodging members. The Wine Road website describes its coalition as “a spirited constellation of nearly 200 wineries and 54 lodgings” that provides a resource to guide visitors and locals alike. Member vineyards range from modern and state-of-the-art to smaller boutique operations located throughout northern Sonoma’s Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys. 

Sonoma is home to roughly 425 vineyards in total, including farmers who simply grow grapes for sale to larger companies, along with members-only vineyards where it can take years of being waitlisted before a would-be customer could even purchase a bottle, and everything in between. 

 Day 1: Arrival in Sonoma County

The wine country of Sonoma also offers the delicious paradox of mountain town atmosphere, rural farming interspersed with high luxury, and close proximity to expansive ocean shorelines. Just to the east is the neighboring, landlocked wine region of Napa County. Sonoma’s wine-producing regions cover roughly 65,000 acres, which is 25,000 more than neighboring Napa. 

Varied soil types and mild temperatures help make Sonoma a winegrower’s paradise. The county may be best known for its pinot noir and zinfandels, but it also produces a host of other varietals: chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, and petite sirah. Each subregion of Sonoma is known for particular grapes, and the Russian River Valley is widely considered to produce some of the world’s best pinot noir—the preferred varietal of the Paul Giamatti’s character in the 2004 film Sideways by Omaha director Alexander Payne. (Although the film was not shot in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, for the sake of the film’s protagonist, it probably should have been; the on-screen character’s obsession for pinot noir was associated with a spike in demand and price for pinot around the time of the film’s release.) The Russian River Valley is also notable for its chardonnay production.

Driving along River Road, we cross a bridge high over the Russian River. Happy kayakers float on the gentle river below (possibly with wine stashed in their vessels). Veering off the road, a steep driveway takes us up to our lodging nestled behind a wall of trees and dense foliage. We discover Sonoma Orchid Inn Bed and Breakfast—a cluster of cozy yellow cottages—to be a rustic, sun-soaked dream. Hummingbirds flit past multi-colored roses, and one of the property’s co-owners, Dana Murphy, welcomes us in the driveway.

Murphy offers a quick tour of the three-level main cottage. In addition to smaller standalone cottages outside, the main building features rooms for a range of price points. There is artwork and antique furniture throughout; a family-style dining room and living room on the main level with a library, fireplace, couches, floor-to-ceiling windows, and piano; and two kitchens, one for staff, one for guests. 

The nearby Russian River is a short walk from the lodging along Odd Fellows Park Road. The river takes its name from Russian explorers who established forts and planted apples in the area at the dawn of the 19th century. Then came Spanish missionaries, who introduced grapes to the Russian River Valley for personal consumption (making it the oldest wine-producing region of California). Formal annexation of California by the U.S. came in 1848, followed by the gold rush, logging and destruction of expansive redwood forests, Prohibition (which put local viticulture on hold), the rise and fall of hop farming, and eventual removal of apple orchards in recent decades. 

Sonoma’s history is fascinating, and the B&B site was originally the homestead of a prune/plumb/hops farmer who came out for the gold rush but missed the action. But I struggle to keep my focus from the mountain of chewy double-chocolate (gluten-free) cookies that Murphy—also the resident chef—had piled under a covered platter in the guest kitchen. 

The refrigerator is stocked with favorite wines from Sonoma, of course. To my surprise, the fridge is also packed with an ample selection of local craft beer and hard cider. Before becoming synonymous with wine country, Sonoma was famous for its production of Gravenstein apples and the hops necessary for beer. The high value of grapes in recent decades prompted growers to cultivate grapevines in place of orchards and hop farms. 

In recent years, however, the booming demand for craft beer and hard cider has led to resurgent use of these historic Sonoma agricultural products. Although the grapes remain more profitable per acre, the cyclical pattern of history in Sonoma agriculture feels poetic. But we are late for dinner (and I can only eat so many cookies before seeming like a rude guest).

Another driver picks us up, and we head into the quaint town of Guerneville. The small-town feel of the main drag belies the culinary delights waiting in the bars and restaurants. We stop at an uber-hip bistro, Boon Eat+Drink, to feast on roasted Brussels sprouts, a burger with truffle fries, and baked cod from a seasonally rotating menu (paired with Sonoma wine, of course, and a local Sonoma beer). Next door, we pop into the Guerneville Bank Club—a collective retail and art space in a restored historic bank—for a slice of spicy green chile apple pie with a scoop of lavender honeycomb ice cream. 

There is still sunlight, so we head over to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve for a walk. Giant redwoods tower overhead, and we meander through the trees on a flat trail with occasional interpretive signs that explain how the patch of old-growth forest narrowly escaped loggers’ axes. We take the “Discovery Loop” trail to pay respects to Colonel Armstrong (a redwood tree that is more than 1,400 years old) and Parson Jones (the forest’s tallest tree at 310 feet).

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

Back at our lodging, our host explains that we made the right decision to skip Muir Woods National Monument on the way to Sonoma. Although Muir Woods is easily accessible north of San Francisco, the forest has become so crowded with tourists that reservations are needed to visit. We just showed up at Armstrong Redwoods, and we only encountered a few other couples and families hiking (there . 

 Day 2: Adventure and Gluttony

Experiencing local wineries fills the remainder of our trip. We have multiple chauffeurs during our tour, and I ask each driver to suggest the perfect number of wineries to visit on a trip to Sonoma. The answer varies. 

One middle-aged driver says that two or three at max is ideal per day. He sees too many visitors get sloshed early in the day and miss their dinner reservations to five-star restaurants. He’s been driving guests for many years, and his advice is solid. In contrast, another driver (in his 20s) insists that five wineries is the perfect number in a day. With youthful energy and/or high tolerance for alcohol, this could also work out well—so long as wine consumption is moderated at every stop, or there are no fancy dinner reservations in the evening that could be spoiled. 

There are vessels for spitting out wine at every winery. And staffers always assure us that this is perfectly normal. But I find it difficult to not swallow/guzzle great wine, so a less-ambitious winery tour is better for my waste-not attitude. Then again, I also want to sample as much as I can. Luckily, we experience a bit of both scheduling philosophies on our trip. 

We begin with a leisurely drinking day. But first, some adventure. My first full day in Sonoma begins at Sonoma Canopy Tours. Michele and the baby stay at the B&B as I head deep into the redwood forest. 

To check in, I must step on a scale to make sure I’m not over 250 pounds. A nearby television screen displays footage of helmeted humans screaming through the treetops hundreds of feet above the earth. Minutes later, I’m geared up and flying between the redwoods. My group’s lead guide, Bryan Hart, is a true comedian. Every stop on a platform high in the trees is master’s course in tree-related puns, i.e., Q: Why is this tree so healthy? A: Because of the antibodies (he points to the ants all over the tree). Hart’s assistant can’t help but roll his eyes at the constant barrage of puns (that he has no doubt heard a million times) about pirates, animals, wine, and celebri-trees. But I love it. 

Meanwhile, Michele is enjoying breakfast with travelers from as far away as Latvia and across the U.S. (including local Californians). Some are passing through on self-directed wine tours, others make the lodge a recurring destination for family trips. The co-owners, Murphy and Brian Siewert, are experts on Sonoma wineries, festivals, and activities. What’s more, they share their knowledge with a typical laid-back California fashion, absent of condescension (which we experienced all throughout Sonoma). They were helpful and informative without making us feel stupid about wine, which in all fairness, we were.

In an idyllic sun-soaked scene that could have been ripped from a Thomas Kinkade painting, I find Michele and the baby playing in the yard. Then we are off to our first winery, Korbel Champagne Cellars, which boasts of being the only producer of real champagne outside of France. Korbel’s operation in Sonoma was founded by three Czech brothers in 1882, a history that exempts it from a later international treaty that legally restricts use of the term “champagne” to sparkling wine produced in Champagne, France. 

Korbel provided the champagne for Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. Of course a Californian would use “California Champagne,” and he set a tradition that has continued with the drink of choice in all subsequent U.S. presidential inaugurations. President Barack Obama received angry feedback from French wine lobbyists for his serving Korbel to no avail. His inauguration organizers more or less told the lobbyists to “put a cork in it.”

We visit the cellars, learn the company history, witness the stages of production, and linger in the tasting room until we’ve tried every variety (including several limited editions). Buzzed and late, we stop in the cafe for some fancy sandwiches to eat in the car. Had we not spent so much time in the tasting room, we would have taken our sandwiches to Armstrong Redwoods for a picnic. Never mind. We are off to our next destination, Iron Horse Vineyards. 

Iron Horse Vineyards’ tasting room consists of a cozy bar overlooking a sweeping vista of grapevines rolling downhill and out to the horizon. Iron Horse, like Korbel, was also a crucial drink for the Reagan administration. Iron Horse’s sparkling wine was served at his Perestroika meetings with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. Although famous for its sparkling wine (and we sample the 2013 Russian Cuvee that commemorates the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting), the vineyard produces much more—including some delightful chardonnay and pinot noir. 

We close out the bar in the late afternoon, and we head to Forestville (another of Sonoma’s quaint little towns) for dinner reservations at Backyard. Backyard is a farm-to-table restaurant. Chef and owner Daniel Kedan brings out a spectacular charcuterie board with ingredients sourced from his own garden along with local organic farms. Live music is playing, and we order several other dishes—pizza, pasta, and fried chicken—that are all wonderful. 

Beware. Travelers in wine country must be careful of overeating as well as overdrinking. By the time we leave Backyard, I am so full that I have to walk up and down the little main street a few times

 Day 3: Novelty and Heavy Drinking

Our first full day was a crash course in sparkling wine. Our second full day will introduce the broader spectrum of Sonoma wines from chardonnay to pinot to zinfandel (and more). Wine tours, we are told, should start with lighter-bodied wines—sparkling or chardonnay—and move into the heavier-bodied wines. Pinot is a very light-bodied red wine. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, is robust and dominates one’s palate).

After a family-style breakfast at the B&B, I take a lesson from the previous day and remind myself not to overdo it. Today is our big day of drinking with four vineyards and a brewery all on the itinerary. We start with a stop at Sonoma-Cutrer in the Russian River Valley.

While the baby is sleeping in the stroller under the shade of our table’s umbrella, we sample three refreshing chardonnays and a pinot while munching on a local cheese spread. Each chardonnay exhibits a different flavor characteristic: one is more fruit forward on the tongue, another carries stronger oaky hints from the barrel, and the third has a stronger mineral taste. The pinot, without any cross-reference, I’d simply describe as delightful (a descriptor that applies to each chardonnay, too). 

Our table overlooks two croquet courts. Two elderly couples smack at balls on one court, and our server offers a quick tutorial. We play a few rounds as the baby sleeps nearby. Swinging the mallet between planted feet takes some getting used to, but it’s a fun way to putter around the grass while enjoying more wine. 

Next, we swing over to Healdsburg for lunch at Bear Republic Brewing Co. We order a Big Bear Black Stout and the barrel-aged flight set. For Sonoma’s historical integrity, the hoppy flight would have been another good choice, but we are trying to pace ourselves. We order garlic fries and a beet salad. Then we’re off to Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in the Dry Creek Valley.

Ferrari-Carano’s palatial estate features sprawling gardens that are a tourist attraction independent of the winery, which employs a dozen or so full-time gardeners to care for flowers and hedgerows surrounding the mansion. There is even a special hotline (707-433-5349) for the public to inquire about the status of the tulips. The estate’s roughly 10,000 tulips and daffodils bloom in the spring. Owner Rhonda Carano designed all the gardens, and every year she chooses the colors of the tulips to surprise visitors. Roses are also found throughout the property (and in other Sonoma vineyards). Traditionally, roses served a purpose in vineyards by indicating to growers if pests were threatening the vines (the flowers were the first targets, though they now primarily serve an aesthetic role).

The vineyard has two tasting rooms: one on the main level, and one past the cellars downstairs. We start with tasting upstairs. Then, we head downstairs to experience a private sensory tasting where a sommelier has different canisters spread across a table in a dimly lit room. Each canister holds a different item: from fruits and herbs to spices and chocolate, paired with lighter wines first, followed by a succession of heavier-bodied wines. The exercise is meant to help strengthen one’s ability to articulate the sensory experience of the wine, as each person may experience a wine differently with different mental associations. 

By this point in the day, I’m thankful we have a driver. Our next stop is Fritz Underground. Founder Arthur Fritz started building the facility in the heat of the 1970s’ energy crisis. The production facility, cellar, and tasting room were all buried into a hillside in the Dry Creek Valley. By the time construction had completed, the energy crisis was over; however, the vineyard continues to yield the benefit of low utility bills and is ready in the event that America again faces an energy shortage. Touring the vineyard feels like descending into a futuristic bomb shelter, but the top-level tasting room feels like sitting in a church with the serving sommelier as the high priest. 

It’s Tuesday, and every Tuesday evening is the A Tavola dinner at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. We head over for the meal featuring actors serving dinner and drinks in a theatrical performance that comes directly to the table. 

Driving into the grounds, we keep an eye out for the red Tesla that the famous director and vineyard owner supposedly drives. We don’t see it. So we proceed to walk through the lavish grounds, past the expansive swimming pool area, toward the restaurant.

Waiting for our dinner reservation, we have time to peruse an expansive collection of memorabilia in the two-level Movie Gallery museum. There’s Don Corleone’s desk from the Godfather movies and vampire garb from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, along with other unforgettable props from Coppola films. There’s even a short-story dispenser that prints out short stories in three lengths (with a button for estimated reading time of one, three, or five minutes) from Zoetrope: All-Story, Coppola’s magazine of short stories and art. 

A very pregnant-looking hostess/actress takes us to our seat. There is a family patriarch in wife beater chastising waiters or running from his wife. Waiter-actors deliver multiple courses of pasta, pizza, and other Italian foods to our table (along with accompanying Coppola brand wines, of course). An accordion player sits at one end of the spacious room filled with tables of guests, and at different points of the evening, he is joined by other musicians. 

At some point, the family patriarch chases another man around the room with a knife. They run around outdoors and around the building. Then the antics resume indoors. By this point, it’s getting late and the baby starts to cry. The patriarch comes over and, still remaining in character, apologetically asks if the knife chase was too much. Not at all. But it has been a long day. We finish our meal and depart for much-needed  

 Day 4: Bitten by the Wine Bug

Feeling quite accomplished to wake up without a hangover, we enjoy one last breakfast with our host B&B and head to the final winery of our trip—DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Acquired by the Boisset Family of vineyards in 2003, the 25-acre vineyard continues the original DeLoach philosophy of sustainable winemaking. It is one of several Boisset vineyards in France, California, Italy, and Canada

As we approach DeLoach, our driver explains that this road is home to many “old vine” grape-bearing vines (35 to 40 years old, or older), discernible by the vines’ gnarled appearance and absence of modern trellis technology. When we sit down at the vineyard’s outdoor patio area, we have the opportunity to enjoy a range of DeLoach wines that includes both new-growth and old-growth vines produced by the property (and supplemented by neighboring vineyards).

A staffer gives us a tour of the grounds, the “biodynamic” eco-friendly garden that is home to various flowers, vegetable gardens, and animals (Faye-Marie is especially impressed with the goats and chickens). We also explore owner Jean-Charles Boisset’s party room—a James Bond-themed bar area with costumes, wigs, and sensory emitters (like what we had at Ferrari-Carano, but in squeezable perfume sprayers) decorating the walls. Our guide explains that each Boisset vineyard has a special party room with a different theme.

Our time in Sonoma is drawing to a close. We down our last glasses of DeLoach’s delicious old-vine wine, bid farewell to Sonoma, and our driver takes us back to San Francisco for an afternoon flight. Time to return to reality. 

The day after returning to Omaha, I can’t help but feel something is missing. I’m eating my lunch as I normally do, and it hits me: where’s my wine? Three and a half days of drinking some of the nation’s best wine can be habit-forming. And lunch is just not the same without it. 

Later that night, after shutting down the office, I head to the Costco near Omaha Magazine’s suburban office to pick up some groceries—and to see if I can find any of the wines we had tasted on our vineyard tour. Happily, I find a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from Sonoma-Cutrer. 

The bottle is above the price point I would normally spend. But the purchase is worth it. After putting the baby to bed, we slice some cheese and uncork the bottle. Two glasses of the crisp and refreshing chardonnay later, we are transported back to the frivolous, sun-drenched morning of snacking and croquet while our baby sleeps peacefully.

Wine, it seems, truly has the power to teleport the sensory experiences of one memorable moment to the present. Would I like to travel back to Sonoma? Most definitely. Until the opportunity arises, the occasional Sonoma wine will do just fine. 

Visit wineroad.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Iron Horse Vineyards in mid-March

Pinot and Pumps

August 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While customers filled up their cars with gas, I filled up on a five-course meal and knocked back glasses of fine California wines. A gas station is the last place most people would go for fancy dining, but once a month local food and wine lovers gather around tables—set up just beyond the racks of Slim Jims and smokes—at the Old Market Cubby’s to savor elegant dishes paired with wines.

It’s not uncommon these days to find good, affordable bottles of vino at convenience stores, but few offer wine-tasting dinners like Cubby’s has for the last decade. The downtown Omaha convenience store, which includes a deli, produce section, and meat counter, hosts the popular wine dinners on the third Wednesday of the month. Cubby’s kitchen crew prepares the food on-site, and the menu, designed to appeal to a wide range of tastes, changes each month. 

Whether guests are casual wine drinkers or connoisseurs, the dinners provide a chance to enhance their knowledge—perhaps my favorite aspect of the event. At a recent dinner, fine wine specialist John Ursick of Omaha and others were on hand to describe the nuances of each wine and answer questions. The dinners are a relative bargain at $30 per person. Portions are generous, and so are the pours.

Crostini topped with olive tapenade and sliced prosciutto

On my visit, the first course featured a flavorful flatbread layered with dried apricot and figs, prosciutto, and fresh arugula. Edible flowers scattered on top provided an extra pop of color, while the sweetness of the dried fruit combined perfectly with the saltiness of the prosciutto. Also good was the accompanying glass of smooth, fruity chardonnay from The Crusher Wines.

A textural and visual delight, crostini topped with olive tapenade and sliced prosciutto was a satisfying blend of crispy, salty, and savory, but I would have preferred the prosciutto shaved thin. A juicy, easy-drinking red blend, also from The Crusher Wines, complemented the dish beautifully.

I also enjoyed a plate of plump, tender crab cakes that had a generous amount of lump crabmeat and a crispy, golden brown exterior. A glass of full-bodied Chardonnay from B Side Wines on California’s North Coast delighted with its crisp finish.

Crab cakes

Shrimp scampi arrived buttery, lemony, and just garlicky enough, but the accompanying pasta was slightly overcooked. It came paired with a Don & Sons pinot noir from Sonoma County, in the heart of wine country.

For dessert, a version of frozen s’mores delivered all the flavors one would expect from the classic childhood treat: graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow. A scoop of homemade bubblegum ice cream in the center was luscious and creamy, but the flavor clashed with the other ingredients. The dessert’s sweetness paired well with the slightly smoky notes of the Gunsight Rock cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles.

Although a gas station is no match for the ambiance of a rustic winery or cozy bistro, wine dinners at Cubby’s are a fun way to sample a variety of bites and learn more about wine in a relaxed, casual, and unconventional setting. 

Cubby’s Old Market Grocery and Catering

601 S. 13th St. | 402.341.2900 

FOOD 3.5 stars
SERVICE 4 stars
AMBIANCE 3 stars
OVERALL 3.5 stars

Visit cubbys.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Flatbread layered with dried apricot, figs, prosciutto, and fresh arugula

California Dreaming In Omaha

June 13, 2017 by
Photography by Chuck Amoura, Amoura Productions

Mary Anne and Jerry McCrea had to make a decision when they got transferred to Palm Springs, California. Should they sell their 1990s time-capsule of a home during the market downturn of 2010?

Or, should they hold on to their family’s longtime residence and update it when they move back to Omaha for retirement?

They decided to take a chance and held on to the beloved property where they had lived for so many years.

Fast forward to 2016. My task was to remodel the entire home. The home needed to function for large family gatherings. I needed to come up with a floor plan that had a better flow (to accommodate a large crowd of kids and grandkids), was easy to maintain, and (of course) was aesthetically pleasing.

It was bitter cold in Nebraska when they hired me. So, I wanted to give them a taste of sunny California in Omaha. To accomplish this more temperate mood, I chose a light and airy palette of soft sand and soothing blues and greens.

In the kitchen, I changed the layout to open the space to an adjacent family room. All of the golden oak cabinetry was replaced with a crisp white Shaker-style cabinet. White quartz with a splash of warm tan lightened and brightened the space. The blue-gray glass subway tile added a beautiful reflective quality to the kitchen. Sleek stainless steel and massive glass pendant lights added contemporary flair. The dated tile that covered much of the main floor was replaced with gorgeous 4-inch plank hickory. The floors were finished with tongue oil rather than polyurethane to give them a durable low-maintenance matte finish.

One major transformation happened in the master bath. Although the footprint of the space was large, it felt very dark and small. The floor was covered in dark cobalt-blue ceramic tile. The tub was 8 feet long and took up a large area of the room, yet was never used. The shower—which was used every day—was shoved in the toilet area in the back of the room. First and foremost, I reworked the layout to allow for a very large walk-in shower. The space where the old shower was became the perfect spot for beautiful custom cabinetry. Clever use of niches, grab bars, and no curb made this zero-entry shower totally accessible for the couple to age in place with a luxurious master bath.

The McCreas couldn’t be happier with what feels like a brand-new home. I couldn’t be happier that I was able to give them a little taste of California they can enjoy during the long Nebraska winters. 

Visit designerstouchomaha.com to see more of the designer’s work.

Home Opener

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I have written frequently about growing up in small-town Iowa. My father farmed for 30 years, and his parents farmed. I have always felt the nostalgia of this lifestyle, and I knew a rural setting was exactly what I wanted to show my early spring project.

Driving the highway outside of Papillion, I often went past this beautiful farm, now up for sale, which has lots of rustic charm. Sadly, many of these old earthy buildings are falling into disrepair, but they always have their own story. This one was no exception.

I stepped out of the car and walked along the gravel driveway, past what resembled overgrown peonies and lilac bushes, toward a massive 100-year-old barn. Hints of white paint still remained in spots. The barn had the sort of time-worn character that is impossible to recreate.

Hal Timm, I came to learn, is the great-grandson of the original owners. His great-grandmother purchased this farm in 1912 with the intent to expand the family homestead and keep the adult children close by. With his blessing, we shot my May/June DIY project here.

As Mr. Timm was packing some of the final belongings from the house, we were finishing up the photos. He thanked me for coming and said that he imagined his grandfather and grandmother may have danced on the farm as newlyweds when it became theirs in the early 1900s. He also stated that seeing our photo shoot seemed like an appropriate bookend for the era—he said it made him smile watching us.

Speaking of legacies, this issue features Chiodo Palace near 25th and Leavenworth streets, built in 1922 by Vincenzo Pietro Chiodo. Current homeowners Barry Burt and Michael Heaton have worked diligently to preserve the legacy of this unique, storied home.

But if your taste happens to be the look and feel of sunny California, take a peek at Marian Holden’s Transformations. This local ASID interior designer used a palette of soft sand colors and soothing blues and greens in this stunning makeover. The McCreas wanted to bring a bit of Palm Springs to the Midwest.

I hope you enjoy the issue!

Sandy Matson is the contributing editor for Omaha Home.

Out-of-State Camps

The time is swiftly approaching when parents will have to sit down and have “the talk” with their children. This heart-to-heart shouldn’t be taken lightly as the child’s response could have a serious impact on their future.

The subject matter? What summer camp should they attend? This is a right of passage and tradition for some; for others, it is an introduction to what will become a career or lifelong passion. While campfires, canoes, and “Kumbaya” are associated with traditional summer camp programs, other organizations across the country have transformed the annual break into something truly extraordinary.

When choosing an experience as unique as your child, consider a camp catered to their imagination. Whether they dream of becoming an astronaut, fashion designer, marine biologist, or musician, there is a platform available to them. While groups of boys and girls are roasting marshmallows and crafting in commons areas, the youngsters at these one-of-a-kind camps are fostering special skills, pursuing their passions, and opening their minds to a world where life is lived outside the box.

1. Pali  Adventures—Near Los Angeles, California
($2,000-plus for one week*)

Kids who love to play cops and robbers, or dream of being the next Carmen Sandiego, find plenty of options at Secret Agent Camp (SAC) run by Pali Adventures. Other unique camps include Hollywood stunts, flying trapeze, and LARP (live action role playing). This is a true imagination station for kids 8-16 years old.

2. Global Expeditions Group—Multiple locations
($5,800-plus for three weeks)

Send students around the world. Global Expeditions Group runs Action Quest and GoBeyond Student Travel. Action Quest involves living on, and helping to sail, a boat for three weeks while learning diving, sailing, marine biology, and more. GoBeyond takes students to places from Peru to the Galapagos to Asia and farther while participating in service learning.

3. ThrillCoasters Tour—Multiple locations
($2,000-plus for one week)

Although the word “camp” is not in the name, this adventure is for the kid who lives for amusement parks. One trip includes two days at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, which boasts 16 roller coasters, another includes two days at Six Flags Magic Mountain, which has 19 roller coasters, more than any other amusement park in the U.S.

4. Camp Winnarainbow—Berkley, California

($1,845 for two weeks)

Camp Winnarainbow, created by 1960s activist/icon Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy, focuses on circus and performing arts, from clowning to juggling to trapeze. Parents needing a week away can attend the adults-only version. Ben & Jerry’s now-retired ice cream bearing Romney’s nom de circus helped fund the camp from sales of their brazil-nut caramel confection.

5. Long Lake Camp for the Arts—Dobbs Ferry, New York
($5,950 for two weeks)

Long Lake allows youngsters to focus on their individual artistic specialties, as it offers a self-choice schedule. This schedule allows kids to combine activities in an unlimited number of ways. The biggest lessons they will learn here are commitment, confidence, and dedication, all while pursing their passion.

6. Fashion Camp NYC—New York, New York
($1,200 for one week)

This is not a sleep-away camp, but kids who are serious about joining the fashion industry will benefit from this experience. Three successive programs are offered that teach kids everything from what careers are available in the fashion industry to gaining internships. Along the way, they complete individual and team projects and meet with top executives from the industry.

7. Space Camp—Huntsville, Alabama
($1,000 for one week)

Founded more than 30 years ago by rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun, this camp is the stuff of legends, or at least TV show mentions. Campers will gain hands-on training, experience high-fidelity simulations, and develop impactful skills for a future among the stars. Alumni of Space Camp have gone on to become astronauts and engineers for NASA and ESA.

8. Camp Jam—Multiple locations ($1,500-plus for one week)

Camp Jam is available in 10 cities across the United States (Chicago and St. Louis are the closest to Omaha), offering a vast curriculum for campers including music business, stage performance, songwriting, and recording. One highlight of this camp is the master classes, which are taught by noted artists such as Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones or Matchbox 20 keyboardist Joey Huffman.

9. Camp Woodward, Pennsylvania; Truckee, California; Tehachapi, California; Copper Mountain, Colorado
($1,800-plus for one week)

Camp Woodward has pruned and produced some of the world’s best skateboarders, snowboarders, BMX-ers, and more. The camp is specifically designed for professional-level training, and has some of the best facilities in the world. No prior experience is needed, and kids will have the opportunity to practice in one-of-a-kind parks, take freestyle and private lessons, and participate in a variety of classes. 

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

*Editor’s note: The article originally incorrectly listed Pali Adventures as $2000 for three weeks.

Omaha 2017 Ambassadors

March 4, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

This article appears in the program book for the FEI World Cup Finals, produced by Omaha Magazine in March 2017.

Everyone involved in the equestrian world shares a passion—for the sport, for the horses, and for the beauty and nobility of the presentation. Lisa Roskens, founder of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, counted on that enthusiasm to make the very first Omaha International a success. The number of local and regional volunteers who worked the event exceeded expectations back in 2012. But once the Federation Equestre Internationale awarded Omaha the 2017 FEI World CupTM Finals, Roskens knew organizers would have to overcome an obvious hurdle; one created by geography.

“This is the World Series of our sport, truly a global and national event,” says Roskens. “While most people involved in equestrian sports understand and follow the World CupTM, they don’t really understand Omaha.”

True to form, whenever confronted with a challenge, Roskens gathered her friends and colleagues in the OEF to brainstorm. How could they reach out to those who only know Omaha as a city locked in the middle of “flyover country?”

“We realized we needed a much more personalized outreach approach for those people to truly understand what they can expect (from Omaha) and to give them reasons to get excited about coming here,” she says. “So it wasn’t just mass mailers going out to generate excitement.”

Sybil Greene and Karen Ensminger, co-directors of Omaha 2017 Ambassadors

And so the Omaha 2017 Ambassadors program began. It quickly evolved into more than a platform to tout the positives of the Midlands. The scope of the effort, extending beyond neighboring states, also generated a groundswell of support for the FEI World CupTM Finals Omaha 2017 and for equestrian sports in general.

OEF board member Karen Ensminger and riding instructor Sybil Greene head the Ambassadors program. With the help of an office assistant and a few interns, they created an impressive information pipeline—one person at a time.

“Our goal was to get at least one person in all 50 states who would take information from us and then spread the word,” explains Greene. “We figured they would become a contact point for others in their area who wanted to know more about the World CupTM and Omaha in particular.”

The women started gathering Ambassadors by calling personal friends in the horse community. Having grown up in Maryland, Greene knows riders from the Chesapeake Bay area up through New Jersey.

Ensminger, a native New Yorker who has worked in Los Angeles and Boston, had no trouble making up her friends’ minds for them. “I called them up and said, ‘Look, this is what’s happening here in Omaha and I’m sure you want to get involved. So I’m going to sign you up as an Ambassador,’” she says as she laughs. The new recruits then received a packet of information from Omaha about the 2017 FEI World CupTM Finals. “I told them to put the flyers in their barns, tack stores, feed stores, their places of work, grocery stores, coffee shops, everywhere. And then, of course, I invited them to come.”

In addition to the invitation, Ambassadors received a navy blue ball cap emblazoned with the event’s colorful horse logo and “Omaha 2017 Ambassador” stitched in white underneath, an FEI World CupTM Finals pin, vouchers for a non-sold-out event, and discounted tickets.

To reach the massive number of riders they don’t know, Greene harnessed the power of social media. She created an Ambassadors Facebook page, where people could sign up electronically. She joined Facebook groups that had anything to do with horses—farms, stables, barns, riding clubs, horse dealers—and asked for people to volunteer as Ambassadors. She re-posted articles about the FEI World CupTM Finals Omaha 2017 and sent out media blasts, paying special attention to the ones listing things to do in Omaha.

“It’s been an extremely low financial output on our part,” says Ensminger.

Though striving for a modest goal of one contact per state, the committee managed to sign up multiple Ambassadors in several states, including 25 to 30 in horse-heavy states like Texas, California, and Montana. Many Ambassadors have taken up the invitation to attend the FEI World CupTM Finals. Some are even volunteering their services in whatever capacity needed during the events.

“The baseball people know about Omaha because of the College World Series, the swimming people because of the Olympic Swim Trials,” says Greene. “And now the horse world knows about us. We’re building on our reputation as a place for elite sports.”

Will the Ambassadors program, created especially for the Midwest’s first-ever international equestrian showdown, continue? “If participants see it as a valuable and fun experience, then we will consider expanding upon it,” says Roskens.

Judging from the number of selfies taken with Omaha ’17 merchandise and posted on social media, keeping the program might just be a plan.

Cheryl Johnson, Sue Morrison, and Karen Ensminger prepare mailings for the Ambassadors program.

The Fabric of Life

January 15, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Ian Rose and Robert Voelte moved to a new condo on the top floor of the historic Beebe & Runyan Lofts, northeast of the Old Market and Gene Leahy Mall at Ninth and Douglas streets, the location provided everything the elementary educators and arts enthusiasts were looking for.

“We’re able to walk to the Holland. We’re able to walk to the Orpheum, the Old Market, all the parks down here. We’re also members of Film Streams, so we can walk over there as well,” Voelte says. “And as much as we’re passionate about teaching, we’re also passionate about travel. We’re close to the airport, which makes it really convenient because we do travel quite a bit, and it’s easy to get there.”

textiles1However, the spacious two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,700-square-foot unit just can’t accommodate their entire collection of beloved artworks, furnishings, accents, and decor carefully selected over 30 years. So rather than giving up a sizable percentage of these treasures or relegating them to permanent storage, Voelte has come up with an inspired solution: change out decor and refresh the look of his and Rose’s home twice a year.

“I thought about how museums only have a small percentage of their holdings on display at any one time,” he explains. “I decided to adapt that idea for my home and only display a limited amount of my belongings at one time, rotating things in and out. I am able to appreciate my home and the decor even more because everything always seems new and fresh to me.”

The process evokes good memories of past adventures, old friends, and even the story of how each item was acquired, Voelte says. The pieces come from all over the world, and much was purchased during or influenced by travel. Core favorites include an antique Chinese chicken coop used to store dishes and linens; an antique Japanese kitchen cabinet that serves as a bookcase in the master bedroom; hand-carved one-piece spider tables from the Bamileke tribe in Cameroon; mid-century walnut Eames chairs; Akari washi—paper lantern lamps made by Noguchi in Japan; and Verner Panton dining chairs.

textiles31textiles6“I think our home is very unique,” he says. “My style is eclectic with Asian, African, natural, classic, and utilitarian themes. Authentic vintage textiles previously used in utilitarian ways—indigos from around the world, Indonesian ikats, Japanese obis, African tie-dyed raffia skirts, and Kuba cloth—are often the inspiration that begins the design process.”

It’s never quite the same look twice, Voelte adds, but he does work around his core pieces as well as some palette constants.

“In late spring or summer, the feeling is lighter and fewer items are on display. The mood is brighter with hand-dyed indigo fabrics, khakis, whites, creams, and seashells—things I associate with summer because we are both teachers who look forward to travel, socializing, relaxation—recharging our batteries,” Voelte says. “In the fall and winter, decor gets changed out, including rugs, artwork, and linens, as well as some furniture rearrangement. It is a more spiritual, reflective, introspective time, which is reflected in darker colors: purples, charcoal, Chinese red. The decor is more layered with design elements.”

The Renaissance Revival-style building in which the couple’s condo is located was built in 1913 to serve as a warehouse and showroom. The original architect was John McDonald, best known for the Joslyn Castle. The Beebe & Runyan building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Rose and Voelte purchased their condo as a raw space following the building’s 2007 conversion.

“When we walked in, we immediately were drawn to the exterior brick wall on the west side, which has two inlaid brick arches that span three windows each,” Voelte says. “It is quite eye-catching.”

textiles1Their unit boasts sloped ceilings that reach a height of 16 feet, original brick walls, and wood posts and columns. They finished the space as a semi-open loft designed with custom finishes and natural materials like walnut cabinetry built by hand, honed marble counters, and slate tile or refinished original birdseye maple floors.

Every detail shows thought and consideration, like backsplash tiles that were hand-carried in a suitcase from California. Niche and built-in shelves highlight special artworks. “Everything has to be aesthetically pleasing to me or it won’t be in my house,” Voelte says.

The space was also designed with entertaining, especially dinner parties for family and friends, in mind.

“I love to cook, so I spend a lot of time in the kitchen,” Rose says. “Our kitchen is so open that even when you’re in the kitchen, you’re not detached from the rest of the home. I can still be in the middle of what’s going on.”

“As much as we love to travel, we love our home,” Voelte says. “We have a great life!”

Visit beeberunyan.com for more information. OmahaHome


Ice Age Tusks vs. Blood Ivory

December 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Doug Meigs

The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.

Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.

As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.

Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.

Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.

Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).

“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.


Nebraska’s State Fossil

Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.

He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.

The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.

Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.

The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.

“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”

Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.

“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.

Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.

The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).

“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.

Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”

On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.

Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”

Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.

Elephant and Mammoth Ivory

Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.

To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.

mammoth4Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.

The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.

After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”

Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.

Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.

Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.

Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.

According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.

Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.

Changing Regulatory Landscapes

Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.

Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.

Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.

As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).

mammoth5Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.

During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.

Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.

Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.

She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.

In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.

Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.

Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”

While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.

Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers

Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.

“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”

In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.

mammoth3-2One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.

Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.

“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.

Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.

In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.

Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.

Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.

Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.

In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.


One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.

Regulation of Mammoth Ivory

Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.

Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.

Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.

Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.

Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.

In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.

Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.

Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.

“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”

The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.

A Precious Scientific Commodity

University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.

“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”

Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.

For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.

“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.

Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.

Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.

George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.

“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”

– George Corner


Artist Erin Blayney

October 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that doubles as her studio.

Natural light from six large, south-facing windows cascades over her easel and houseplants. “Not only is that perfect for the type of lighting I need to do my best work, it’s healthy for my overall well-being,” says Blayney.

erinblayney2Exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Extra-wide windowsills provide great perches for her collection of succulents.

“I love nature and the outdoors,” she says. “This apartment allows me to integrate that love into my living quarters, and not feel cramped or experience cabin fever.”

Her spot above Urban Abbey in the historic Windsor Hotel building puts her right in the thick of things. “The Old Market for me is very welcoming, unique, and nourishes a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It’s urban yet has some aspect of a small neighborhood as well.”

A Florida transplant and Art Institute of Chicago graduate, Blayney creates figurative drawings and paintings. She previously worked as an art preparator for California museums.

Her mother preceded her to Omaha to be near a sister, and Erin followed. “My mom lives three blocks away from me, so it’s wonderful to conveniently meet for coffee or go for a bike ride together,” she says.

This self-described “people person” is drawn to the human form. She variously works from live models or photographs.

“Drawing and painting people, mostly gestural, seems to be pretty consistent for me,” she says. “It’s capturing the physicality of a person expressed through facial expression or movement. I love capturing the realness of their character, even if it’s subtle.”

Recently, Omaha restaurant mogul Willy Theisen commissioned her portrait of his granddaughter for his new Paragon eatery in Dundee.

When approaching a new work, she says, “I never know how it’s going to look, so it’s a little adventurous. If I stop thinking about what I’m doing and just let it flow, it comes out naturally. That ‘diving into it’ mindset is what I have to be in for the work to really evolve. It’s mysterious.”


Blayney’s work is not all figurative. “Occasionally, I’ll do still life,” she says, gesturing to an in-progress oyster shell rendered in a swirl of pastels. She is contemplating an oceanic-themed series motivated by her love of the water, marine life, and nature.

“I was brought up on water. I swam in the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s in my bones.”

In Omaha, she has twice worked at Jun Kaneko’s studio (most recently in 2006 as a painting assistant). Of the celebrated artist, she says, “We had a good connection. He’s very quiet, polite, observant, receptive. He was very trusting of me. Like when I did some mixing of colors, pigments—he trusted my instincts. I’m not a ceramicist, but I felt in my natural element.”

She feels at home in Omaha, where she says, “The connections I’ve made are so important.” The same for her day job at Alley Poyner Macchietto, where she curates art shows. She admires the local art-culture scene.

“I feel the creative community in Omaha is very supportive rather than super competitive. The friends I’ve made here are very authentic, genuine, and loyal.”

She enjoys what the Bemis and Joslyn offer as well as how “smaller, contemporary, progressive galleries like Project Project and Darger HQ are pushing the envelope. I’m a huge fan of Garden of the Zodiac. 1516 Gallery is just gorgeous.”

In the spring of 2016, Petshop Gallery in Benson exhibited her portraiture work. She regularly shows in the Bemis Benefit Art Auction and had a piece in the October 28 show (she described the colorful abstract portrait as “a little mysterious looking”).

Blayney also contributed to the Old Market Art Project; hers was one of 37 banners selected (from nearly 300 submissions) to be displayed outside the Mercer Building as renovations followed the M’s Pub fire.

“It’s an abstract painting that took forever,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in it. Finally, it just came together. I collaborated with another artist in the process of painting it, and then I finished it.”

She sees many opportunities for local artists in Omaha, but there is room for improvement, too. “There’s definitely room to grow—I’d like to see even more galleries because there’s so much talent here,” she says.

Going into the fall, several commission projects were “consuming” Blayney’s time. Her projects come from anywhere and everywhere. “Lately, it’s been more people coming to me and asking either for a portrait of themselves or of a family member. I can be surprised. I’ve given my card to someone and then a year later gotten a commission. It’s unpredictable.”

Visit erinblayney.com for more information.



Girl on Fire

August 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Haunting melodies float on a summer breeze. Anna McClellan is practicing on the grand piano;  her melancholy lyrics and precise keystrokes are muffled by walls of her friend’s house in the Dundee neighborhood. Step inside the house and it becomes clear: the calm singer-songwriter with oversized eyeglasses is on fire.

AnnaMcClellan2McClellan, 23, is preparing for several shows scheduled across town in the coming days and weeks. She is also preparing for a two-week, cross-country tour to California. Her destination: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free festival on the first weekend of October at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She is booking her own gigs for the trip there and back.

The Omaha-born musician will take the stage with another famous local singer-songwriter, Conor Oberst. One of the festival’s seven stages is called “Conor Brings Friends.”

Oberst contributed vocals to McClellan’s most successful single, “Fire Flames,” also the title of her 2015 album (Fire Flames was a cassette tape released simultaneously in digital format by Majestic Litter).

McClellan has played several times at Oberst’s Pageturners Lounge in Dundee. “He’s very supportive of a lot of people around town,” she says. “It’s nice in Omaha, because it’s such a tight-knit community of people (making music). It’s really easy to get help.”

She wrote the song “Fire Flames” in a single sitting, which McClellan says is unusual for her. The lyrics exemplify a recurring theme in her music: “It is such a universal idea to want to be a part of what’s going on, and what the world is, and also being scared of it. But knowing that even though you’re scared of it, if you don’t jump in and try to be a part of it, you won’t be satisfied.”

In conversation, her demeanor is so chill. But she’s a hustler behind the scenes. She works two jobs (one at Joslyn Art Museum, another at The Blackstone Meatball) and plays shows around town by night. She’s speaking to Omaha Magazine on her day off.

AnnaMcClellan3McClellan began studying piano at age 8 through the Omaha Conservatory of Music. She credits the tutelage of Anne Madison for inspiring her passion for piano. Playing the saxophone in jazz band, concert band, and marching band (while a student at Central High School) helped her break out of her comfort zone: “I tend toward structure, where everything’s pre-planned and you know what you are going to do. To be taken out of that comfort zone, and then pushed into solos, made me better, more daring.”

Her mother, former KETV newscaster Carol Kloss, also provided crucial encouragement. They performed together in church musicals, and Kloss included McClellan—the younger of her two daughters—in several Omaha Press Club Show performances.

McClellan first began experimenting with songwriting while studying abroad in Denmark during her junior year of high school. She was in a band called Howard after returning to Omaha, then went solo in 2013. Last year she moved to New York City for three months, working and performing, eventually catching a break to go on tour as the opener for the band Frankie Cosmos. 

Now, she’s working on a new album with Ben Brodin (the Omaha producer of Fire Flames). “We recorded new demos last Sunday for the new record,” McClellan says in July. “It’s going to be a little different. All of the songs that were in Fire Flames were written over this long period (some dating back to high school) more like a collection, but this will be more cohesive.”

“A lot of it is about relationships of two people…and romantic relationships in general, and then, fear,” she says, laughing. “I think it’s easy to get worked up over being scared, so I tend to do that a lot, even for the sake of the song.”

Visit annamcclellan.bandcamp.com for more information. Omaha Magazine