Mt. Vernon native featured in PBS doc
August 19, 2011 · Rhondi Ewing, Special to the Sun
The work of a Mount Vernon native and his wife is being featured on PBS this month.
Since 1998, 1981 MVHS grad David MacKay and his wife, Jennifer, have led hundreds of people on bird-watching, natural history and cultural trips through the avian rich region of Sonora, Mexico. (They also operate El Pedregal Nature Lodge in Alamos, serving several hundred guests a year.) MacKay's recent tour idea - "Big Birding Day," a 24-hour adventure to spot the highest number of different bird species - has captured the interest of PBS television's "POV" (Point of View) program. Documentary filmmakers accompanied MacKay and the results will be broadcast on PBS starting Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 10 p.m. (Check your local station listings).
While growing up, MacKay spent many summers in the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona with the family of his longtime friend and classmate, Chris Lyon.
"We used to take college students down to the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona almost every summer when I was growing up," Lyon recalls. "We'd spend six weeks camping and studying various animals, including birds. My father was a Cornell ornithology professor who loved birds and teaching people about them. That love of birding must have inspired Dave to go back to the Sonora desert and start his bird guiding business."
As an adult, MacKay went on to major in environmental studies at Prescott College and ultimately moved to Alamos, Mexico, where bird life abounds - and where he found himself becoming more and more interested in birding.
"Bird tour companies were coming to Alamos and we provided lodging, meals and transportation...that's when David got really interested in birding, and now works full time as a birding guide," Jennifer explained. "Before that, we'd both worked for years for Backroads Bicycle Tours (in Northern California), a company that leads active travel trips all over the world."
While with Backroads, the MacKays built their expertise as tour organizers and leaders. Once in Mexico, they started collaborating with other accomplished birders and tour companies, such as High Lonesome Bird Tours, which they still work with today in both Mexico and Alaska.
Now, they have their own tour company, called Solipaso.
"The name 'Solipaso' comes from a cool place up on the Sierra de Alamos...where there are big swimming holes, waterfalls and sheer rock walls in an arroyo of the Sierra de Alamos," said Jennifer. "When we first moved to Alamos, we didn't have a plan...we spent a lot of time exploring the area on foot, on bike and by car. No one was really leading any trips, so people started showing up at our door. It evolved rather naturally...then we started branching out into different places in Mexico."
Viewers of the POV program featuring Solipaso will gain insight into the world of birding and will see the planning, adventure, and camaraderie of a Big Birding Day. Solipaso approaches its trips with the same kind of care and attention, and its mission is to provide meaningful, insightful and enjoyable trips for people so that they may add to their life experience.
When asked about safety, Jennifer MacKay said, "Life goes on in Mexico, despite all the bad news...the reality is very different than what you hear. Yes, there are drug wars and people within that world are getting killed...if you're not a part of that world, you don't have problems. David is currently leading two trips in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua and Sonora and all is well. Here in Alamos, all is well and life is good. Alamos residents of all ages, my daughters aged 19 and 21 all travel back and forth across the border and find people kind and helpful."
The MacKays keep in touch with local relatives, friends, and former Mount Vernon High School Class of 1981 classmates including Chris Lyon, and even participated in RAGBRAI one year during Jennifer's first visit to Iowa, pulling their young children behind them in a bike trailer.
"In all our travels and at our hotel over the years, some of the nicest people have been from Iowa," said Jennifer. "And Dave will tell me, 'well that's why they're so cool...they're from Iowa.' "
Solipaso is a small, specialty tour company and nature lodge located at Calle Privada S/N, Barrio Chalaton, Alamos, Sonora, Mexico. The MacKays personally research, plan and lead every trip, so it is very personalized to each important guest. Solipaso specializes in Mexico and they are the only birding tour company based in Mexico. While Solipaso's focus is on birds, they incorporate other things of interest with each tour, to provide a more "complete" experience. Visit Solipaso at www.solipaso.com for additional information. Also, visit "Big Birding Day" on Facebook for updated viewing information including online, film festivals, and local PBS airtimes.
(Editor's Note: Rhondi Ewing is a 1981 Mount Vernon High School graduate who lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif. She holds a degree from Iowa State University and is owner of Rhondi Ewing Gift Designs, which specializes in product design, development and marketing.)