Scarborough Marsh Soars.

Laura Watson, of Cleveland OH, is a regular summer visitor at the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center in Maine. When she made her first solo flight earlier this year, she wore a logo t-shirt from the marsh for good luck.

SEPTEMBER 22, 2011

When Memorial Weekend rolls around, I look forward to the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center opening for the season. I have volunteered there for six summers now, helping to man the register in the gift store and assisting visitors who come to canoe on the river. We get to meet people from all over the world — Mexico, Germany, and Taiwan, to name a few places. We get to hear their stories as well: a man from northern California was excited to observe cardinals (a bird we take for granted here); a young woman who had served in the Coast Guard in South Portland, but who now lives in Washington state, was visiting with her husband, who had always been enchanted by the way she talks about Maine; and a couple from Rhode Island, who moved to the US after they had to leave their home in the Ukraine after the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl, came to spend time with their son, who is doing his residency in emergency medicine at Maine Medical Center.

There was one story this year, though, that stood out for me because it was about how a memento from Scarborough Marsh played a significant role in the lives of one of our regular visitors. Laura Watson, of Cleveland OH, has been coming to Scarborough every summer since 1969, when she was 12. Her mom, Betsy, had had a childhood friend who used to tell stories about spending summers in Old Orchard Beach. On their first visit, the family wound up finding a spot to stay a couple of miles down the road at the Sun & Sand Motel on Pine Point Beach, and that’s where they’ve returned every year since.

The nature center at Scarborough Marsh is about two miles west of the beach. Laura says, “The marsh became part of my growing up.” She enjoyed canoeing, hiking, and bird watching. She met her husband, Joe, at Brown University, and they enjoyed many romantic evening canoe tours on the marsh in the summer. Laura and Betsy usually stop by the gift store at the center to pick up souvenirs. Betsy enjoys the jewelry pins shaped as animals, and Laura says that she and Joe drink their coffee each Sunday morning in mugs they brought home from the marsh. It was a favorite Scarborough Marsh logo t-shirt, though, that Laura wore for luck when she made her first solo flight between airports in a Cessna 172 this spring.

Watson had taken a couple of flying lessons in the late 1990s when she and Joe were living and working in Chicago, but it wasn’t until January of this year, when Joe gave her flying lessons as a 25th wedding anniversary present and encouraged her, that she went ahead and got her student pilot’s license. By March she had done her first solo, circling over the runway at Lorain (OH) County Airport. In June she soloed from there to the 5A1 airport in Norwalk, OH.

Laura says that in the early days of flight, when students sat in the front of the plane and their instructors behind them, the cockpits were open and there was no radio communication. In order to guide their students, instructors would pull on their shirttails to get their attention and then yell in their ears.

“The tradition was that once you had completed your solo flight, your shirttail was cut off,” says Laura, “because at that point you didn’t need the guiding hand of your instructor anymore. I wanted to have my Scarborough Marsh t-shirt on for the flight, though. Since it doesn’t have a shirttail to cut off, I had it signed, instead, by the instructors and students who were waiting in Lorain when I returned from the round trip.” Watson will test for her private pilot’s license later this fall.

Besides our attachment to the marsh, Laura and I share a connection of being photographers, both having switched from other careers. Laura had worked as a corporate executive for University of Chicago Hospitals. Her love of nature and an interest in conservation, however, led her to ask the head of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago if she could tag along on a trip to a scientific research station in the rainforests of Ecuador. Even though she didn’t own a camera at the time and knew nothing about photography, she volunteered to take pictures of the leaves of the tree specimens that the research group was counting. Talk about flying by the seat of your pants!

She went out and bought a camera and a macro lens and began learning as she went. Laura says, “When I started photographing the leaves, I was able to see insects up close. It was like falling in love.” She became fascinated by crawling into tight spots and finding exotic insects, snakes and spiders. Her love of photographing them was compelling, but she was afraid of breaking off from her life in the corporate world to take this up as a career. Wise words from her mother got her to take that leap of faith.

Betsy told her, “Don’t keep pushing and looking for what you should be doing in life. Just watch for doors to open. And when a door opens, step through it.”

Since then Laura has traveled extensively in Central and South America and worked with local biologists to document insects and other creatures living under the forest canopy. Her photographs have been published in field guides and scientific articles, and her first photographic exhibition hung on the walls of the Cuban Natural History Museum in Havana in 2001. Samples of her work may be seen on her website at

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