Cherry Blossom Festival gets underway

March 25, 2012

Along the Tidal Basin on Sunday morning, it looked a little bit like Groundhog Day.

Paddles the beaver emerged from a tent at the base of the Jefferson Memorial, determined not to let a rainy forecast and an earlier-than-expected peak bloom spoil the opening day of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Although skies were overcast, the rain held off, allowing Paddles, the festival’s official mascot, to make an appearance. Paddles does not like to get wet, said National Park Service volunteer Sandy Lamparello, on account of the battery pack that keeps the six-foot costume inflated.

The beaver sighting opened Washington’s five-week celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the United States.

A crowd of 6,000 gathered for a lavish opening ceremony at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center that featured performances by opera singer Denyce Graves-Montgomery and the Washington Ballet.

Children in flower outfits, enormous light-up butterflies suspended on poles, and people dressed as cherry blossoms and perched on stilts were there to greet attendees, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Virginia Williams, mother of former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).

Speakers emphasized the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan, and they noted the aid that U.S. officials offered to Japan last year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Nature put a bit of a wrinkle into the festival this year: Warmer than average temperatures in recent weeks moved up the peak bloom, when 70 percent of the blossoms are open. The Park Service changed its forecast twice, moving up the bloom date to March 18 with the peak sometime between March 20 and 23, two days before the festival began. Park Service horticulturist Robert DeFeo has said the blossoms would not last through the end of festival, which is April 27.

A forecast of heavy rain and hail for Saturday threatened to knock off blossoms before the opening ceremony. The weather ended up being less severe, leaving many of the blossoms intact but less spectacular than they had been several days earlier.

Some tourists, who had planned their visit around the festival, took one look at the pink foam lapping the Tidal Basin walls and the pink-tinted grass on Sunday and knew their timing was a little off.

“We almost missed it, I guess,” said Elizabeth Johnson, 63, a retired teacher who drove from New Jersey with her husband Sunday morning.

Not long after landing in Washington for a business trip, Randall Lantz, 53, of Dallas made his way to the cherry trees, armed with two cameras.

“I was excited to be here for the first time during the cherry blossoms,” Lantz said. “The early blooming dampened it a bit.” He was planning to return Wednesday but had dim hopes: “We’ll see what’s left by then.”

The National Weather Service has issued a freeze watch for Monday night, which could further shorten the blooming period.

In the past, the timing of the festival and the period of peak bloom have not always aligned. That uncertainty leaves local tourism industry officials holding their breath each year, until DeFeo makes his forecast. The festival brings in about $150 million in tourism dollars, according to festival officials.

When DeFeo’s estimates coincide with the dates of the festival, as they did in 2008, there is much rejoicing. When they don’t, everyone makes do.

Arnab De, 30, a graduate student from New York City, said the cloudy skies led him to eschew panoramic shots for close-ups, such as one he took of his wife, Rituparna Bose, 30, framed by a cluster of cherry blossoms. “I wish there was more blossoming,” he said.

Freezing temperatures will not keep Paddles inside. Sunday, a steady stream of tourists accosted him as he tried to make his way back to the Jr. Ranger’s tent near the Jefferson Memorial. Eventually, Lamparello, the Park Service volunteer, had to intervene. The battery pack was almost out of juice.

“It’s tough for a beaver to walk around all day,” Lamparello told one small visitor. “Paddles needs to take a break now.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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