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Thursday, December 27, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Quirky clubs liven up the dead of winter

Seattle Times staff reporter

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All summer, it's easy to find things to do around Puget Sound. Come winter, with our dreary weather, there's a tendency to hole up at home and wait for the rain to subside.

But dozens of local clubs, like those we profile here, offer year-round activities and hobbies to attract aficionados of everything from Scrabble to lacemaking to beer.

While we know there are clubs for everything, we chose a handful you may not have heard of. You might get wet with some, such as orienteering in local parks, but you can also stay dry spending an evening in song.

Here are some interesting options to get you out of that easy chair:

Seattle Scrabble Club

"Pets" was a word on Rebecca Slivka and Steve Wilkie's Scrabble board, but so was "neum," "feu," "raj," "jow" and "toea."

Are those really words? "Toea is the currency of Papua New Guinea," said Wilkie, a SeaTac resident and member of the Seattle Scrabble Club.

The club has about 50 regulars, from college students to senior citizens, who meet weekly to challenge each other in one-on-one timed matches at the FareStart Restaurant in downtown Seattle.

Scrabble fans gravitate to the club when they get so good that friends and family refuse to play them anymore.

Still, casual players can be intimidated by the club, whose members have memorized the 96 two-letter words allowed by "The Official Tournament and Club Word List." Most also know all the words with a Q not followed by a U (such as "qanat" and "qwery") as well as a bunch of J and Z words.

"These aren't words you use in a normal conversation," admitted Slivka, the club's director. One of her favorites is "zeugma," a verb or adjective applied to two or more nouns in different ways, as in "He stole my wallet and my heart."

"If you saw those letters, you'd think they were crap — but there's actually a word there," Slivka said. "But I can't figure out how to use it otherwise."

The official Scrabble list doesn't even bother with definitions. They're either acceptable words or they're not.

Advanced players stack words together in close rows (thus the need for all the two-letter words), keep track of tiles played and know when to give up a turn to trade for new tiles. "If you can score 350 points, you can hold your own (at the club)," said Slivka. "A 500-point game is not common but you can do it. Good players get one or two bingos (playing all seven letters, a 50-point bonus) per game."

The club is not really a social gathering since players are too busy to talk during matches. "We meet to play Scrabble and that's it," Slivka said. "And we play to win."

Seattle Song Circle

There are no karaoke machines or guitar amps or microphones at the Seattle Song Circle, a loose group of people who gather at someone's home every Sunday night to sing together.

In our high-tech, digitally enhanced world, it catches a visitor by surprise how lovely and moving just the simple sound of voices in harmony, accompanied by acoustic guitars, can be.

The dozen or more singers — who take turns singing a song or requesting one by the group — garner laughs with humorous songs mocking, for example, eternal highway construction. But they really shine on folk favorites, ballads and John Denver songs.

Members with less experience or fuzzy memory rely on "The Book," aka "Rise Up Singing: Group Singing Songbook," a collection of some 1,200 song lyrics.

The book is divided into themes, such as sea chanteys, spirituals, Civil Rights freedom songs, and songs from Appalachia. Selections range from "Do Re Mi" to "New York, New York" to "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen.

On a recent Sunday evening, singers started with "I'll Fly Away," a folk song popularized by Alison Krauss on the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack.

Though the group's Web site promises "you won't be shot if you don't stay on key," most participants have nice voices. Several play instruments (guitar, accordion, harpsichord and even fiddle).

But even those who prefer to hum will find it pleasant just to tap their toes and quietly sing along with the choruses.

The group, part of the Seattle Folklore Society, started almost 30 years ago. "The format and scope is unchanged in that three-decade interval," said Bruce Baker, who has been attending the song circle for 19 years. It collects no dues.

Children are welcome (one daughter favors "On Top of Spaghetti") but it's mostly adults who sing for as long as three hours.

"It's something that warms your soul on a cold winter evening," Baker said.

Eastside Camera Club

Gary Hintz of Bellevue attracted a few onlookers as he took pictures of patterns of bricks on a downtown Seattle building. What was he was looking at, anyway?

On a field trip with the Eastside Camera Club, an amateur photography group, Hintz and Jim Seiber of Sammamish snapped shots of the commonplace: buildings, trolleys, alleys, puddles.

"It's about seeing in a different way," Seiber said. "We try to stand in one place, look around and ask, 'What's interesting?' "

In a morning, Seiber shot about 70 pictures, alternating between two cameras with color and black-and-white film.

The 40-year-old club's 25 members critique each other's photos and share techniques at twice-monthly meetings. They put on an annual art show at Factoria Mall. Club outings have included the Woodland Park Zoo and Fishermen's Terminal.

Back on the corner of South Main Street and First Avenue, Seiber clicked photos of passing trolleys but not all modes of transportation made the cut. "A Metro bus?" he asked himself, finger on the button. "No."

Brews Brothers

The Brews Brothers, one of the first home-brewing clubs in the country, is a victim of the growing popularity of its raison d'être: good beer.

"Fewer people are brewing their own beer because there are so many good microbrews around," said president F. Avery Bishop. "We say we're a drinking club with a brewing problem."

Home brewing appeals to people who like to tinker — and like to drink the results, said Rich Webb of Kent, who once added cherry Lifesavers to his brew just to see what it would taste like.

"You have to decide which styles you like," he said, from pilsner to ESB (extra special bitter) to pale ale to stout to porter. "There's light to dark and hoppy to neutral to sweet and every variation in between."

When he first started, he made the 200 gallons allowed per year by federal law but eventually cut back when he realized "drinking a beer is like eating a liquid candy bar."

He's since experimented with wine, sake, soda pop and mead (made with fermented honey).

At monthly meetings, the club's 25 members sample each other's brews and informally comment on them. "We're responsible drinkers," Bishop said. "We watch ourselves so we don't overdo it."

The group sponsors an annual Oktoberfest brewing competition in the fall as well.

When judging beer, judges swirl the liquid to smell the aroma and look at it through a light to see if it has a nice color, Bishop said. Then they sample it to determine the flavors and where different tastes hit in the mouth.

For most drinkers, though, judging comes down to a binary system, said another member. "It's either 'I'll have another one' or 'Where's the next beer?' "

Seattle Chat Club

The Seattle Chat Club doesn't exclude anyone. Its Web site welcomes "all ages, races, beliefs, terrestrials and extraterrestrials" to its twice-monthly lectures at the Seattle Metaphysical Library.

The "chat" in the group's name has nothing to do with modern Internet chat rooms. It's the old style of chatting, though not always about traditional topics.

"We talk about things that normally don't get talked about in the daytime," said member Charlette LeFevre of Kent. That's everything from alien abductions to ghosts to "the light in the sky that makes a right-hand turn."

Past speakers include Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center, and Janet Colli, a psychotherapist and author of "Angels and Aliens: Encounters with Both Near-Death and UFOs."

The 4-year-old club dropped its original name honoring late-night paranormal radio talk-show host Art Bell at Bell's request after members gained national attention for debunking a Washington-based "alien in the freezer" claim.

The club, which attracts a core of 40 people, recently took a field trip to "Mel's Hole" in Ellensburg, which some contend is the world's deepest.

"If you combined the 'X-Files' with Indiana Jones and 'Dark Angel,' put them in a Harry Potter-like library with Norm and Sam at the 'Cheers' bar, that's what we are," LeFevre said. "We just need a theme song."

Cascade Orienteering Club

Baby-boomers take note: Here's a sport where 20-year-olds don't necessarily have an advantage.

"By the time you're 40, you're on your way down in most sports," said Dave Tallent of the Cascade Orienteering Club. "With orienteering, you might get slower, but you get more experienced and cunning.

"You can't climb faster," he added, "but you know to climb in the right direction."

Orienteering is not bumbling around in the woods with a map, as many learned in Boy Scouts, Tallent said. "I've never taken a compass bearing in 10,000 miles of running orienteering courses."

Instead, he uses his compass simply to align his detailed color map, marked with contours, trees, vegetation and landmarks.

Weekend meets at local parks, including West Seattle's Lincoln Park, Redmond's Farrell-McWhirter and Kirkland's St. Edward State Park, attract about 300 people. Club membership dropped to about 100 members in the late '90s but a recent resurgence spiked it to around 400.

At a meet, runners must punch a card at set checkpoints but how they get to each point is up to each individual. Each tries to figure out the fastest route, deciding whether it's quicker, say, to go up a mountain with little vegetation or through a flat thicket.

"There are no tricks involved," Tallent said. "Any confusion is in your own head."

Orienteering is more interesting than a road race since runners can admire views and the natural setting while challenging themselves mentally, Tallent noted. "You're not aware of the fact you're running," he said. "You get great exercise without really realizing it."

Lacemakers of Puget Sound

Members of the lacemakers club know it's cheaper to buy machine-made lace than spend hours making it by hand.

But cost effectiveness isn't what attracts members to the old-fashioned hobby, which continues to grow in popularity.

"It's a labor of love," said Ann Carter, a former club president. "You're creating a thing of beauty."

Monthly meetings in Tukwila, attended by about 60 of the club's 160 members, start out with a technique demonstration and continue into the afternoon as participants chat and craft together.

There are five main types of homemade lace: bobbin, tatted, knitted, crocheted and needle.

Bobbin lace is a woven lace made by weaving yarn around pins following a pattern. Tatted lace features thread knotted around itself, often with beads worked into it.

The lace may be displayed as is, used for collars or added as trim on tablecloths, pillows, handkerchiefs or baby items. A popular trend is to use delicate wire to make lace jewelry, Carter said.

All ages and skill levels are welcome; the club offers a beginner class in September but members are always willing to help novices, she said. Though the club is primarily women, a handful of men have joined.

The club attracts new members through demonstrations at local summer fairs such as the Puyallup Fair and the Heritage Festival at Marymoor Park.

"It always attracts a crowd," she noted. "People say, 'I wouldn't have the patience.' But it's dead easy. People just think it's hard because it looks complicated."

Stephanie Dunnewind can be contacted at 206-464-2091 or sdunnewind@seattletimes.com.

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