Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Island Hopping in Boston

The Boston Harbor Islands are one of Boston’s hidden gems, despite being just a short ferry ride away from downtown. Activities include everything from exploring old forts to swimming to hiking. You can camp overnight on four of the islands, visit the nation’s oldest continually used light station, and enjoy clambakes, live musical performances and even plays. Since the ferry service starts back up for the season with free rides to Georges Island on May 9, here’s an overview of what the islands have to offer.

Islands Info The Boston Harbor Islands National Park area is comprised of 34 islands and mainland parks. Eight islands are accessible to the public via seasonal ferryboat service. The others vary in size and remoteness; some are accessed only by private boat or specialty charter and three are currently closed to the public. Ferry service runs from Boston beginning in May, with service from Hingham and Hull starting up in June. The season ends on Columbus Day.

Georges Island The best known island, Georges is the 39-acre home to Fort Warren. The fort, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1833 and served by turns as a training ground, a patrol point, and a Civil War prison. You can learn all about it at the visitor center, where a short film is offered, and then explore on your own or take a guided ranger tour. In spring and summer, fishing clinics, musical performances, theatrical shows, and even vintage 1860s baseball games played by costumed teams are among the activities. Georges Island is a frequent stop for the island ferries and provides a jumping-off point for other islands.

Spectacle Island
While the beach may be a bit rocky (bring water shoes!), swimming at Spectacle Island is a treat, with the most amazing views. Lifeguards are on duty in season. Over the centuries, Spectacle has served as fishing and hunting grounds for native peoples; grazing lands for livestock of colonial settlers; a quarantine station in the 1700s; and a popular recreation spot in the 1800s. It was even a horse-rendering factory site and garbage dump in the early 1900s. Eventually, it was rehabilitated into a recreation area again when clay and sediment from Boston’s Big Dig construction project was used to seal over the landfill. Activities include scavenger hunts, jazz bands, clam bakes, fishing clinics, kite-flying workshops, and much more. There are 2.5 miles of trails and Spectacle Island offers the highest viewing point of any of the islands, at 155 feet.

Peddocks Island Peddocks Island, at 184 acres, is one of the largest islands in the park. It boasts historic structures, hiking trails, unique geologic features, and is also home to active cottages that serve as private residences. There’s a welcome center, restrooms, picnic areas with grills. This is also one of the islands where you can camp overnight. The hiking trails go by a marsh, a pond and coastal forests and the park rangers advise that there is a lot of poison ivy.

Lovells Islands This is another popular spot for overnight camping, with six small campsites (max. capacity 6 each) and two group campsites (max. capacity 50 each). You have to book way in advance to secure a spot, but once there the remote island offers unsupervised swimming, a chance to explore the crumbling gun batteries, bunkers, and foundations of Fort Standish, and plenty of peace and quiet.

Little Brewster Island Boston Light, built in 1716, is the oldest continually used light station in the U.S. and is part of the Brewsters, a group of the outermost islands in the park. It’s also an active U.S. Coast Guard navigational aid facility, so the lightkeeper’s house off limits. You can, however, take a three-hour Boston Light Climbing Tour that includes a boat cruise, commentary on history, geography, and more from a park ranger, and a chance to climb the 76 steps up Boston Light’s tower.

Grape Island Another island which offers tent camping, 54-acre Grape Island, has an abundance of wild berries, which means an abundance of birds. Don’t forget to bring a camera. The island almost doubles in size to 101 acres at low tide. There are picnic areas, wooded trails and guided ranger walks in season. A unique “wild edibles” tour is a great option.

Bumpkin Island Among other things, Bumpkin was home to American Indians, a fish-drying operation, tenant farmers, a naval training camp, and polio patients. Today, there are 10 campsites (max. capacity 4 each) and one group campsite (max. capacity 25). The island is composed of a central drumlin, elevation 70 feet. Two group picnic areas on the southwest side of the island offers excellent views of the Hingham Islands, Sarah, Ragged, Langlee and Worlds End, Slate, Grape and Sheep Islands, while an outlook shelter on the northwest side offers views of Boston, Peddocks, and Hull.

Thompson Island Home to Outward Bound programs and other school and youth groups, Thompson Island is only open to the public on summer weekends. You can explore on your own, take a tour into the salt marshes or go with a guide to learn about history of the island. An events and conference center also offers catered clambakes, company outings, parties, weddings, and meetings.

Drive to an Island? Yes, you can! World’s End, Nut, Deer and Webb Memorial islands (\ peninsulas or connected to the mainland through beach erosion) can be visited on your own schedule and each has a variety of hiking trails, picnic spots, and great views.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Bike Camping With Kids, Part II: Destinations, Planning, and Equipment

This is the second installment in a two-part series on bike camping with kids. In the first installment, AMC contributor Ethan Hipple shared his account of his family's bike camping adventure along the coast of Maine. It is the story of one family's trip with 11 and 13 year old kids pedaling their own camping gear along the rocky coast, islands, and fishing villages of Deer Isle, Me. This week, we publish his tips for routes, planning, packing, and equipment.

Wicker baskets are old-school, but functional. 
  • Bike: Just bring what you already have. Don’t get new bikes unless you are planning a cross-country expedition.
  • Panniers/Trailer: I highly recommend a sturdy bike rack (about $30 to $40) with square 5-gallon buckets bolted onto the rack. This is your cheapest option. Panniers made from waterproof nylon/cordura are also great, but pricier. If you want to bring a lot of gear ( sometimes a necessity when travelling with younger kids) a bike trailer is perfect. Also, having the stronger bikers in the group tow a bit more gear improves group dynamics as it slows them down a bit and keeps everyone at the same pace.
  • Handlebar Bags/Under-seat Bags: These are essential for the small items that you will use all day: sunscreen, maps, camera, phone, wallet. I carry all of our tools and patch kit in a small case under my seat.
  • Bike Tools: You will need, at the very least, a tube patch kit, small adjustable wrench, screwdrivers (regular and phillips), allen wrench set, extra batteries, spare tubes, tire levers, and spare hex-head bolts. A squeaky chain will drive you nuts on a long ride, so bring some chain lube.
  • Maps: Bring very detailed map printouts. Cell phone coverage can’t be relied upon. The beauty of a bike trip is being able to take the back roads, which won’t show up on a standard highway map. Get USGS or similar detailed maps of the area you will be in, or make copies of a good quality gazetteer. If you are really on top of things, you can laminate them ahead of time.
  • Bungee Cords: Can’t have enough of these to keep everything battened down and strapped on your bike.
  • Ziplocks and Trash Compactor Bags: Dry campers are happy campers. Ziplocks and trash compactor bags (extra-thick trash bags) can be used to line your buckets or panniers and will add an extra layer of waterproofing to keep your sleeping bag, food and clothes dry. Nothing ruins an experience like being cold and wet. But sitting in your warm tent in a dry sleeping bag, listening to the rain outside is awesome. The difference between the two experiences is good waterproofing!
  • Sarongs: I know this one sounds a bit weird, but after years of trial and error, we’ve found these lightweight rayon wraps can be used for just about anything on camping trips. They serve as a towel that absorbs well and dries in minutes, a picnic blanket, tablecloth, wraparound skirt for trips to the campground shower, a makeshift shade on a sunny day, even an emergency sling.
  • Zip Ties and Duct Tape: With these along, you can fasten just about anything that comes unfastened.
  • 10 essentials:
  1. Navigation: Map and compass and knowledge how to use them.
  2. Sun Protection: Sunscreen and shades.
  3. Insulation: Non-cotton, insulating layers. Fleece, poly-pro or wool are best.
  4. Illumination: Just going out for a day ride? Still bring a headlamp and bike light. You don’t know what is going to happen out there.
  5. First Aid: Bring a small backcountry first aid kit on every trip.
  6. Fire: Lighter and fire starting material.
  7. Nutrition: In addition to lunch, bring emergency food: energy bars, trail mix, dried fruit or jerky.
  8. Hydration: You should be drinking all day as you read--at least two quarts per person. But as you won’t be in the backcountry, you can just carry one quart bottle per person since you can refill as you go.
  9. Shelter: Tent for overnight trips.
  10. Tools: I never go an adventure without a lighter, Swiss Army knife or multi-tool, 50 feet of parachute cord, and duct tape. With these items along you can handle almost any situation.
A trailer allows you to haul along extras like extra tents, camp hammock, instruments, and more. We've seen folks carrying coolers on short trips!

Loaded kids bike with custom fishing rod holders bolted on the back. The flat platform created by the tops of the two square five-gallon buckets is perfect for strapping sleeping bags, pads, tents, etc...
Solar charger is handy for cameras, phones, etc... This one cost $30 and charges a phone in 3 hours while we ride. 

Bring along an extra tarp to make a vestibule. Gives you a front porch off of your tent! 
Make it Fun
  • Bring lightweight games: cards and dice are great.
  • Bring some small instruments to play around the fire at night. Even a couple kazoos or a harmonica for non-musicians can keep you smiling.
  • Bring plenty of cash for ice cream. As all parents know, nothing motivates like sweets.
  • Take the backroads and don’t get too pre-occupied about getting to your destination as fast as possible. Some of our best memories were stopping at flea markets, lemonade stands, and random roadside attractions we found along the way.
  • Swimsuits! Moving at slower pace, you will find lots of great swimming holes that you would probably miss while whizzing by in a car.

Use three u-bolts to attach the bucket to the bike rack. Or you can make it quick-release (as pictured above) by using coat hooks on the top (they hook over the top of the bike rack) and a u-bolt on the bottom (it attaches with wingnuts to the vertical bike rack supports).

Inside view. 
Places to Go For Your First Family Bike Camping Trip
  • Burlington Bike Path and Island Line Bike Trail: This is the perfect introduction to bike camping: 19 miles each way, flat, great camping options, and beautiful. The best part? You get to bike through the middle of Lake Champlain and use a bike ferry! About 90 percent of the route is on dedicated bike paths along the shore of Lake Champlain, with only short sections on state roads with wide shoulders. Great camping options at Grand Isle State Park. Details in AMC’s Outdoors With Kids: Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont
  • Maine Coast: Too many trips to list here, but there are options ranging from Deer Isle to the carriage roads of Acadia National Park. The state’s countless inlets and peninsulas make for great exploration and adventure. Roads can be narrow here, but if you get off of Route 1, they are pretty quiet.
  • Cross-Vermont Trail. Meandering 90 mile bike path on roads and dedicated bike trails that stretch from Wells River, Vt., to Burlington. There are great camping options all along the trail, along with swimming holes and plenty of ice cream. More information on their excellent website, and sections are highlighted in Outdoors With Kids: Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.”
  • Leave From Your House: This could be the simplest option of all for those who live in rural areas or urban areas with good bike paths. Nothing can beat the adventure of a three-day loop straight from your driveway to a nearby campground. Or do a one-way trip and have someone pick you up at your final destination.

Read the first installment of this two-part series here. 

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Ethan Hipple.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bike Camping With Kids, Part I: The Journey

It was late at night in September 2014, probably past midnight, and my wife Sarah and I were in the garage, busy bolting square 5-gallon buckets onto the sides of our kids’ bikes. Together with a bike trailer, these “poor man’s panniers” would carry all of our food, clothing, camping gear and tools for a five day bike camping trip we were leaving on the next day. Piles of outdoor gear lay nearby, ready to get packed into our buckets. On the kitchen counter in the house lay five days worth of meals, divided into breakfast, lunch, and dinner piles. The kids slept soundly in their beds, getting good rest so that they could pedal 30 miles with loaded bikes.

We had been asking ourselves if this trip was a good idea. It certainly sounded like an adventure, but would the kids like it? Would the uphills on loaded bikes be hell? Would complaining from an 11 and 13 year old drown out the joy of the downhills? Would it be safe? We'd all done plenty of biking, but heading out on a 120-mile bike ride with young kids is a whole new ballpark. 

But the only way to find out is to give it a try. At around 1 a.m., we loaded the bikes onto our utility trailer, strapped them down, and headed in to get some sleep. The night was still. Adventure awaited.

Day 1, Getting going, slowing down
The sun rises as we cruise east in our van, utility trailer and bikes in tow. We sip hot coffee and munch on bagels as we drive toward Deer Isle on the Maine coast. The kids sleep in back. We arrive in Blue Hill, Maine, and find a spot to park the van for a few days. We unload the bikes, drink some water, and we are on the road in five minutes. Or what seems like five minutes. Reading our family trip journal a year later, I realize that the happy memories of the start of this trip are not quite accurate. My 13-year-old son Jackson’s entry from that day:

“It took Papa and Tasha a while to find a parking spot where they could leave the van for five days but they asked around and we parked behind a carwash, one of the only places we were allowed to park. It took us a while to get going due to some crying and grumpy attitudes. Once we got going though, everyone had smiles on their faces.”

Yes, there were some tears and frustration, but what great adventure starts without a little heartache? On the road, finally, Jackson leads the way with Sarah right behind. Tasha, 11, and I take up the sweep position at the rear. Jackson and Tasha are on old mountain bikes, Sarah is on a cruiser she just got at our local bike shop, and I am riding my trusty 20-year-old all-steel Specialized RockHopper mountain bike, outfitted with slick tires, fenders, and a yard-sale bike trailer full of camping gear. Since we didn’t have touring bikes with front and rear panniers, we just grabbed the basic bikes we had in the garage, made some minor DIY modifications, and headed out.

Ahead I hear hoots of joy as Jackson and Sarah head down the first big hill of the trip. One mile down, 29 more to go today. We are cruising on smooth roads, the sun is shining and the wind is in our hair. Kids are smiling. Wife is smiling. Life is good.

Twenty miles later, we eat lunch in Brookline, Maine, at a general store on the side of the road. The beauty of a bike trip is that it turns what may have been a ho-hum stop in a car into something more exciting. Something about getting there under your own power makes you appreciate the small details more: A lunch of crusty bread from the local bakery, along with cheese and apples; Homemade ice cream from the general store; And meeting strangers who offer to let us camp on their property. We realize we have tapped into something special. A form of travel that slows you down and introduces you to new people. Out of the social confines of our car, we are in the open air, exploring, living.

Local treasures along the way. 
Onwards to our first destination, Reach Knolls Campground. The place is new, as in they just cut down the trees to make a clearing last year. It’s a little raw and the grass hasn’t fully grown in, but the owners are delightful and so excited about accomplishing their dream of opening a campground on the coast. They have rustic pit toilets, great secluded sites, and a short path through the woods that leads to one of the most beautiful and sunny pebble beaches we’ve ever seen. We spend hours playing in the water, burrowing our bodies into the sun-heated pebbles on the beach, soaking in the late September sun.

Warming up after a swim. 
A beach made of shells. 

We relish the down time in camp. The aches and pains of a bike trip are real--sore legs and sore rear-ends are the prime culprits. This is normal. You just have to grin and bear it and it will get better eventually. The thighs will be rubbing all day as well. So if you are prone to chafing, bring lots of baby powder or my personal favorite, Gold Bond Medicated Powder. Sweet relief.

We prepare a dinner of pesto pasta, a campfire, and evening coffees and cocoas, then climb into our tents early so we can wake for a hilly 30 mile ride tomorrow. We sleep soundly.

Good times in camp. 
Days 2 and 3, Bicycle Hobos
Early rise, breakfast of pan-fried bagels, cream cheese, fruit and coffee. Today will be a challenge. Thirty miles of rolling hills and a couple narrow bridges to traverse first thing. A narrow bridge is a stressful situation on a bike because there is no shoulder and cars have difficulty passing bikes with a wide berth. I planned the route to avoid busy highways, but to get to our destination, these bridges had to be crossed. We ride two at a time to make it easier for cars to pass us in a small group. No problem.

Some big hills confront us, and with a loaded bike, they are tough. Whining ensues, and I whip out my best words of wisdom to keep everyone rolling. My good friend John Leddy calls these wisdom nuggets “dadisms”. A couple of his favorites are, "Whining won't make it any easier,” and "Doing hard things is hard." A perpetual favorite of mine is, “Every time that wheel spins we are getting closer to our destination.” (A note to the wise: these usually don’t work. Just keep quiet, keep pedaling, and have some chocolate handy.)

A couple narrow crossings. 
The rest of the day is delightful—we stay off of the main roads as much as possible and follow a meandering path on rustic back roads that wind along the coast. Slate blue water, gray rocks, dark green trees, and a deep blue sky make a beautiful backdrop for us as we pedal onward. We breathe deeply and the salt air and earthy fragrance of the forest mulch fills our lungs. Lunch at another general store, where an acoustic music jam is getting underway in the park across the street. Local old-timers and young folks gather in the park with banjos, guitars, mandolins, and fiddles—we eat and drink and lay on the grass and listen. We are not in a rush. Just seeking out what is around the next bend and taking it all in.

A word on our equipment: We all have basic bikes with sturdy rear racks bolted on to them. We have bolted square 5- gallon buckets onto the rear racks, which are a perfect and cheap pannier system. Round buckets won’t work—they have to be square to fit snugly against the rack. The square buckets can be found at any restaurant—pickles, soy sauce, and olive oil all come in them. Ask around and you will find them for free.

Poor man's panniers. 

After you bolt on the buckets using u-bolts and a few washers (under $5 for the hardware), you will have a sturdy, 100 percent waterproof pannier. If you put one on each side, you have a nice flat platform to which you can strap larger items like tents and sleeping bags. Jackson bolted some sections of vertical PVC pipe onto the back of one of his buckets, making nice fishing rod holders. Sarah and Tasha had wicker baskets attached to the front of their handlebars for easy access to maps, cameras, and snacks. Again, nothing fancy. No need to spend hundreds on custom touring gear. Just grab what you have or make something. It’s easier than you think. 

Because we wanted the trip to be fun for the kids, we tried to limit the weight they were carrying and I carried a bit more of the group gear like tents, pots and pans, and stoves. So I ended up using a combination of a square bucket on one side and a bike trailer that I got for $40 at a yard sale. I ripped out the seats in the trailer to make a giant cargo bay and I had so much room I could pack a LOT of gear—two tents, days worth of food, clothes, games—even a mandolin and some books! This set-up is heavy on the uphills, but on flat ground the momentum behind me keeps me rolling.

Fully loaded trailer. 
The sight of our bikes with buckets, baskets, and fishing rods attached made us look like a band of gypsies on bikes, so we dubbed ourselves the “Bicycle Hobos.” Somehow it got into our heads that “Bicycle Hobos” sounds a lot like “Buffalo Soldier,” the famous Bob Marley reggae tune. So as we pulled our heavy loads along the road, we spent hours deliriously making up lyrics, belting them out at the top of our lungs on the quiet stretches of Maine coastline.

Onward to Old Quarry Adventures at the southern tip of Deer Isle. With lobster boats coming and going and a nearby granite quarry, this place is a working part of the coast. But nestled among the back coves is this amazing little kayak outfitter that has a small campground with plenty of secluded spots perfect for bike campers. We hang out in this place for a couple days, taking day bike trips and eating good food, playing cards, reading, and catching sun on the granite slabs leading down to the water.

Days 4 and 5, Heading Home
From Old Quarry, we are just a few miles from historic Stonington, which is distinctive in two related ways: more pounds of lobster are brought into this port than any other port in Maine, and more cans of Red Bull are sold at the tiny general store than any other store in Maine. The lobstermen have some very early mornings (usually heading to their boats around 2 a.m.) and many prefer the Red Bull to coffee.

Rest day breakfast.

Fresh Maine blackberries
We spend a great afternoon here exploring the history of the place, fishing off the town pier, and eating ice cream. Stonington is a working port with some great restaurants, ice cream shops, small museums, and even a one-screen movie theater—perfect for a rest day.

Eventually, we head north again, back to the van patiently waiting at the car wash. We have a big last day—close to 35 miles with loaded bikes, over hilly ground. It’s a tall order for an 11-year-old, but Tasha is a rockstar and we don’t even hear a complaint. Jackson is a true gentleman and takes some of her weight. These are the moments that make you a proud parent. We think maybe the sense of adventure of the whole trip outweighs the physical difficulty of it. Either way, Tasha just keeps pedaling with a smile on her face.

Heading home on quiet back roads. 
Rolling past farms, blueberry fields, and granite outcroppings, our last day is a treat. The sun shines on us as we coast the last mile to the van. The Bicycle Hobos are heading home, and Bob Marley’s famous melody echoes through these Maine hills.

Bicycle Hobos, cruising down the ro-o-oad
We’ve got fishin poles and mandolins, a very heavy lo-o-oad.
Bicycle Hobos, riding through Ma-a-aine...
When we wake in the the morning, our rears are in pa-a-ain...

I said whoa oh oh, whoa oh oh oh
Whoa oh oh, oh oh oh oh oh

Bicycle Hobos, sometimes we take a wrong tu-ur-urn
It’s a very long detour, a hard lesson to lear-er-earn
Bicycle Hobos, on our bikes we carry bu-uh-ckets
When we get to the campground, we make quite a ru-uh-ckus

Bicycle Hobos, at night we eat pa-a-sta
When we wake up in the morning, we are singing like a ra-a-sta

I said whoa oh oh, whoa oh oh oh
Whoa oh oh, oh oh oh oh oh

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Ethan Hipple.

In our next post on May 19, 2015, we’ll go over the specifics of how to plan and execute a bike trip with kids. We'll cover gear, tools, food planning, tips to make it fun, where to go and more. Click here to read the next installment! 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Vote in Favor of the Free Range Kids Movement—and How to Give It a Try

Here is a challenge for you parents of kids age 8 or older: The next time you are out on errands, stop by the local park and let your kids run around and play. Then leave them there.

No, not forever. But give it 15 minutes. Go get your groceries and come back. Your kids will thank you.

The advantages of unstructured, unsupervised play are many. Kids get fresh air and exercise. They learn social interaction away from their parents. They get to explore. They gain a sense of freedom. They become self-reliant problem solvers. They have adventures.

And most likely, they will be just fine. And so will you.

Life is full of calculated decisions about what level of risk we are willing to take—with our kids, our partners, our work. But while a debate rages and parents question how much freedom to give their children, those children increasingly find themselves stuck inside. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that kids age 8 to 18 spend seven hours and 38 minutes of time on entertainment media every day. Another study found that only 13 percent of children walk to school. When kids do get outside, they often play sports in a structured program, or they’re constrained in structured and stuffy playdates, usually under the watchful gaze of parents.

Many parents cite fear of crime and abduction as reasons to keep close watch over kids who, in prior generations, would have been roaming their neighborhoods freely. Yet studies show that crime is actually at a historic low. Kids are less likely to be victims of abduction or violent crime than their parents were as children, decades ago.

There is a growing number of parents who believe we’re restricting our kids too much, however. These parents are starting to challenge the societal limits of what is considered safe and acceptable, even spawning the Free Range Kids movement. Of course, there is no manual we can turn to for definitive advice on when it’s OK to let our kids out from under our wings. Some families have large backyards or woods behind their houses, while others live in busy urban centers where parks are a walk or a bike ride away. Below is a sampling of ideas some parents are exploring. You can decide for yourself what works for your family.
  • Have your kids lead the way to the park. This increases their confidence and spatial awareness, and it shows you whether they are capable of getting back and forth on their own.
  • The next time you are shopping, have your younger kids fetch something for you from the other side of the store. This is a building block to kids gaining independence and confidence.
  • If your kids are 8 or older and reasonably mature, let them walk a few blocks to the park in a group. Try short durations at first. Fifteen minutes will lead to half an hour then to an hour.
  • See if your town has designated Safe Routes to School or parks and use them.
  • If you are nervous about leaving your children alone around the neighborhood, have them band up with other local kids.
  • As you ease into free parenting, have kids check in periodically by cell phone.
  • Teach your kids how to interact with strangers and when to say no.
  • Don’t worry if you hear kids say, “There is nothing to do outside.” They will find something to do. Just give it time. Boredom is the mother of invention.
  • Abandon the playdate. Just go outside and play.
This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of AMC Outdoors
Photo by Squared Pixels/iStock

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Biking the Quiet Back Roads of Bear Brook State Park

Bear Brook State Park is New Hampshire's largest developed park at over 10,000 acres, and is home to miles of quiet back roads perfect for biking trips with even the youngest kids. 

5.7 miles out and back (paved road, mostly flat)
6.5 mile loop (paved and dirt roads with steeper sections)

View a map of the route here. 

Spring can be a tough time for getting outdoors in northern New England. Trails can be muddy,
Quiet roads are perfect for family biking. 
with ice and snow at some of the higher elevations, and paddling in cold waters can be treacherous. The sun is shining and temperatures are warming up, but muddy conditions can make getting outside challenging this time of year.

One of our favorite things to do in the spring is to go on family bike rides, and one of the best places to do this is along the quiet and relatively flat roads of Bear Brook State Park, near Concord, NH. When my children Tasha and Jackson were 3 and 5, I was directing the NH Conservation Corps which is a land stewardship program run through NH State Parks, The Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps. The program happened to be located in the heart of Bear Brook State Park, and for four delightful years my family and I lived in the Civilian Conservation Corps-built Park Manager house near the entrance of the park. While we were there, we taught our kids to ride bikes--and discovered that this park is a biking oasis ripe for exploration by young families.

Today, it remains one of our favorite places to ride bikes--and the 10,000 acre park has a wide variety of biking options from the smooth paved campground road to fun downhills on the gravel Podunk Road, to some of New England’s best single track.

Click on the map to view in Google Maps.
This bike loop on park roads is attractive for many reasons at this time of year. It is 100% on quiet park roads with no challenging trail riding--making it a great loop for even the youngest bikers looking for their first trip “beyond the driveway.” The park roads are not busy until July when the summer campers arrive, making it relatively quiet and safe--a great introduction to road biking with young children. The route is mostly flat, with small rolling hills to make it interesting. The road winds through the dense pine forests of Bear Brook State Park, passing many interesting attractions along the way: fly fishing ponds, an archery range, a clean sandy beach at Beaver Pond, and even a newly installed playground at the campground. The campground store is not open until late May, so bring your own food and water.

Even though the road is quiet with relatively little traffic this time of year, this is a good training ground to learn the rules of the road for bikers:
  • Always have your kids stay to the right and ride single file.
  • We always have the person in back (called “sweep”) call out if there is a car coming. That way, folks in front can move over and be as far to the right as possible.
  • Beware of blind turns and hills--car drivers won’t have good sight lines in these areas and you may surprise them.
  • When we are riding on busier roads, we always ride in small groups of 2-3 riders. The reason for this is that when cars do have to pass you from behind, you want to make it as easy as possible. For a car driver, trying to pass a group of 5 bikers on the right with oncoming traffic coming the other direction is very difficult and they may be forced back into the lane the bikers are in by oncoming traffic, thereby forcing bikers off the road. If you ride in small groups, cars can pass you easier, making the experience safer for everyone.
  • Helmets! Don’t leave home without them

For additional details about this trip, visit AMC's Kids Outdoors community

Nearby Trips: 
Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Ethan Hipple.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

National Parks: A Primer

A ranger speaking at Beech Cliff above Echo Lake at Acadia National Park. Photo courtesy NPS.
America’s National Parks are getting a lot of welcome attention right now, due to the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016. A slew of centennial events and celebrations are being planned and two new campaigns, “Find Your Park” and “Every Kid in a Park,” will kick off later in 2015. Both are aimed at introducing our parks and the work of the Park Service to a new generation of people.

Considering National Park Week is April 18 to 26, 2015, (also school spring break in Massachusetts), it seems like a good time to look at how far the park system has come in 100 years and what it offers to everyone.

As early as the 1800s, American began asking the government to preserve and protect special natural places. Yellowstone National Park was established as the nation’s first national park by an act signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. In 1890, Yosemite in California and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. were established, and others soon followed. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service to conserve and protect parks, as well as to leave them “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Today, there are more than 400 properties in the national park system, including monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails; even the White House is part of the park system. All in all, it covers 84 million acres, with land in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

In Massachusetts, the park system encompasses some of my family’s favorite places, such as the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Boston Harbor Islands. The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site and the Lowell National Historic Park are two more in a long list of fascinating spots in our state. In all of New England, there are dozens more, including Acadia National Park, home to Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain along the Eastern Coast of the United States. During certain times of the year, it is the first place in the U.S. to see sunrise. . And, of course, the Appalachian Trail is managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, numerous state agencies and thousands of volunteers.

While any time of year is suitable for visiting a park, spring break and National Park Week have special events geared toward families. Admission is free on April 18 and 19 at every site and the 18th is also National Junior Ranger Day, when kids can be sworn in as junior rangers at select locations. In addition, April 22 is Earth Day, a perfect opportunity to appreciate some of the natural wonders we are so lucky to be able to enjoy.

To find events during National Park Week, visit www.nationalparks.org/national-park-week. For more information about the National Park Service’s Centennial, visit www.nps.gov/centennial or www.nationalparks.org/centennial.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Introducing Kids to Citizen Science

Kids are naturally curious, as any parent knows, and one great way to encourage their curiosity, while also having a lot of fun, is to participate in a citizen science project. 

Citizen science is usually defined as the practice of public participation in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. This can be anything from counting birds for the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizen science survey in the world (now in its 115th year), to recording water quality at a nearby lake, to looking for asteroids. And participating can be as easy as taking photos on a smartphone. 

"Projects can vary greatly in their goals with some being very science goal-oriented while others are more educational," said Georgia Murray, a scientist who manages the Appalachian Mountain Club's "Mountain Watch" program. "Parents can help kids get kids involved [in citizen science] and introduce the idea of stewardship by contributing to something," Murray added. 

Mountain Watch, which AMC started in 2005, involves volunteers recording observations of weather conditions and plants in alpine areas and forests. It offers hands-on ways to introduce kids to science, with a-backyard-to-trail booklet and a trail flowers matching game you can print out, among other things. 

In Boston, the Museum of Science also offers a variety of citizen science projects and programs, but an especially popular one is the Firefly Watch program, which combines an annual summer evening ritual with scientific research. 

"In many ways, it is more of an educational project than anything. People love fireflies but know almost nothing about them," said Don Salvatore, the Firefly Watch coordinator. 

"Kids (this includes kids up to 100 years old) hear what scientists say all the time," said Salvatore. "But how can they relate to that if they haven't done scientific investigation themselves? Unless one has a good teacher, or a parent who can lead them through scientific investigations, citizen science is a great way for kids to participate in science." 

Though the kids might see this as a fun way to look for fireflies, they'll be learning some basic skills of scientific research, from observation (different species of firefly have different patterns) to recording data (you'll download an observation sheet) to describing the habitat. The benefit for the scientists running the program is that the amount of data collected is more than they could ever get on their own. 

Another project, great for beginners and easy to do anywhere, is Wildlife Watch, run by the National Wildlife Federation, where you merely report on what you see around you. The national nature-watching program was created for all ages. Before you head outside, visit the website, where you and your kids can review all the possible species and natural phenomena you might observe in your state, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and wildflowers. After you return, you then report the data online. You can also print out a personal wildlife watch list, which kids will love to have on hand to check off species as they see them (also great if they are too young to use a computer). 

There's no reason why science can't be a fun, and important, part of our daily lives. And with projects like these, it also can get our kids outdoors. 


Citizen Science with AMC 
Learn about AMC’s Mountain Watch and Flower Watch programs. 

Salvatore recommends this website, which is a clearing house for many citizen science projects. 

National Geographic 
Check out two of National Geographic’s preeminent citizen science projects: the Great Nature Project and FieldScope

 A large source of citizen science projects.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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