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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Path of Life Sculpture Garden in Windsor, Vermont

Path of Life Sculpture Garden. Photo by
Kim Foley MacKinnon.
The Path of Life Sculpture Garden in Windsor, Vt., is one of those places that exceed expectations. Described to me as a sculpture garden, I thought it would be a cool place to check out while spending a weekend in nearby Hanover, N.H.

Located in a complex that includes Great River Outfitters, Vermont Farmstead Cheese, SILO, Simon Pearce, Sustainable Farmer, and Harpoon Brewery, the garden is located on 14 acres of field and trails on the banks of the Connecticut River. The 18 works of art, made of different materials and of different sizes, symbolize the circle of life from birth to death.

The garden is the brainchild of Terry McDonnell, a child and family therapist from Norwich, Vt., who was inspired after visiting a famous Japanese garden, The Life of Man in Kildare, Ireland. It symbolizes the journey of a human soul from birth to death. McDonnell had a 14-acre riverside field that he owned in Windsor and almost 20 years ago he began his pet project.

You enter the garden through the “Tunnel of Oblivion,” the darkness representing the beginning of life, then head through or by various sculptures representing the stages of life, from a small stone signifying birth to a 800 hemlock-tree maze (childhood) to five large flat stones arranged in a circle (family) and so on. My family visited in the winter and we loved going through the maze and trying to identify the animal tracks we found in the fresh snow.

Over the years, the attraction (part of Great River Outfitters) has grown to be much more than a sculpture park. It’s also home to part of a 5-mile trail network and since it’s open year-round, all sorts of activities are regularly scheduled.

In the winter and early spring, it’s groomed for dogsledding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, while in summer and fall, you can take float trips (canoes, kayaks, rafts, and river tubes) on a section of the Connecticut River (with all necessary gear and transportation provided). The tipis in the Path of Life Garden sleep 12 to 16 people or you can paddle down the river to primitive island campsites along the river if you want to stay overnight.
For additional details about this trip, visit AMC's Kids Outdoors community
Nearby Adventures:
Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Introducing Kids to Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding

Anyone who has ever spent a night out under the stars with kids will know the “Mac and Cheese Principle”: a pot of mac and cheese cooked outdoors after a day outside hiking, kayaking, biking, or rock climbing will taste exponentially better than the same pot of mac and cheese cooked inside on your kitchen stove. Whether it’s the fresh air, the exertion, the woodsmoke, or a magical combination of the three, this is a simple and beautiful truth. And just like the ”Mac and Cheese Principle,” if you hike up a hill and ski or ride down it, it can be immeasurably more enjoyable than a ski run from a chairlift. Maybe it’s the fresh air. Or the silence. Maybe the sweat, or the untracked powder you will find on the little-visited hills throughout New England. Or the satisfaction of “earning your turns.” Whatever it is, if you love the snow and the mountains, it’s a great way to get the kids outside for some winter fun.

Kids will love the sense of adventure of backcountry skiing.
Photo by Ethan Hipple

And the best part? It’s free. 

Backcountry skiing has been popular in New England for centuries—in fact, before there were resorts and high speed lifts, all skiing was backcountry skiing. Skiers simply found a nice steep section of forest or mountainside, hiked up it, strapped on their wooden skis and skied down.

But you don’t have to go to be an expert mountaineer or go to great lengths to enjoy this sport—even in the heart of some New England towns and cities you can find hidden ski runs in city parks and forests. And those who live in suburban and rural areas have countless hours of exploration ahead if they take the time to look in the hills and forests surrounding them.

Backcountry skiing is best attempted by families who know how to ski or snowboard confidently. Depending on your kids’ abilities, they could start as young as 6 or 7. But they must be able to ski confidently, navigate around trees, rocks, and other obstacles, handle deep powder and stop on a dime. They must also have the stamina for the uphill portion! But usually the excitement of looking forward to the downhill will keep them pushing uphill. If the kids don’t have these abilities yet, keep practicing on nearby open slopes or find an affordable community ski area where you can teach your kids to ski for relatively little cost.

Here are some tips to get you off on the right track with kids.

Make it Fun

  • Bring a picnic lunch to share at the top!
  • During lunch, build a living room in the snow. Pack down a 10 foot circle, then carve in seating areas and counters along the edges. Place your skis or board on the benches to keep you dry.
  • Build a snow fort or a campfire along the way.

  • Snowshoes: Snowshoes are much more useful for backcountry skiing than XC skis. You can hike up the steeper slopes that make for better skiing, and just strap your skis or boards to your pack. The bigger the snowshoes are, the more flotation you get, but they’ll be harder to fit in your pack for the downhill portion. Grab some from an outdoor retailer, rent them, or check Craigslist or your local gear shop for used pairs.
  • Downhill ski/snowboard gear: You will be hitting rocks, so if you have an older pair that you don’t mind beating up a little, bring them. Otherwise, be prepared to do some minor p-tex base repairs afterwards.
  • Poles: You will absolutely need these in deep snow—going up and down. Even snowboarders should bring them to help navigate through deep snow and flat sections.
  • Backpack: Big enough for your essentials and must be able to fit your snowshoes as well. External straps and anchor points are essential for strapping skis and boards to the sides.
  • Lightweight shovel: Optional, but great for building lunch campsites or backcountry mini-jumps.
  • 10 essentials:
  1. Navigation: Map and compass and knowledge how to use them.
  2. Sun Protection: Sunscreen and shades or goggles are a must if you will be out in the open snowfields. The sun reflects off the snow and can burn skin and eyes.
  3. Insulation: Non-cotton, insulating layers. Fleece, poly-pro or wool are best in winter months.
  4. Illumination: Just going out for a morning ski? Still bring a headlamp. 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: At least 2 quarts of water per person. You will be thirsty after a climb.
  9. Shelter: A simple emergency blanket or tarp will do.
  10. Tools: I never leave home on a backcountry 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.

Places to Ski
  • City and Town Parks: Just look for a hill! It’s that easy. The runs may be short, but you can do more of them. Burlington, Vt.; Portland, Maine; Dover, N.H.; and even Boston all boast hills popular with skiers and riders willing to hike for a few runs.
  • Abandoned Ski Areas: Check out www.nelsap.org, a great collection of abandoned ski areas throughout the country. At many of these locations, the forest has not yet taken over the trails and there is great backcountry skiing to be had! Wide open trails and many of them. Just be sure to take note of properties that may be closed to the public.
  • Land Conservancies and Trusts: All New England states have active statewide land conservancies and many local and regional conservancies as well. Most of these conservancies manage their properties for multiple uses, including recreation. Land Trust properties are probably closer than you think: explore them here: www.findalandtrust.org
  • National Forests and National Parks: The Big Daddies, home to Tuckerman Ravine, Huntington Ravine, the Breadloaf Wilderness, and countless other back country classics. These are more remote and challenging destinations and should only be attempted by expert skiers and riders. White Mountain National Forest and Green Mountain National Forest
  • Best Backcountry Skiing In The Northeast, by David Goodman, published by AMC Books. A comprehensive guide to classic backcountry ski routes in New England and New York.

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

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Teaching Kids Campcraft

My 16-year-old daughter takes pride in pitching her tent in the dark faster than her dad and I can get ours set up (Hey, ours is much larger!), but she didn’t come by that skill overnight. It took time and practice, which she’s gained over years of camping trips. While her outdoors abilities seem second nature, her father and I learned how to camp as adults, through trial and error. As parents, we’ve learned how camping with kids can be both challenging and rewarding. As city dwellers, we’ve also learned how few of our daughter’s friends and their families camp. With fewer kids getting outdoors or involved in traditional programs like scouting, there are fewer opportunities to learn traditional campcraft. Here are a few ways to engage kids.

GETTING STARTEDBegin close to home, with easy goals. If you have a yard, you can practice setting up camp there, or if you have space, you can even pitch a tent inside your house. You want kids to get familiar with all the gear involved before you head out into the great outdoors. “Involvement is key,” says Nate Schumacher, outdoor adventure and partnership coordinator for AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program. “Have them at your side, explain what you’re doing and why. Actively show them things and have them replicate them.” 

GETTING BASIC SKILLSOnce you’ve moved out of the backyard, learning where to pitch a tent, how to build a fire safely, and how to cook a meal are key skills for your kids to learn. Have kids scout out potential sites for your inspection. If they feel some ownership of the process, it will empower them and build confidence. If your kids are really young, they can help carry stakes, gather sticks for kindling, and plan the camp dinner.

Schumacher suggests taking your child to the grocery store with you and think about meals that are easy to prepare. Mac-and-cheese, a kid favorite anyway, is simple enough for many kids to make on their own. Fruit snacks, often a lunch box staple, are perfect for a boost of energy.

As for campfires—synonymous with camping for many kids—it’s important to make sure kids know basic fire safety, such as having water available to extinguish them properly, never leaving one unattended, and to only build fires in fire rings, stoves, or fireplaces. Schumacher uses what he calls the “rule of five challenge,” in which you give your kid (depending on age and maturity) five matches. They get five minutes to gather wood and build a fire with their matches, and try to keep it lit for five minutes. It’s an active learning experience. For example, big logs won’t easily catch fire; you need to start with small sticks, a lesson learned once which they won’t forget.

GETTING ADVICEMany organizations and businesses offer workshops and classes for families to learn good camping techniques; AMC is offering in 2015 a series of family camping workshops at its Cardigan Lodge in New Hampshire. The National Wildlife Federation, which works to protect wildlife and reconnect people with nature, holds an annual event called the Great American Backyard Campout in June. It’s an excellent opportunity to introduce kids to camping. 

As you get ready to take your kids camping, remember that if you want them to love camping, it should be an adventure you tackle together. Too much pressure can take the fun out of it.

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

Photo by Ryan Smith.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Wildlife Detectives: Tracking in New England Forests

Flipping pancakes with my 11-year old daughter Tasha on a cold December morning recently, we saw a group of wild turkeys outside pecking at the bittersweet berries along our stone wall. I grabbed my cup of coffee after breakfast and we headed out to watch them. We quickly found their three-toed tracks in the driveway, and we began following them through the snow. We traced their path backwards to figure out where the turkeys had come from.

We followed the tracks into the field beyond our driveway where we saw drag marks in the loose snow, left by their feathers. We crunched along through the soft snow, sun glinting off the crystalline surface. Across the field we went, following their looping path to the edge of the woods. We trudged into the trees where the tracks soon ended beneath a cluster of birch and pine. I asked Tasha where she thought the tracks went from here. She looked around for a nest or shelter on the ground. Then, finally, she tilted her head back.

"Up in the trees!" she called. They had spent the night safely roosted high above the ground, then, upon daybreak, had dropped down and started scavenging through the field until they found their favorite dining spot—the bittersweet near our house. Mystery solved.

Tracking with kids in the winter can be incredibly fun—not only learning about wildlife and their habits but actually solving mysteries—such as where the turkeys came from. Tracking is not just the identification of footprints. It is the art of reading all of the clues left behind by animals, to figure out what they were doing, where they had been, and where they were going. It is a mystery to be solved.

Tim Smith is a professional tracker who runs the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Maine. A modern-day mountain man and survival expert, he says that tracking is a game of finding clues to rule out certain species, narrowing down what it could be. "You're not always able to figure out what the animal you are tracking is, but you can usually figure out what it isn't," he says.

Smith recommends looking for the following types of clues:
  • Prints: Look for size, claw marks, and depth. Look for the number of toes or toe pads. Then use a field guide to identify them. 
  • Feather marks. One of the most dazzling clues you can find—feather prints in a snowy field. This might be the track of some turkeys, or the full wing imprint of an owl or hawk that swooped down to grab a mouse or mole it heard through the snow. 
  • Gait patterns: Often the easiest way to identify an animal, the track will show parallel, diagonal, bounding, or galloping foot patterns. Field guides are also helpful here. 
  • Scat: Kids will get a kick out of breaking scat open to find what the creature has been eating. Just grab a stick and start breaking it apart. 
  • Browsing marks: Deer, moose, rabbits and others are forest browsers, constantly nibbling on twigs and branches as they walk. Deer only bite from the bottom and their dull teeth leave the ends of the twigs torn and rough. Rabbits make clean 45 degree cuts with their sharper teeth. In the springtime, look for rabbit chew 3 to 5 feet high. No, the rabbits don't get that big in New England—but it will show you where the snow came up to in the wintertime.
Some fun tracking activities to try with the kids:
  • Head out in the freshly fallen snow. The easiest and best time to track is usually following a 1- to 2-inch snowfall. 
  • Make a tracking plot in your backyard. In the spring, summer, or fall, simply rake a section of sand or soil, leaving it completely clear of all leaves and debris. Dig up the top few inches of soil, sift it, dry it and then lay it back down so you have a fine layer of sand and dust. Then put an apple core, a slice of meat, or simply a feather or dead mouse in the middle of the plot. Come back in the morning to find the prints of all your nocturnal visitors! 
  • Make a scavenger hunt. List animal tracks or different types of animal homes (nests, burrows, caves, hollow trees, etc.), then everyone set off to find them first! Be sure to leave animal homes undisturbed!


AMC offers several guided animal tracking programs for adults and families. Visit activites.outdoors.org and enter the keyword "Tracking." 

Additional Reading: 
Stories in the Snow: A pro offers tips on reading winter tracks
Tracking for Kids
12 Great Outdoor Winter Activities for Kids

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

Photo by Jerry & Marcy Monkman.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

National Bird Feeding Month

February is National Bird Feeding Month, and naturally Mass Audubon is a place I look to for ideas and activities to help celebrate our feathered friends, from bird-feeder workshops to the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

Mass Audubon formerly ran a program called Focus on Feeders, but this year it phased that independent project out and asked members to participant instead in Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count, now in its 18th year. The annual four-day event engages bird watchers around the country in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations.

This year it will be held February 13 to 16. Participants are asked to count birds and report their sightings online. Anyone can take part in the count, from beginning bird watchers to experts. Last year, according to the organization, participants turned in more than 144,000 online checklists, creating the world’s largest instantaneous snapshot of bird populations ever recorded.

Whether or not you and your kids participate in the bird count, a great backyard project is to build a feeder and see which birds come to visit. The North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield, Mass., is hosting a family workshop on February 7. During the hands-on activity, you’ll construct a hanging feeder that can be used all year, as well as a special feeder used to attract orioles returning in the spring. Check with Mass Audubon for other events like this one.

If you want to get your kids excited about birds in a really easy (and fast) way, all you need is a pine cone and some peanut butter. Simply spread the peanut butter on the cone and hang it up in your yard. Once the kids see its popularity, they might be ready for more ambitious projects. Keeping a log of birds’ visits or sketching the birds is another fun winters’ day project.

Bird Feeder Tips from Mass Audubon

Up, Up and Away
Birds are vulnerable to predators such as cats and hawks, and as a result, they seek feeders that offer the protection of nearby trees or shrubs. Squirrels seem to have an uncanny ability to thwart all attempts to exclude them from feeders. When placing a feeder, keep in mind that squirrels can jump 6 feet up in the air and launch themselves, from a tree or building, to a feeder 10 feet away. Feeders placed 12 to 15 feet from trees and shrubs should provide shelter for the birds but discourage squirrels from leaping onto the feeder.

What’s on the Menu?
Different birds prefer different types of seed, but black oil sunflower seeds appear to be the favorite of the most bird species. It is the preferred seed for the black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white and red-breasted nuthatches, northern cardinal, evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, and house finch and is probably the second choice for blue jays. Niger (thistle) seed, placed in feeders designed to hold this small seed, attracts American goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins, and redpolls.

Just a Helping Hand
If you’re worried that you’ll be a bird’s only source of food, don’t. Most birds depend on our handouts for only about 25 percent of their food. Feeder offerings only supplement their natural foods. When a food supply disappears in one location, they will move on and look for other sources.

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

Photograph by Marc Chalufour

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