Friday, June 19, 2009

Dear Dad: Thanks for the memories, the lessons, ... oh, and the names of all those trees

The Gildesgame children — Sophie, Jesse, and Emma — sent the following additions to the thoughts their father, Mike, had about the Gildesgame family experience outdoors. Given that Father’s Day is meant to be a time to appreciate fathers, it seems appropriate to end this series with their reflections on growing up outdoors with Dad.

These letters could have been written about thousands of fathers who created a love of the outdoors in their children. Thanks to every one of them.

The three write: Spending time outdoors as a family has always been a way for us to reconnect and spend “quality time” together. Though we may be running 290,353 different directions most of the time, with school, dance classes, music lessons, karate, meetings, practices, and other various and sundry things, hiking trips are family time. Hiking trips have been times to share stories, learn multiplication tables (which we spent years quizzing Sophie on, up and down countless trails and mountains), joke, and create memories that we laugh about and bond over.

Like picking blueberries on the top of Blackcap when we were little, climbing up the waterfalls at Zealand, the time we hiked from Greenleaf to Galehead in the rain. We all remember the time when we were flying a kite on top of Sabbatus Mountain: The kite went off the cliff and got caught on a bush a little ways down. Our dad and a family friend climbed down the cliff to get it, leaving our mom and another friend VERY worried, but all of the small children (aka us) peered over the edge, enthralled by our super-dads.

Our family is really close, and hiking and spending time together out of doors is one of the best ways we maintain that closeness.

Sophie: When I’m camping or hiking without Dad, I hear his voice in my head: “Tie your laces tight when you go downhill!” “Don’t put the DEET on the tent!” “Trust your grippers.” “Four points of contact if it’s steep... or 5.” “Hey, look at this tree! It’s an [insert scientific name here].”

My mom talks about watching my dad and his best friend, before either of them had kids, watching other fathers skiing with toddlers. It was the first time she realized that my dad was excited to be a dad himself. Years later, she recalls the “poetic justice” of watching her former ski racer husband tear down the slopes after a rogue child skier/cannonball , yelling, “Slow down! “S” turns! SLOWWW!!”

Jesse: He’s always prepared. A friend of ours once joked that if we ever got stuck up a river without a paddle, my dad would have an inflatable paddle in his backpack ready to use. It’s probably true.

Also, despite the fact that he’s, like, 120 years old or something, and recovering from knee surgery, he still manages to bike WAY faster than any of us.

Emma: Hiking has been What We Do as a family for as long as I remember. My dad and spending time outdoors with him have made me who I am today, there’s no doubt about it. “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot when people hear what I’m up to. I’m an environmental science major working on conservation, I want to travel the world and live in foreign countries as much as possible.

A few weeks ago my mom, my brother, and I went hiking in the Whites without Dad. (He had to work and was still recovering from knee surgery.) I spent the entire time identifying the trees and plants around us and explaining to my mom and brother how to tell one kind of tree from another. . . using pretty much the same words my dad used when I was younger. I’d say I pretty much am my dad, or am on track to become him.

"Hiking has been a touchstone"

“Our kids have been hiking since before they were born,” says Mike Gildesgame, Southern New England policy manager at AMC. A family photo from a trip to Acadia National Park shows Mike with one child on his shoulders and one in a backpack, standing next to his wife, Catharyn, who was pregnant with their youngest child.

A family hike a couple of years ago with all three children and some family friends took them from Greenleaf to Galehead huts. “It’s a hard hike,” Mike says, “one of the hardest we’ve done in the Whites. It was one of those days that start in gorgeous sunshine up on Franconia Ridge. . . It was raining by the time we started down Garfield. At one point, we saw Galehead hut in the distance. My wife looked at me and said, ‘We have all that way to go!?' But we all made it and were glad of the usual warm reception and good food.”

The three Gildesgame kids were fine, naturally. “They’ve adopted the viewpoint that this is a challenge,” Mike says. They’ve grown up with the attitude that doing “this” — the hiking, the distance, even the weather — “is something they can be proud of.”

The family didn’t start out on such tough hikes. “When they were little,” Mike says, “we did little hikes up in Evans Notch.” The three children have developed different hiking personalities. Sophie, 16, who “hiked” that Acadia trail before she was born, is not a fan of day hikes. She doesn’t like to start and end in the same place. Jesse, 18, likes to go off the beaten path, into the backcountry. Emma, 20, has made hiking a social activity, and does much of her hiking with friends.

But hiking has become a touchstone for all of them. Emma was a trail crew leader in the White Mountains. Jesse took the month-long AMC leadership training course. Mike says, “It’s a family activity.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Quality time at Greenleaf is hard to beat"

About twenty years ago, Tim Whyte was involved in youth and recreation programs in Saugus, Mass., where he lived and ran a construction company. He joined the Appalachian Mountain Club because he wanted to learn more about taking kids backpacking; he signed up for one of AMC’s Outdoor Leadership Training courses. “I found an incredible community of people,” he recalls. “When I got off the trip, I said [to the director of the program], ‘I want to do what you do.’” Tim ramped up his time in the outdoors and taught his first course in the Youth Opportunities Program in 1997.

Shortly after that course, Tim’s daughter, Courtney, was born, followed a few years later by his son, Andrew. Tim continued teaching YOP courses, and his children learned to hike along with him. After he was divorced, Tim dealt with the challenging logistics of hiking trips as a single parent by asking other family members and friends along. At a YOP training class he met Erika Papi; he proposed to her at the end of a course three years ago, and the family of hikers expanded.

Earlier this month, Tim Whyte taught his sixteenth training course. “When I rate participants who take the course,” he says, “I tell them I’m rating them for whether it’s OK for them to take my kids. The question I ask is, Would I send my son or daughter out with you?”

This year, he took the leadership training students by Greenleaf. At the hut, he opened one of the hiker logbooks and read a couple of the entries aloud. Afterward, he asked them, “Do you know why I read those? Because they were written by my son and daughter.” He wanted the students to understand that the log entries condensed a powerful experience. Courtney and Andrew, he told them, can come back in one year, two years, or twenty years, read their entries, and remember that experience all over again.

Tim appreciates the values that come from being outside together. “Too many families today, what they do together is they watch TV, go to the mall, go to movies. In our family, we actually don’t go to the mall or the movies. In the YOP courses, we tell them to leave their electronics behind. We do the same thing on our family trips.” (Courtney and Andrew can bring books, and the family plays card games.) “It’s quality family time,” Tim says. He know that families can have quality time together at home. But he also knows that it often doesn’t happen there. And, he says, “quality time at Greenleaf is hard to beat.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

“They become their own pioneers”

“I can remember my first backpacking trip,” says Marshall Nicoloff, AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) coordinator in New York City. The hike was in southern Vermont, and Marshall was doing it with his Boy Scout troop. “It was two miles in. I think I was nine. My backpack was entirely too large, an adult-sized external frame pack. My sleeping bag was rolled into a trash bag and lashed to the outside of the frame. The whole thing was probably as tall as I was.”

Marshall remembers how exhausted he was at the end of the hike and how cool the lake felt when he went swimming.

Nearly twenty-five years later, Marshall can say that he’s been working with youth in the wilderness “pretty much all my life.” His youthful hiking experiences led to guiding trips as a college student, working with summer camps, then running a day camp in Massachusetts, and to his current work with AMC.

He thinks that spending time in the outdoors helps high-school students develop character, independence, leadership, and self-confidence. He’s especially interested in leadership development. In his groups, “Everybody has a job or responsibility, everyone takes on a different piece of leadership,” including such jobs as navigator, “soul patrol,” “hydration station,” and Leave No Trace guru. He also establishes “leaders of the day,” who are in charge of the whole group. “It gives them practice in how to talk to others,” he says, and helps them develop assertiveness and take responsibility for their actions.

On wilderness trips, the simplest of activities can be opportunities to practice such skills. Take backpack cooking. Marshall teaches the teenagers how to use a stove and basic recipes. “Most teenagers don’t cook at home,” he says. He likes to watch them move to greater complexity as they start to think about adding spices, managing portion sizes, and planning menus.

Marshall describes a current student whose experience illustrates the difference that outdoor programs can make. The young woman became involved in a YOP-supported program as a freshman in high school. Like many teenagers, she’d arrived at high school without much success in the traditional areas of academics, sports, and music. Marshall has seen such kids “fall into the abyss.” After four years of outdoor adventures, that young woman recently graduated at the top of her class, and received several scholarship offers. He thinks that being involved in outdoor education gave her “a chance to excel.”

“The extra ingredient,” Marshall says of outdoor education, “is adventure, that sense of the unknown. The teenagers become their own pioneers. The experience creates memories. They can tell you everything about those first trips.” The same as a young man who remembers carrying a pack as tall as he was, with a sleeping bag stuffed into a trash bag.

Marshall met his wife, Kari, also a teacher and outdoor educator, through his work with the Appalachian Mountain Club. They have a little hiker on the way. No surprise, someone’s already given them the baby’s first backpack.


AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) provides urban and at-risk youth with outdoor experiences by offering training and support to the groups (schools, non-profits, and other organizations) that take young people on outdoor adventures. Each year the program reaches more than 10,000 young men and women.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“Out there on the trail, we’re together”

When Eric Stones, a volunteer leader of family outings for AMC’s Connecticut Chapter, thinks back to his childhood in England, he remembers three things his father often did with him: “taking me to hear music, taking me to cricket matches, and taking me hiking.”

Now a long-time resident of the United States, Eric admits that it is hard to continue an interest in cricket on American soil, but the other two activities “rubbed off on me.”

“On Sundays we would go to church, where father would sing in the choir,” Eric says. “Then in the afternoon, we’d go walking along the public paths.” The family lived near the West Penine Moors. “It was all factory chimneys to the south and moors to the north.” For family vacations, “we never did anything but visit farmhouses and go hiking.”

Stones has carried along those two traditions with his four children. The three oldest are now adults, but Eric still has the youngest, Roderick, who is 6, at home. On Sundays, Eric says, “I sing in the church choir. Then we gather all our things together and go hiking.” Eric, his wife Linda, and Roddy live opposite a state park. Eric and Linda lead at least one hike a month with the chapter, and Roddy comes on most of them. “He’s quite the little hiker,” Eric says. “He has 20-odd peaks under his belt.”

Roddy climbed Mt. Washington last summer, at age 5. The main thing, according to his father, was keeping him engaged enough not to start thinking about whether he was tired or when they would get there. The result was “four hours of non-stop talking.” Eric asks, “When else do we devote that much time to talking to each other?”

Extending the question, he asks, “What things do families really do well together? People spend so much time driving kids to cheerleading and cello, to this game and that game. The nice thing about hiking, you’re doing something together. Out there on the trail, we’re together.”

Great Kids, Great Outdoors, Great Fathers

This week, leading up to Father’s Day on Sunday, June 21, I’m posting profiles of several AMC fathers — men who share a love of the outdoors and who take the time to teach what they know to boys and girls, young men and women, in various ways. Some lead family trips. Some teach and train other instructors. Some work for AMC, some volunteer. All are fathers themselves. (One still has his training wheels — his baby is on the way — but I count him in.) All took a few minutes to reflect on their experiences in the outdoors with young people, including their own children.

If you have a story about fathers in the outdoors, you're welcome to share it with us by posting a comment here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Cold comfort: A slow start to summer means fewer black flies

It’s been another “unseasonably” cool week here in central New Hampshire. Even Jim, who rarely complains, felt compelled to grumble about the slow start to summer. Me, I’m thrilled. I am more than happy to trade off heat, even sun, for fewer biting bugs. And it does appear that black flies haven’t done any better than the season at getting off the ground.

Usually those little devils have already moved in by now, gotten themselves tangled up in my hair, hunkered down behind Ursula’s ears, and staked out a cafeteria line around Virgil’s wrists and ankles. And normally I think twice, and then again, before I plan lengthy outdoor time for the kids between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. This year, I haven’t had to do that much thinking, because we just haven’t seen that many black flies. I may have the cooler temperatures to thank: They’ve been in the high 30s and low 40s at night around here, and not much higher than that during the day.

I checked around and learned that black flies are relatively inactive when the temperature is below 50 degrees. Here are a few more things I learned (follow the links below to more information):
  • Black flies are less attracted to light-colored clothing than to dark clothing, so wear pale colors and avoid dark blues and blacks.
  • Unlike mosquitoes, black flies aren’t active (and therefore don’t bite) at night.
  • Small comfort: Black flies breed in clean, moving water, so you can at least be glad that their presence indicates a healthy stream somewhere nearby.
Black flies, and mosquitoes, will have their season soon enough. So here’s some information about insect repellent, especially about using it with children:
  • Be a minimalist. Your children will probably be exposed to less insecticide, and therefore to fewer potential side effects, if you apply the lotion or spray.
  • Avoid putting repellent on children’s hands and keep it away from their eyes and mouths.
  • Do not apply insect repellent on cuts or wounds.
  • Use the lowest concentration of DEET that will work: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that concentrations of 10 percent are as effective as concentrations of 30 percent.
  • The AAP recommends against using repellents with DEET on children younger than two months.
  • Remember that you can also keep bugs at bay by other means. Teach your children to wear long sleeves, pants and socks, and hats during bug season and you may find that you don’t have to reach for insect repellent.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

So that's why they call it a trail: The Freedom Trail

I sat down at my desk this morning, somewhat embarrassed, ready to admit that we missed celebrating National Trails Day on Saturday. We didn’t make it to a single one of the trails around Boston that I mentioned in Thursday’s post.

Here’s how the day went: We were having so much fun with our friends, who were visiting from California and whose two children are close in age to ours, that we decided to stay in the city. When we learned that Benjamin is studying the American Revolution in fifth grade, we suggested walking The Freedom Trail. It was a beautiful day, sunny but not too hot: so perfect for walking, in fact, that we started right at our hotel.

We took our time getting to the Boston Common and its Visitor’s Center, where the trail starts. We zigged and zagged past carts with Italian ices and candied nuts and stopped to pet small dogs in sweaters. The Freedom Trail itself is a double-wide line of red bricks laid in the middle of the sidewalk: simple but unforgettable — a stroke of genius. Immediately, the four kids took the lead, walking single-file on the bricks up a small hill to the corner of the Common and our first historical site, which turned out to be about the Civil War. Ursula, who is studying the Civil War in fifth grade, told us the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment, memorialized there.

From there, we followed the red-brick road and the children back to early American history, into cemeteries, through Paul Revere’s house and through the doors of Old North Church, made famous by the line in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “one if by land, two if by sea.” Along the way, we had lunch and gelato. The children’s energy never flagged. They even re-enacted the Boston Massacre with such gusto that people stopped to take their pictures. 

It was only after we’d said good-bye and turned for home that I realized we’d spent the entire day outside. Virgil was asleep before we left the city, Ursula before we crossed the border into New Hampshire.

And only now have I realized that what we did was indeed a hike — an urban hike, a history hike, a hike that worked especially well for children. And, I might add, a hike of at least six miles. So, even though we didn’t plan it that way, I think we did celebrate National Trails Day after all.

  • Boston National Historical Park The National Park Service oversees many of the Revolutionary War-era historic sites in Boston. 
  • Urban Escapes (AMC Outdoors July/August 2008) Biking in Manhattan, hiking in Philadelphia, kayaking in Washington, D.C., and other urban adventures.
  • Carless Hikes (AMC Outdoors April 2009) Seven excursions in seven cities that don’t require a car.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Get your hands dirty — National Trails Day

Saturday is the 16th National Trails Day. Since 1993, the first Saturday in June has been set aside by hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of volunteers to maintain and extend our country’s more than 200,000 miles of trails.

We’d like to put our eight hands to work on the trails of our “home mountain,” Mount Cardigan, but we’ll be in Massachusetts for a graduation celebration (OK, also a Red Sox game for Jim and Virgil). So we’re hoping to join in on the dedication of the Charles River Link Trail, which connects a “necklace” of scenic “jewels” around metropolitan Boston.

Get your hands dirty, protect our trails — and if you like, share your experiences here.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More tips to encourage the reluctant hiker

My previous post got me thinking about the tricks we’ve used to encourage our two young hikers. I came up with nine more in addition to the “Hansel and Gretel” ploy. Each has been tested, as they say, in the field. None has worked every time, which is why the last two tips are more for parents than children.

  1. Tell a story. We make them up or we tell true ones. When we hit a good storytelling vein, we mine it. We’re six years and counting for the slapstick adventures of two dumb ducks named Malcolm and Willard.

  2. Change the focus of a hike. We’ve made the point of a hike getting to a pond where we can skip stones, or playing a game of hike-and-seek.

  3. Set up competitions. Race to the tenth tree on the trail. Who can find the most animal tracks or identify the most flowers? I know I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel when we try to name all the characters in “Star Wars,” but it has kept the Force with small Skywalkers.

  4. Add a friend. Add several friends. Hiking becomes way more cool for my children if we invite their friends to join us. That said, inviting a friend is a gamble — double the fun or double the whining — so place small bets (short hikes) to start.

  5. Add gear and technology. We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of teaching our children to use various pieces of equipment on the hiking trail. Try compasses, with or without maps, and children’s cameras — or your own camera if you’re confident that it won’t be dropped.

  6. Piggyback another activity (and its gear). We sometimes bring wildlife and flower guides on hikes, along with binoculars and small flower presses. Sketchbooks and drawing supplies work, too.

  7. Invite along favorite fantasy or dress-up characters. We learned the pleasure of hiking in disguise when Virgil insisted on wearing his Wolverine costume from Halloween, complete with claws. Since then, we’ve unloaded Jedi knights, superpowers, and other fantastical creatures at the trailhead. The costumes come off pretty quickly, but the memories seem to linger.

  8. Hike only as far as a reluctant hiker wants to go. Sometimes my best choice as a hiking parent is to rethink the day in terms of what my child wants, which may mean turning around or not even starting a hike.

  9. Carry ’em out. We’ve carried our children on our shoulders, in our arms, and on our backs to get to a campsite before dark or to the car at the end of the trail.

Maybe that last tip is less trick than confession: Yes, we’ve been caught out. Yes, we’ve been too ambitious. But those forced marches have become part of our parenting story, along with all the other things that worked or didn’t. They remind us that our task isn’t to get our children up the trail to the top. It’s to be with them and to share our love of the world with them. On the days when none of my ideas seems to work, I try to remember that soon enough, they’ll be hiking beyond us.

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