Monday, November 22, 2010

Hedwig Lives

Over the weekend, we took our two wizards-in-training to see the newest Harry Potter film, which as you probably know covers the first half of the series’ final book.

What does this have to do with kids and the outdoors, you might ask. Good question, given that we call the summer before Ursula started fourth grade the “Harry Potter summer.” She opened the first book in early July and finished the sixth book in August, just in time to pick up the newly published seventh book. All told, she read 4,000 pages in six weeks. When I think back to those six weeks, I see Ursula draped sideways over a chair with a Harry Potter book in front of her face, the only movement one leg bouncing slowly against the armrest — hardly an advertisement for an active, outdoors childhood.

And yet the adventures of Harry, Hermione, and Ron and their Hogwarts friends have given Ursula and Virgil and their friends a common language for outdoor play. In our children's attempts to create proper wizard wands, they learned how to identify different types of trees. (Though I also gently broke the news that dragon heartstrings were in short supply around here….) When they collected “magic” herbs and stones, tied them into bundles, and headed into the woods or down to the pond on quests, I’m sure the books’ plots provided starting points — and just as sure that our small wizards’ stories took off in new directions.

A few weeks ago, Jim and I surprised a snowy owl from its perch in a snag along our road. The big white owls spend summers on the Arctic tundra; some fly south to the Northeast for the winter (giving new meaning to the phrase "snowbirds"). In fact, one of the favored winter stopovers for snowy owls is Boston’s Logan Airport: Researchers speculate that the flat, snow-covered terrain resembles their Arctic habitat. When we told Ursula and Virgil that we’d watched the bird fly down through our neighbor’s field and into the state forest, they responded with one word: Hedwig!

Hedwig is Harry Potter’s magic animal companion. Apparently, J. K. Rowling picked a snowy owl as Harry’s “familiar,” even though the birds don’t appear in Great Britain, because she considers them the most beautiful of the owls.

We were sorry that Ursula and Virgil didn’t see our snowy owl visitor, so we were delighted when we entered the movie theater on Friday night and saw staff members from VINS Nature Center holding a real snowy owl. Ursula and Virgil ran to join the children (and adults) standing in line to see the bird up close.

I spoke with one of the VINS staffers, who said that movie theaters near their Quechee, Vermont, center had welcomed the center's efforts to meld the magic on screen with the real-life magic of the majestic birds. Afterward, in her review of the movie — plot spoiler alert! — Ursula pointed out that Hedwig died differently in the movie than in the book.

“Yeah,” said Virgil. “But at least we got to see a real-life Hedwig.”

Learn more
... about VINS, Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences.
... about snowy owls (and why they love airports) from MassAudubon and from National Geographic.
... about the owls of Harry Potter.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Junior Naturalist: Migration: Part 4, Ducks

Lately Ursula’s been asking for more Malcolm and Willard stories. Every year since Ursula was in pre-school, and Jim invented two “dumb ducks” to ease the long drive to school, the mallard brothers have squabbled their way through one migration misadventure after another. Telling the stories has become a ritual here, and not just in the fall.

The humor is not exactly sophisticated. How’d they get their names? It’s a simple word problem: (Mal)colm + Wil(lard) = Mallard. Malcolm, the older brother, comes up with one lame-duck idea after another — “Let’s draft behind a jet!” “Let’s sneak in with this flock of geese!” — to ease the pain or boredom of a long migration between our pond in New Hampshire and Orlando, Florida, where Jim decided early on that the two ducks spend their winters. Malcolm is enthusiastic about each new scheme he proposes, but doesn’t think them through very well. Willard, the long-suffering younger brother, tries to argue with his older brother or at least remind him of their previous failures — drafting behind a jet all the way to Wisconsin, for instance, or getting a four-month head start on winter but nearly becoming “roast duck” in the heat of a southern summer. In the end, every time, Willard reluctantly goes along with Malcolm’s scheme.

Inevitably things go awry. Ursula’s favorite part of every story comes at this point, when things have gone about as wrong as they possibly can and Willard finally loses his temper. The ducks will have followed that flock of geese, but will find themselves lost in a Louisiana bayou, with no idea how to get to Florida. “You bird brain!” Willard will yell at his brother. “Oh yeah, Follow the geese, you said. It’ll be easy, you said. Now look where we are, you sack of feathers, you pond scum.”

It helps Jim’s storytelling that dabbling ducks like mallards actually migrate later than most birds, and often fly in mixed groups with other waterfowl. Mallards have been spotted flying at altitudes of 20,000 feet — an elevation at which humans have trouble breathing, let alone propelling themselves. Migrating ducks typically cruise at speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour and can cover as many as 500 miles a day. And unlike monarch butterflies, there’s no consistent distance that they travel or location they travel to. It gives Jim some wiggle room.

For now, we have noisy groups of buffleheads and mergansers on our pond, and the occasional pair of mallards. No doubt it’s Malcolm and Willard, arguing again about when to leave….

Learn more

- An overview of wild ducks from the Humane Society
- Places to see migrating waterfowl along the Atlantic Coast: Plum Island, Newburyport, Mass.; Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge, NH; Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware; Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, Wells, Maine; Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia; Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey.

Photo credit: Bill Houghton

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Junior Naturalist: Migration: Part 3, Raptors

The bald eagles that we think nested in the wetlands down below the pond last summer are gone. From spring into fall, they’d glide the length of the pond, thirty feet up, with nary a wing flap. Their presence would invariably be announced with full-throated warnings from the loons, who’d quickly swim over to their chick to keep it from becoming an eagle snack. Late in the summer a gawky eaglet spent several afternoons hanging out on snags and high branches around the pond, driving poor papa loon, uh, loony.

And then the eagles were gone. We no longer see hawks rising with the warm air, either. But in other places along the East Coast through the end of November and even into December, you can still watch hawks, eagles, and other raptors making their fall migration. Some raptors will travel as far as Central or South America for the winter.

Raptors ride the airborne currents, and so are often funneled into well-traveled flight paths that follow dependable, geography-produced thermals of warm, rising air. Raptors use their keen eyesight to follow landmarks, such as the Appalachian Mountains, as they travel south. Bald eagles often follow the Delaware River valley system.

The two or three days following the passage of a cold front, if the wind is blowing steadily from the north or northeast, are often prime times to catch hawks and eagles in flight. An official hawk counter is on duty every day through the end of November at Cape May, New Jersey. November is the best month to catch golden eagles, which migrate later than bald eagles, passing by Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania.

Learn more
Two lists of places to see migrating raptors in “Raptor Migrations” (AMC Outdoors, October 2007) and “Hawk Migrations” (Yankee magazine, September 2009).

Photos: Sharp-shinned hawk, bald eagle. Taken by Bill Moses during the 2010 fall migration at Hawk Mountain.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Junior Naturalist: Migration: Part 2, Monarch Butterflies

Over the weekend, Ursula and a friend collected seed pods from the milkweed patch in the backyard, talking of sewing the downy white floss into pillows. Last spring and summer, that patch served as a monarch-butterfly nursery. Monarch larvae — that is, caterpillars — are the picky eaters of the insect world, eating only milkweed. Several generations of striped caterpillars grew fat on our milkweed, spun chrysalises, and spread their wings as large orange-and-black butterflies, each generation living about two months.

In September, a final group of caterpillars feasted on the milkweed. This special generation lives much longer than the summer butterflies — up to seven months. They left our yard in September, beginning an extraordinary journey that brings nearly every monarch butterfly east of the Rocky Mountains to a half-dozen mountain tops in central Mexico. Our northern New Hampshire butterflies fly approximately 3,000 miles in two months, or about 50 miles a day, to join as many as 500 million other monarch butterflies for the winter.

The long journey of the monarch butterflies is amazing enough. Almost as extraordinary is that they find their way to an area in Michoacan, Mexico that is one-millionth the size of their summer territories. The butterflies descend on Oyamel fir forests about two miles above sea level. Temperatures in these forests typically remain cool all winter, but don’t dip below freezing. By early November, the migration essentially over, the butterflies cluster on the fir trees, moving little and waiting for spring.

Monarchs are the only butterflies that migrate as birds do, traveling south for the winter and north again in the spring. But the butterflies that cross the continent and spend the winter in the Oyamel forests are not the same butterflies that make the return trip. That amazing journey is undertaken by successive generations beginning in March. Scientists don’t yet know how monarch butterflies find their way in either direction. But chances are good that the great-great (or great-great-great) grandchildren of the butterflies that left here in September will return again to our backyard next spring.

Learn more
- Monarch Watch and Journey South followed the 2010 migration.
- Cape May Bird Observatory tags monarch butterflies on both their southern and northern migrations. Watch a short video.
- Scientists are concerned about declines in the monarch butterfly population east of the Rockies. The butterfly’s winter grounds are threatened by illegal logging, and many parts of its migration path and its breeding grounds in the United States are under severe developmental pressure. A National Geographic video summarizes the issues.

Photo courtesy Ellen Lucy at

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Junior Naturalist: Migration: part 1, loons

The last member of our resident loon family has been practicing flying for the past several weeks, preparing for its migratory flight to the coast. We’ve watched it churn through the water with its wide webbed feet, its wings flapping noisily, working hard to get airborne. Lately, the big bird has started taking aerial laps around the pond. It’s only a matter of time before it clears the trees along the shoreline, turns east, and follows some inner signal to a spot on the ocean along the New England coastline.

This loon's parents left a month ago. We’d watched them build their nest, feed the chick when it resembled a fluffy black ping-pong ball, and hover protectively over their growing offspring for more than three months. Then, one morning, they were gone. To us, the young loon seemed to sulk after its parents’ departure. We joked that it might not have realized that loons could fly, since we never saw its parents leave the pond once they’d built their nest.

By this time of year, loons that were born during the summer are called “young of the year.” With luck, this one will safely survive two or three years on the ocean. If it does, it will emerge from its winter molt into full breeding plumage and make another migration, this time inland, looking for a place to raise its own family. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll splash down again on our pond.

Loons are just one of many creatures that migrate each fall in the Northeast. Next: Monarch butterflies.

Learn more
- Loon migration patterns in New England from the Loon Preservation Committee
- Online loon migration study unit for kids and teachers, Science on the Fly, from the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation
- Basic loon facts from National Geographic

Loon photo courtesy of the Loon Preservation Committee.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Looking for a job in the outdoors? Read this first.

AMC Regional Trail Coordinator Matt Moore sifts through more than 100 applications each year to fill four Ridgerunner positions on the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut and southern Massachusetts.

You can’t get much more outdoors than the jobs he hires for: Ridgerunners live on the trail all summer, working 10-day shifts, hiking about a dozen miles a day, and camping out at campsites along the way. The job involves much more than hiking, however. Ridgerunners talk to an estimated 5,000 trail users each year, making them “the eyes, ears, and public face of the AMC and the AT,” as the job description puts it.

I contacted Moore recently about great jobs in the outdoors and asked what he looks for in an applicant. His answer, I think, is worth sharing in its entirety. It contains advice and wisdom that all young job seekers might benefit from — no matter the job.

Here’s what Moore said:

“I aim to fill the four spots with enthusiastic, qualified, personable, and capable individuals. The key is standing out from other applicants.

A prerequisite for these jobs is that the applicant be comfortable in the woods, and have a proven drive, enthusiasm, and skill set applicable to the position. The best demonstration of those skills is experience, and in my mind the more independent and self-motivated the better.

I want to see an applicant for whom being outdoors and in the woods is a necessity — someone who has done several substantial overnight backpacking trips. Anyone can sign up for and endure a week-long organized backpacking trip, but not everyone has the drive to go out and backpack 15 weekends a year, or hike for a month with their mother or father, or organize and lead an outing club trip, or even to run trails 3 times a week.

Younger teens might not be able to strike out on independent hikes, but they can, say, do several AMC volunteer trail crews, or maybe hike and trail run regularly in their town, or be researching an eventual group or solo trip. As they get older, their love of the outdoors should be demonstrated by time spent in it. If they organize group trips or are active in an outing club, their application is even more competitive.

In short, the best way to bolster your qualifications is to get out there and do what you love! Demonstrated expertise and a passion for hiking, biking, paddling, skiing, climbing, etc., makes you competitive for these jobs.

The second factor is professionalism and work ethic. Applicants need to know how to write a structurally sound sentence in a professional tone and how to use spell check! You'd be amazed at how many grammatical and spelling errors I find in applications. They often stray into far too casual a tone. I'd say more than a third of the applications I receive are disqualified on these grounds.

For any job interview, even at a summer camp, applicants should practice. Anticipate the questions that will be asked — they are usually quite predictable — and think about how you would answer. What makes you unique? What are your strengths? What are some examples from your life that demonstrate these strengths? Think about this stuff and practice articulating it. Avoid scripting it or memorizing answers: You need to sound conversational, not rehearsed. Research the job and organization and think of questions to ask the interviewer. Even simple logistical questions make you sound invested and prepared. A half-hour spent brainstorming can vastly improve how you perform in an interview.

Last piece of advice: Work hard at whatever you do. Show up on time. Strive to understand instructions and to follow them. Ask questions when you don't understand. I think teenagers greatly benefit from having a job, any job. In my early part-time job career, I consistently got high marks from supervisors and I never understood why. All I did was show up on time and do what was asked of me. Now, as a supervisor, I recognize that very simple skill is sorely lacking in many, many folks. Learn how to work - anywhere — and gain good references.

I'll use one Ridgerunner as an example. At 19, he had managed — a month here, a week there — to hike 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. He researched and made his own gear. It absolutely lit him up. He had to work to make money for these trips. In high school, he worked at a local sub shop, pulling extra shifts over a hot grill on 100-degree summer days. He held this job for three years. His application included a reference letter from the sub shop. It described how valuable and reliable the candidate had been, how he kept busy, was thorough, went above and beyond, and was like family.

That young man stayed with the Ridgerunner program for three years, gaining additional responsibility each year. It was one of the easiest hires I ever made.”

Learn more
- Hut Croo and More: 10 Great Outdoor Jobs.
- "A Day in the Life" of AMC's Ridgerunner program.
- About applying for the Ridgerunner program.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Hut Croo and More: 10 Great Outdoor Jobs

The days are getting shorter and colder. But for high school and college students, now is the time to be thinking of summer — not the warm memories of last summer, but the possibilities of next. This is when employers around the Northeast begin shaping their summer work force for the coming year. Even if the current weather is gray, the summer job market for young, active, seasonal workers is surprisingly bright and varied. And not just any jobs: fun jobs, jobs that make a difference, jobs as big as all outdoors.

The following list of outdoor summer positions in and around the AMC region is a jumping-off point. Naturally, hut croo is on the list, and trail crew — two of AMC's most coveted (and competitive) summer positions — but so are other jobs that offer intense exercise, stunning settings, and lifetime friendships.

Most of these jobs assume that applicants are young, strong, and willing to rough it. Pay varies, as do application deadlines. Some jobs extend past summer months or are also available in other seasons. (Follow the links below for more details.) The bulk are geared toward college students or recent graduates, but high school students will find some openings, and young workers who can make do with small stipends or payment in room and board will find a wide selection of resume-building opportunities.

It isn't too early to apply: The best of these jobs fill up fast.

Camp counselor. Camp counselors don't always come from the ranks of campers. The American Camp Association maintains an extensive list of job listings for summer and year-round camps.

Instructor or guide. Experienced climbers, kayakers, and other skilled practitioners of outdoor sports may find opportunities to pass along their knowledge as instructors with outfitters, guide services, camps, even hotels. Maine Sporting Camps hire seasonal fly-fishing guides. AMC's Teen Wilderness program looks for trip leaders on canoeing, backpacking, and rock climbing trips throughout the White Mountains and Maine. At AMC's Highland Center, Adventure Guides teach a wide range of outdoor skills in family and adult programs throughout the year.

Park ranger.
Seasonal ranger jobs are available at Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park in Maine, in Massachusetts and Connecticut state parks and in parks of all types and sizes throughout the AMC region. Also look on park websites for more unusual jobs, such as forestry assistant, golf starter, lifeguard, bridge operator.

Resort, hotel, or camp worker.
Grand mountain hotels like The Balsams in New Hampshire, rustic family camps, and ski resorts open for the summer have had to turn to international workers in recent decades to fill their seasonal positions. Some of these jobs, it is true, involve cleaning rooms, making beds, or working in the kitchen, though with the benefit of being in a beautiful part of the country. Other jobs are more unusual, even one of a kind: Every year, Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in New Hampshire hires a crew of young men and women to deliver blocks of lake ice to its cottages in wooden wheelbarrows. Maine Innkeepers Association maintains a job listing.

Outdoor store clerk. If the folks behind the counter at your local outdoor equipment store know you by name, you might want to join them. Some outdoor stores also offer instruction and outdoor programs — not to mention store discounts.

Environmental educator, environmental advocate. Nature's Classroom, which runs outdoor education classes in 14 sites around the Northeast, including New York and Rhode Island, hires teachers and counselors throughout the year. Instructors in AMC's A Mountain Classroom share their knowledge and love of the outdoors with students from fifth grade through high school. Instructors teach ecology, geology, map and compass, team-building, and outdoor skills in programs at Pinkham Notch, The Highland Center, Cardigan Lodge, and AMC's backcountry huts.

Trail crew. Want to pry rocks out of the ground and be able to tell a mattock and a pick ax apart at 30 feet? Just about any organization that maintains trails also needs a trail crew, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which oversees crews along the length of the Appalachian Trail, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. AMC's teen trail crew leaders combine the pleasure of manual labor with the rewards of empowering other young people. Sally Manikian, AMC's backcountry resource conservation manager, says of the trail crew jobs, "We have had people move on to careers in the forest service, park service, and other resource management positions."

The Student Conservation Association, which started as a Vassar College student's senior thesis in the 1950s and is now based in Charlestown, N.H., runs trail crews for numerous parks and organizations around the country. SCA also maintains a Conservation Corps, whose members may work on wildfire management or eradicating invasive species. Its internship program is equally broad-based: interns might learn to give talks in interpretive history or work on mapping habitat.

Hut crew or caretaker.
For AMC's fabled hut "croo" positions, Hut Manager Eric Pedersen anticipates close to 150 applications for approximately 15 open spots for next summer. "We close the application window at the end of January," he says, "and interview about 50 applicants" over the next several months before offering the coveted jobs. What do Pedersen and his staff look for in an application? "Customer service experience, outdoor knowledge and experience in the Whites, education, job experience, ability to work closely with guests and staff."

Caretaker jobs aren't limited to the White Mountains: Also try Maine Huts, Green Mountain Club in Vermont, Randolph Mountain Club, or smaller organizations like Squam Lakes Association, which hires caretakers for its island and shoreline camping sites.

Naturalist, wildlife biologist. You know your oak from your maple, and the plants of the alpine zone. Or you've been studying the birds or mammals of the northern forest. You may want to apply for an interpretive naturalist internship at AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Or you may want to focus on research or conservation work. Summer is a busy field biology season. For example, Mass Audubon hires wildlife interns to search for Diamondback Terrapin; Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine looks for interns to monitor wildlife webcams and write blog posts; Wildlife Conservation Society brings on summer help for its New York City zoos.

If you truly want to see the countryside, and you can work independently, you might be a good ridgerunner. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy hires ridgerunners for many sections of the Appalachian Trail. The Green Mountain Club for the Long Trail, Friends of Acadia National Park, and AMC also hire ridgerunners. AMC's ridgerunners live on the trail all summer, hiking roughly 10 miles a day in 10-day shifts, camping out, and talking to trail users along the way.

To fill four seasonal ridgerunner jobs, AMC regional trail coordinator Matt Moore looks for applicants for whom "being outdoors and in the woods is a necessity" — a description that might apply to all the jobs listed here.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

AMC Annual Family Gathering at Cardigan Lodge

In recent years, AMC’s New Hampshire Chapter has hosted a family gathering at Cardigan Lodge at the end of the fall, open to all AMC families from all chapters. The group takes over the entire lodge for the weekend. There are always plenty of hikes and workshops, and a traditional hike to Welton Falls, but mostly it’s a time for AMC families to come together and celebrate — dare I say it? — great families in the great outdoors. This year’s event is Friday to Sunday, November 5 – 7.

Wanda Rice, who is helping coordinate this year’s weekend, told me recently that the gathering often sells out and has a waiting list. This year there are some spots left.

This is one of the most affordable mountain weekends you’re going to find anywhere. It costs $40 for children ages 8 and under and $80 for everyone 9 and up to stay at Cardigan Lodge on Friday and Saturday nights, and for food from snacks on Friday evening (not dinner) through breakfast on Sunday. Not to mention activities both planned and unplanned: hikes of various levels of difficulty, a map and compass workshop, a bonfire (weather permitting), even a raffle. “There’s plenty of unstructured play,” inside the lodge and outside, Wanda says. “Kids make friends they can hike with for years.”

Learn more
- Look at the trip listing on AMC’s website or the New Hampshire Chapter website for more information.

Photo courtesy AMC.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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