Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kid Spoken Here: Family-friendly accommodations at AMC

This is my second post about AMC’s “Kid Spoken Here,” a program launched earlier this month to make AMC’s huts and lodges more accessible to children and families. In my first post, I described new family-friendly activities at the Highland Center at Crawford Notch, expanded offerings in the center’s gear room, and new kids’ menus at mealtimes.

The “Kid Spoken Here” program also tries to address the cost of AMC accommodations for families. This is a matter of some personal concern for me. Like many other families in recent years, we’ve struggled to match our falling income to our rising costs. We’ve appreciated our time together outdoors, in part because being outside often costs us very little, and the rewards are priceless.

And we’ve taken a hard look at our costs, even for longtime and cherished outdoor activities. We’ve been priced out of downhill skiing as a family, so Jim and I have stopped buying lift tickets for ourselves. Instead, we put our money toward the kids' cheaper lift tickets, who get plenty of invitations to go skiing or boarding from friends and their families.

We haven’t spent much time in AMC’s huts or lodges, either, for the same family budget reasons. Instead, we take family backpacking trips, where we can pay as little as $20 for five days of backcountry camping.

So I was pleased to see that the “Kid Spoken Here” program reduces overnight lodging costs for AMC member children. It does so in two ways, first by cutting the cost for member children between the ages of 3 and 12, and then by creating a new lower “youth” rate for teens (ages 13-17).

Children’s rates have been reduced the most at Cardigan Lodge and Joe Dodge Lodge, from $40 to $29 per night, or more than 25 percent. Prices for the Highland Center and the Maine Wilderness Lodges have been reduced $8 for each member child, to $34 a night. The cost of staying in a hut for a member child has dropped less — $3, to $49 a night.

AMC has also introduced a new member teen rate, for ages 13-17: $57 a night at Cardigan and Joe Dodge Lodge, $83 a night for the huts, and $105 a night for AMC’s Maine lodges.

These changes are clearly a move in the right direction. The reduction in the child rate for Cardigan and Joe Dodge, especially, strikes me as significant.

The “Kid Spoken Here” program lives in nitty-gritty details: what kids eat for dinner, what they do if it rains, whether a pack or shoes fit, how much it costs to spend the night in a hut. This strikes me as appropriate and necessary. Family life is largely about such nitty-gritty details. Getting those details right is one way — one very important way — to live our family values.

By addressing the needs of families with children, and by acknowledging issues of cost and access, AMC has taken several very important steps. I hope that they are first steps, and that more follow.

Photos: Outside and inside Cardigan Lodge. Jerry & Marcy Monkman, Courtesy of AMC

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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kid Spoken Here: Making AMC’s huts and lodges more kid-friendly

I write here often about my family’s efforts to spend time together outside and about my desire to raise children who are connected to the wider natural world, who will translate that connection into protecting and caring for wild, natural places. The “Great Kids, Great Outdoors” blog is part of a larger effort by the Appalachian Mountain Club, tied to AMC’s Vision 2020 goals, to make the outdoors more accessible to children and families. AMC’s efforts address some of the same issues that I do with my individual family, but on a much broader scale.

That work has resulted in a new program. “Kid Spoken Here,” launched earlier this month, focuses on the experiences of children and families in AMC’s huts and lodges.

It’s not new for AMC’s program managers to think about how to engage kids, especially young children, in the outdoors. For example, a naturalist talk at Zealand and Lonesome Lake huts teaches kids about the life of beavers by outfitting volunteers with tails, webbed feet, and fur. My 8-year-old son, Virgil, would definitely have his hand up in the air for that. That talk is now included in the “Kid Spoken Here” list for the huts, along with such additions as Nature Jeopardy and Nature Bingo games, nets and bug boxes, and scavenger hunts.

Most new activities are planned for the Highland Center at Crawford Notch. This makes sense: The Highland Center has long been a good starting point for explorations around the White Mountains, especially for families. With the addition of the new mountain playscape, scheduled to open in May, the center will likely draw even more families.

Activities. The list of family-friendly walks and adventures that will be available at the Highland Center from July 1 through September 4 fills a single-spaced page. Some examples: daily morning explorations, short walks that show kids the basics of birding, tracking, wildflowers, pond-life, trees and shrubs, and wild edibles; half-day family adventures that include short hikes to waterfalls and smaller peaks, but also field trips to such attractions as the Cog Railway and Flume Gorge. Also kid-friendly wilderness workshops that introduce children to map and compass skills, teach them to build rudimentary shelters, and send them on GPS treasure hunts. (“Cool!” Virgil says, and wants to sign up immediately.)

Gear and Games. The changes extend inside the Highland Center, as well. The selection of family and children’s gear in the L.L. Bean Gear Room will expand to offer child carrier packs (so parents can tote those too young to hike), kid-sized backpacks, a wider selection of small boot sizes, and children’s personal flotation devices for water-sports programs. The library will include a larger selections of children’s books and magazines — helpful for rainy days — and children’s nature guides and field guides. In the library, but also in other areas around the lodge, families will find children’s tables and chairs, along with crayons and paper, games, and toys.

Food. Families, like armies, travel on their bellies. Knowing that there’s a waffle maker in the dining room would get my young soldiers out of bed. And the make-your-own pizza and BBQ lunches would also motivate them to finish a morning’s hike. Both of these options have been added to meals at the Highland Center, along with other kid-approved food ideas. More changes: additional high chairs in the main dining room, a kids’ menu, kids’ trail lunches, and an ice-cream sundae social on Sunday nights.

The evening meal now also includes the option of a “Kids Club” dinner and a “Party on the Patio Family Social Hour.” Kids eat “kid food” in a big group, overseen by “kid-friendly staff,” while parents get hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar on the patio. This sounds to me like something out of a Club Med or other resort vacation.

Such changes won’t be for everyone. This summer, there may be more children running around, more children laughing, and, no doubt, more children crying at the Highland Center. But if Kids Club and Party on the Patio make it easier for some families to spend part or all of their summer vacation with AMC, I’m all for it.

Next: Accommodating families at AMC huts and lodges

Learn more
- AMC’s Vision 2010 accomplishments, and a look toward Vision 2020
- "Natural Play Scape Planned at Highland Center" (Great Kids, Great Outdoors)
- "AMC Caters to Families" (February 2011, AMC Outdoors)
- Family options at the Highland Center at Crawford Notch

Photo: Family dining at AMC's Highland Center. Photo courtesy AMC.

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

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wicked Big Puddles: Vernal Pools, Salamanders, and Wood Frogs

Right about now, spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and other aquatic creatures around northern New England are preparing for a very big night at the pool. A vernal pool, that is — one of the ephemeral ponds that form in low-lying woodlands just after the snow melts each spring and serve as nurseries for a variety of forest animals.

One of those animals is the delightfully named fairy shrimp. This small crustacean lives its entire life, about one week, in a vernal pool. During this short life, the females deposit egg cases on the bottom of the pool, which hatch the following year when the water returns.

Wood frogs and spotted salamanders travel to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs. Because the pools don’t keep their water throughout the year, the eggs are safe from fish and other predators. Wood frog tadpoles and salamander larvae live in the small pools; by the time the pools are dry again, the amphibians are ready to move into the forest, where they’ll spend most of their lives — except for a night or two each year when they return to the pools where they were born to keep the cycle going.

These three animals are called obligate species. That’s because their life cycle requires them — obligates them — to use a vernal pool. Many land conservation and environmental organizations work to protect these magical places. Near Amherst, Mass., volunteers built a tunnel called “Salamander Crossing” to allow spotted salamanders safe passage from one side of the road to their vernal pool on the other.

Over the next few weeks, one of these organizations, Mass Audubon, is hosting events around Massachusetts. I poked around online and found several listings. If you have a favorite Audubon sanctuary, you may find more events near you.

Speaking as a parent, I can attest to the appeal of vernal-pool amphibians. Spotted salamanders are big — roughly half a foot in length and built thick and burly — and bright. The yellow spots along the length of a spotted salamander body are almost iridescent, especially if you’re lucky enough to catch one by flashlight on a Big Night in a Wicked Big Puddle.

Saturday, March 19, Worcester, Mass. “Wicked Big Puddles” Family Nature Exploration. 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Broad Meadow Brook Sanctuary.

Saturday, March 19, Attleboro, Mass. 2:00 – 3:30 p.m. Salamander Stroll and Scavenger Hunt. Mass Audubon’s Oak Knoll and Attleboro Springs Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Saturday, March 26, Fitchburg, Mass. 1:00 – 3:00 pm. “Wicked Big Puddles” Family Nature Exploration. Crocker Elementary School parking lot, 200 Bigelow Drive, Fitchburg. Mass Audubon co-hosts with North County Land Trust and Nashua River Watershed Association. (Rain/Snow Date: Sunday 3/27, 1:00 - 3:00 pm.)

Wednesday, March 30, Belmont, Mass. 3:30 - 5:00 pm. “Wicked Big Puddles” Family Nature Exploration. Mass Audubon’s Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, Belmont, Mass.

Friday, April 8, Attleboro, Mass. 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Vernal Pool Night Hike. Mass Audubon’s Oak Knoll and Attleboro Springs Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Saturday, April 16, Topsfield, Mass. 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. Vernal Pool Safari. Mass Audubon’s Ipswich River Nature Center.

Learn more
- Big Night for Salamanders, a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children for 2010, written by Sarah Lamstein and illustrated by Carol Benioff, tells the story of one boy’s efforts to help spotted salamanders on their Big Night.
- The Vernal Pool Association is a volunteer outreach and education organization based in Reading, Mass.
- National Geographic on Spotted Salamanders.

Photos courtesy the Vernal Pool Association.

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tapping Into the Season

The season here has shifted. Even before Daylight Savings Time kicked in on Sunday, there were signs everywhere: the rotting snow that’s still deep in the woods has melted out to bare ground in patches on south-facing hillsides; the ice has let loose in rivers and streams; the roads are a muddy mess. And over the weekend, the kids happily put on jackets and mittens to go outside — not to play in the snow, but to help tap a few sugar maples we have around the house and hang sap buckets on them.

By rights, we should have done this weeks ago. The first run of sap rises up from tree roots on the warm days following nights that still dip below freezing. Maple sugaring is a northern business (or fun activity, as in our case), turning the system that sugar maples have developed to weather cold winters to our benefit. Trees store starch in their roots and stems during the winter months. This starch becomes converted to sugar. Nature’s own pressure system, created by thawing during the day and freezing at night, alternately pushes the sap up from the roots and out to the branches and pulls it back down into the roots. We tap into that system when we tap a sugar maple. As soon as temperatures stay above freezing at night, the pressure no longer builds, and the season is over. Some years maple sugaring can last six weeks; in other years, it may last only days.

Maple sugaring is reliably a mud season activity, though early runs in mid- or even early February aren’t unheard of around here. We’re not actually in it for the maple syrup, though, nice as it would be to boil down our own. We like tapping trees for the sap itself — sweet water, we call it. We drink it cold or hot, and make our tea from it. We send it in to school with the kids’ lunches. We share it with neighbors, whose tradition is to celebrate the season by boiling hot dogs in it. And anyway, we can find maple syrup, locally produced, in the grocery store. Sap is the rarer treat.

Ursula and Virgil took turns boring holes into the trunks using a hand-drill. Jim showed them how to angle the drill and how to clean out the slanted hole with a twig. They drove in the taps using a wooden mallet, hung sap buckets directly on the taps, and covered them with tin V-shaped “roofs.”

The exciting part was waiting a few seconds and seeing the clear sap emerge in the groove in the taps, then drip from the ends into the buckets. Even after doing this for years, it still seemed miraculous. Ursula and Virgil, both, put their mouths to the taps to drink the sap straight.

This in-between season can be a tough time of year to get kids outside. For the next few weeks, though — if we’re lucky enough — we have five sugar maple trees giving our kids a reason to run outside before school starts, or to punch thigh-deep through soft snow when they get home in the afternoon to “see what’s in the buckets.” Reason enough to tap.

Learn more
- Maple Sugaring — Springtime Science and Fun: information on the history and science of maple sugaring created by a librarian at the University of Buffalo.
- “How Sweet It Is: Do-It-Yourself Maple Syrup” (AMC Outdoors, January/February 2007).
- “Sap Season” and “Junior Naturalist: Maple-sugaring Squirrels” (Great Kids, Great Outdoors).

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

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Travels with Charley: Skiing AMC’s Maine huts with a 7-year-old

“This was not in the plan.” Those words begin a winter’s tale of parents and children in the outdoors that had me laughing out loud by the end of the first paragraph. Writer and father Nathaniel Reade was trying to get himself and his 7-year-old son, Charley, on skis and out of a parking lot in Greenville, Maine. Except Charley, in Reade’s words, “is having a meltdown the likes of which I haven’t seen since back in pre-school, when he insisted on wearing the same Superman costume for three months.”

We laugh, so I’m told, when we see our own follies dramatized by someone else. That’s certainly the case with Reade’s comedy of errors. And when you’re a parent trying to get your kids to spend time in the outdoors — and like it — even good ideas can spiral off into comedy.

Reade, his wife, and their two sons spent four days on the ski trails that connect AMC’s Maine huts. They liked the idea of being able to ski into Little Lyford's lodge and cabins without carrying sleeping bags and other heavy gear. Good idea, right? Who wouldn’t want a snowmobile to carry all your stuff in, especially if you’re a family of four? Well, anyone except said family with a sobbing child who is refusing to do even so much as put on his ski boots.

Here’s how Reade gets Charley into his boots:
I ordinarily yell at people who idle their cars (it’s a problem I have), but this meltdown calls for drastic measures: I fire up the engine and crank the heat. Charley stops crying. I feed him chocolate. I manage to get him into his boots, his jacket, his skis. I will later discover that I left the keys in the car and the doors unlocked, but right now my wife and I shoulder our daypacks and off we go, all four of us.

Chocolate plays the same crucial role in this tale as it does in many of my family’s outings. As does a reluctant, sobbing young boy, and parents who try this (flexibility, comforting the sobber) and try that (firmness, yelling at the recalcitrant) to try to make the (insert words of frustration here) trip work. I laughed all the way through. It’s better than crying.

You’ll need to read Reade’s story yourself to see how it ends. I will say this, though: At the end, I wanted to get out on the trails with sobbing children of our own. It’s still winter, after all.

Learn more
- Read “Skinny Skiing the AMC Lodges of Maine” by Nathaniel Reade.
- Learn more about AMC’s lodge-to-lodge skiing in Maine.
- Read about another cross-country ski trip in the Maine woods (“Splendid Isolation,” AMC Outdoors, December 2007).

Photo credit: Nathaniel Reade

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

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Junior Naturalist: Fraziled!

School here was canceled yet again on Monday – not because of snow, but because of rain and sleet that built up ice on power lines, parked cars, and roadways. You can tell that winter has gone on long enough when yet another snow day is met with groans instead of grins. One reason: The kids had to pull out their “snow day” homework packets. “If I have to do homework,” Virgil whined, “at least I should get recess, too!”

It’s hard to make a snow day a play day, even without homework, when you’ve been looking out the window at freezing rain and sleet for two days. The “wintry mix” of weather, especially for parents of house-bound children, can make this season start to feel like a slog.

That mix of rain and snow, ice and slush, is a sign — early, to be sure — of a season in transition. The power of nature seems heightened. We don’t think of that glaze of ice outside our windows, for instance, as being heavy. But the coating added so much weight to the white pine in our back yard that, at some point during the night, it snapped off a couple of big limbs.

The power of frozen water and warming temperatures shows up in other dramatic ways at this time of year. The sleet and rain from the recent storm have swollen streams and created torrents of meltwater; dirt roads have badly gullied, the culverts overwhelmed and overflowing. On Monday, the ice-jam-filled Connecticut River overflowed its banks in Bradford and reached flood stage in Lebanon. A flood warning covered all of New Hampshire.

All this reminded me of a video clip I came across recently. At Yosemite National Park, the changing season is marked by a powerful phenomenon called “frazil ice.” Thick ice crystals form in the turbulent, super-cooled water coming off the high Yosemite waterfalls. At the bases of the falls, enormous piles of the frozen slush build up and slough off into the melting streams, filling them bank-to-bank with a heavy, moving slurry. Not quite water, not quite ice, the slurry slides along the current like thick, heavy cement. (Frazil ice also forms in other places, including some areas along the Hudson River.) The transformative power of that run-off is — well, you should see it for yourself.

Seeing the annual phenomenon in Yosemite was enough, for at least a while, to make this frazzled parent think of the season in a different way.

Learn more

- Learn more about frazil ice in Yosemite National Park and along the Hudson River in the Adirondacks.

- View the video of frazil, or frazzle, ice in Yosemite National Park, below.

Photos: Ice and fast water — but no frazil ice.

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

Saturday, March 5, 2011

If You Give a Kid a Camera

Friends visited us during their winter break last weekend. Their two daughters, Sarah and Rita, are close in age to Ursula, and, also like Ursula, generally enjoy being outdoors. But the plans the adults made, for long snowshoes and cross-country skiing, met with unexpected resistance from the girls. Maybe it was because Ursula and Rita are almost 13, or because our visitors brought electronic toys with them, or because the weather turned colder than the forecast, but the more we pressed them to get outside, the more they pushed back.

Until one of the girls saw Jim’s new digital camera on the counter. Rita has been taking photography classes. She told Ursula about the cool effects she’s been learning. And they were off and running.

With apologies to Laura Numeroff, who wrote the children’s books If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, and their many spinoffs, here’s our story:

If you give a kid a camera, she’ll want to show it to her friends.

Her friends will want to go outside, where they’ll want to take pictures

Of each other...

… the field…

… trees, and more.

For hours.

Taking a picture of the house in the fading light, they’ll realize that their hands are cold and that they’re hungry.

So they’ll come inside for some hot chocolate and cookies (and give one to a little mouse brother). While they’re eating and drinking, they’ll see the computer on the counter and want to upload the photos.

When they see the photos onscreen, they’ll want to edit them and turn them into art photos.

Then they’ll want to set them to music and give a slide show. Watching the slide show, they’ll want to go out again — now in the dark — and take more photos.

As in the original books, some sly lessons were imparted in this experience. For one, here was a situation where technology — in the form of a digital camera and a computer — did not play its usual role as villain, keeping kids inside. In this story, technology was a useful tool for getting the girls outside, and keeping them interested (and outside) for hours.

If you give a parent a way to get a kid outdoors….

Learn more
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and other books by Laura Numeroff

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

Thursday, March 3, 2011

AMC's Teen Wilderness Adventures: A Parents' Primer

It may not be spring yet, but it's not too soon for parents to look ahead to summer, and to outdoor programs for their kids. Choosing the right program or experience—and making the most of it—often begins with asking the right questions. Andrea Muller, AMC's North Country youth education director, offers the following list, along with her responses for AMC's Teen Wilderness Programs. (AMC also offers Teen Trail Crew programs.)

Should my child go on a wilderness adventure or attend a sleepover camp?
Wilderness adventure trips depart from the classic summer camp model, Muller says, in the landscape they're based in. Most often, wilderness trips take place on public lands, such as the White Mountain National Forest or Acadia National Park, that have been set aside for their natural beauty.

Wilderness trips are also active. Kids who participate in AMC's Teen Wilderness Adventures hike, climb, kayak, and mountain bike—often in combination. Wilderness adventure programs are mobile: Some AMC trips move camp every day. (That said, kids in AMC programs also study the natural environment around them and may participate in service projects.)

"Wilderness trips tend to draw kids who are excited about what they're doing," Muller says. "There's definitely a level of intensity that surrounds the group and what they are doing—and that's the point."

What are the differences between trips for 12-and 13-year-olds and trips for older teens? Between shorter and longer trips?
AMC's trips are designed to give participants more responsibility as they move from early adolescence through the teenage years.

Twelve- and 13-year-olds are often doing their first real hiking trips away from their families. These kids, Muller says, "are literally learning about managing their stuff. Whether they've gone on hut trips with their parents before or they've never hiked on a trail, they're learning to negotiate basic tasks"—like packing and keeping track of their belongings.

Trips for teens ages 13 to 16 accommodate a wide range of interests and experience. A teen who wants to try a new activity—kayaking or rock climbing, for example—may feel more comfortable signing up for a six-day trip. Teens who want to improve their skills will find plenty of challenges, as well. Longer trips often offer different combinations of activities, such as rock climbing and backpacking.

Older teens are physically and psychologically ready for more demanding adventures. "We hear from parents that the longer Teen Wilderness trips"—10 days or more—"are the most transformative," Muller says. Participants can't look ahead only a few days to the end of a course. Instead, they're asked to settle into the experience, to say to themselves, "I am living here, I am working with this group." Teens on the most advanced trips, Muller says, "end up managing themselves, individually and as a group. Parents tell us that these experiences really move their kids forward."

My child is inexperienced; my child has a lot of experience. How will he or she fare on a wilderness adventure?
It's important to learn what skills a teen is expected to have before starting a trip. Some, such as AMC's Maine Wilderness Adventure, require prior backpacking experience. Others accommodate a wide range of experience: A teenager who has never carried a backpack or spent a night in a tent will find plenty of company, and support; likewise, a teenager who's grown up hiking the Presidential Range or kayaking the Maine coast will nonetheless discover new skills and lessons in sharing those activities with peers rather than family members.

What if a teen is reluctant or anxious about going on a wilderness adventure?

A child may feel anxious about the physical demands of an adventure program or be more concerned about fitting in socially. It helps to understand the source of a child's reluctance, Muller says. Especially for younger teens, signing up for a trip with a friend may alleviate some fears. By the end of high school, participants are often looking to make new friends with teens who share their interests.

It sometimes helps to let teens select a particular trip from the options, or decide whether to sign up at all. "We've had kids call us with their questions," she says. Once it becomes their decision to come, they get pretty motivated.

What about instructors?
It's useful to inquire about staff training, prior experience, and student/staff ratios, Muller says. At AMC, Teen Wilderness Adventure staff attend an eight-day training course that covers skills, emergency procedures, and group management techniques. Every instructor is required to have a current wilderness first aid certification, undergo a background check, and pass a water-safety class. A full Teen Wilderness Adventure course will have between eight and ten participants and two AMC instructors. Some trips have fewer participants, but never fewer than two instructors.

Field staff obviously plays a vital role in a summer-program experience. "We look for role models—young adults excited to be outdoors and working with kids," Muller says. "When kids identify with someone just a few years older, someone they can think of who's 'cool,' and who's made the wilderness an important part of their lives—as opposed to 'my parents are making me do this'—that creates a deep and powerful learning experience."

What's new?
Finding out what's new and what has changed gives parents a window into a program's goals and mission. The AMC program is continuing several trips that were new last year, including a backpack trip centering on 4,000-footers around the Tripyramid area. Muller is particularly excited about a new 27-day adventure for older teens. They'll follow Henry David Thoreau's route up the 92-mile Allagash River, hike the 100-mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail, and climb to the summit of Katahdin. The trip, as Muller sees it, offers an exciting extension of the program's philosophy.

Learn more
- Teen Wilderness Adventures: Read detailed trip descriptions, register online, follow entries in a trip journal, and more. Muller and her staff welcome questions from parents—and teenagers, too.
- Teen Trail Crews: Find out more about trail crew programs for teens ages 15 to 19 in the Berkshires and the White Mountains.
- AMC staff will be attending the New Hampshire Summer Camp Expo in Nashua, N.H., on March 12. The event runs from 10 am to 2 pm. AMC staff will be on hand to answer questions.

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

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