Saturday, August 27, 2011

Junior Naturalist: Apples

A is for apple. Considering how easy the apple is — to pick and to eat — it makes sense that so many kids start the alphabet with it. Around the AMC region, apple-growers are readying for this year’s harvest. Local apples are already showing up in grocery stores in the north country.

The apple tree, a member of the rose family, apparently originated thousands of years ago in mountains between modern-day China and Kazakhstan, where it likely became the first tree cultivated by early farmers. (The capital of Kazakhstan comes from the Kazakh word for “apple.”) Alexander the Great is credited with sending dwarf apple trees back to Greece from this region.

Apples arrived in England around the time of the Norman Conquest. Early American colonists brought apple root stock with them when they traveled to the New World. An apple orchard established near Boston in 1625 is said to be the first in North America. Because apples keep well in a cool place, “winter apples” were an important food for early settlers.

Other apple facts:
- Apple trees belong to the rose family. Other deciduous fruit-bearing trees in the rose family are pears, apricots, plums, cherries, and peaches.
- Apple trees are “self-incompatible” — each tree must be cross-pollinated with another in order to develop fruit.
- The crabapple, the only apple tree native to North America, is an important cross-pollinator for trees that will produce table apples.
- More than 2500 apple varieties are grown in United States, out of 7500 varieties worldwide.
- Apples ripen from the outside branches in toward the trunk. A ripe apple can be many colors — green, yellow, and pink, as well as red. A ripe apple should be firm to the touch, and its flesh should be crisp when you bite into it.
- “Johnny Appleseed” — John Chapman — was an actual person, raised on a small farm in Massachusetts. Beginning at age 18, early in the nineteenth century, he traveled to the American frontier, creating apple nurseries and encouraging healthy, simple living. He entered into American folklore partly because of his kind and generous treatment of all living things.

One way to enjoy apple season is to pick your own at a local orchard. Many offer hay rides, apple bobbing, and other family fun. You can find apple-picking options on this online list — alphabetical, of course.

Learn more
… about Johnny Appleseed in the PBS series based on Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Deathslog 2011: 4 boys, their dads, and one awesome(ly long) day in the White Mountains

The T-shirts were hard to miss. AMC regional director Ruth “Sam” Jamke was volunteering at Madison Spring Hut last weekend when she noticed a man wearing a T-shirt with a map of the Presidential Range on the back. The map was marked by a long, winding route along the range. She saw that a boy was with the man, and that he was wearing the same kind of T-shirt. The command “Hike Fast” ran above the map, “Forget the bears … the hike will probably kill you” below it. Jamke was especially intrigued by words around a smaller image of a hiker on the shirt front: “Deathslog 2011. No crying.”

Then she realized that there were eight of them — four dads, four sons, eight T-shirts — and, judging both from the T-shirt maps and the group’s triumphant expressions, one very long hike.

Scott Switzer, an AMC member since college, was the mastermind behind “Deathslog 2011.” Last year, when Switzer’s oldest son, Liam, was seven years old, they planned a night at Greenleaf Hut with another father and seven-year-old, Derek and Jett Rosner. The first morning of that hike, the hikers woke to a downpour. Switzer thought, “That’s it. We’re done.” But the boys responded to the rain by saying, “Guess we’re wearing our raincoats.” The day cleared, and fathers and sons made such good time that they ate lunch on the summit of Lafayette and were back to the hut by noon. “The kids ate it up,” says Switzer.

Over the winter, Switzer planned another hike, this time in the Presidential Range, extending invitations to other fathers and sons where they lived in West Hartford, Connecticut. A core group of four fathers and four sons emerged. But when Switzer went to make hut reservations in April, he discovered that there was no combination of summer weekends that would allow the group to hike their planned route from Lakes of the Clouds to Madison. There was, however, some room at Mizpah Hut.

Switzer did some quick math: The new route would require them to cover 12 miles on Saturday alone. He remembered how bored Liam and Jett had gotten hanging out at Greenleaf Hut the previous summer and how they’d hiked back to the top of Lafayette that afternoon and down again, just for something to do. He factored in that the boys would be one year older in 2011. Then he made the reservations.

“I knew it would be a slog,” he says. None of the other father-son pairs — Derek and Jett Rosner, Ken and Cole Berko, Doug and Jack Lubin — backed out. No doubt it helped that the four boys knew each other through competing in mini-triathlons. Still, Switzer and the other fathers understood that the hike — not yet called the Deathslog — would require careful preparation. They told the boys, “You’ve gotta be tough. You’re going to wear a pack, you’re going to be hiking uphill. I have to know you can do this, and do it in a reasonable time.”

They organized several spring hikes, including a 12-miler along the Metacomet Trail in Connecticut. To make the hike more challenging, they ran the flat sections, covering the distance in 4½ hours. Switzer held planning sessions and a pre-hike barbeque. On his own, he logged onto the White Mountain Guide Online and fiddled around with a map of their route. When the right weekend in August came around, he stuffed an extra sack into the bottom of his pack.

The T-shirts came out of the pack at breakfast on Saturday morning. By 8 a.m., the group had left Mizpah behind. For the next 12 miles, they’d follow the spine of the Presidential Range over at least a half-dozen summits, including Mount Washington. It quickly became obvious that even their training didn’t quite prepare them for the rocky and uneven terrain. “I’ve planned a lot of trips,” Switzer says, “and walked a lot of ridgelines. But this was unlike any ridgeline I’d ever been on.”

The group stayed close together over the first summits, Pierce, Eisenhower, and Monroe, under clear skies. The weather continued to hold, but as the father-son pairs tackled the massive flanks of Mount Washington, they began to spread out. The “no crying” rule began to be honored more in the breach.

Scott and Liam Switzer climbed Clay after Mount Washington, then imposing Jefferson. Liam had been hiking all day with a cast on his right, dominant arm, the result of a fall from monkey bars. “He had to learn to lean with his left arm,” Switzer says. Scrambling up the rocky ridgeline, sometimes the eight-year-old would bang his cast against a rock: “That hurt.”

Eventually only Mount Adams stood between the Switzers and Madison Spring Hut. Up ahead, the Rosners took the route over the summit. Scott Switzer looked at his son and made a different call. “I didn’t care about that pile of rocks that was 400 feet higher than where we were,” Switzer remembers. “I just thought, ‘My son will lose his mind if we try that.’”

The final mile and a half traversing Adams to the hut was hard enough. Liam was ready to quit, mad at his dad and hurting. Switzer shared some “raw knowledge” with his son: “You can sit down right here,” he told Liam, “but your body’s got to take you to that hut.”

Ken and Cole Berko welcomed the Switzers to Madison. The first arrivers had worked with the hut croo to save dinner for the rest of the Deathsloggers. Once Liam had collected “about four loaves of fresh bread, an entire pot of lentil soup,” turkey and all the fixings, plus a foot massage, his mood improved. And when the boys saw their beds in Madison’s loft bunkroom, Switzer says, “all was forgotten.” The next morning, all four were ready to hike up Mount Madison and down to Pinkham — and even said they wanted to do the Deathslog again.

Switzer, however, is promising no slog next year. “I’m thinking of taking four days, maybe even a week, to go from Zealand to Greenleaf,” he says. “This year, we had to keep moving. I’d like to make more time for lingering.”

I wonder what the T-shirt will say for that one.

Learn more
- … about the Metacomet Trail
- … about AMC’s White Mountain huts and lodges
- … about the White Mountain Guide Online.

Photos, top to bottom: Ken Berko, modeling the "Deathslog T-shirt. Setting out from Pierce. Deathsloggers on Eisenhower: (back row, L to R) Doug Lubin, Derek Rosner, Scott Switzer, Ken Berko; (front row, L to R) Jack Lubin, Cole Berko, Jett Rosner, Liam Switzer. Liam Switzer and Cole Berko on Jefferson. Courtesy Sam Jamke and Scott Switzer.

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Swinger of Birches

“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” The last line in Robert Frost’s poem, “Birches,” came to me yesterday as I watched Ursula climb the trees down by the pond — two trees, actually, side by side at the water’s edge and not more than two feet apart at the base. They’re maple, not birch, I believe, but young and supple like birch, with upward-pointing branches spaced just far enough apart for a growing girl to climb.

Ursula has pulled herself into their lower branches for several years now. But yesterday while I watched from the house, she ascended well above her usual perch, threading back and forth between the two trunks. I’d look out and see her walking up the right tree almost in a layback, a climber’s move. A while later, I noticed her stretched to her full length in the left tree, reaching up for another branch. All afternoon, she climbed up and down and between those two trees. At one point, I saw her striding across the field between the pond and the house with slings and a pulley in one hand. Soon she had them arranged in the trees, as well.

Ursula and I are spending the last week of true summer here at the pond while Jim and Virgil are away. (Any child will tell you that in spite of what the calendar says, summer ends when school starts.) I’d asked her yesterday morning if she wanted to invite a friend over for the day or even overnight. “I don’t know, maybe, I can’t decide,” she’d cried. And then I saw her in the trees.

Eventually she climbed so high that my mother’s heart rose, too, and constricted. She reached the smallest branches, close enough to the tips of the trees that they were no longer obscured by the fullness further down, and thin enough to make good switches. The trunks tapered to similar slenderness and seemed to sway downward under Ursula’s weight, slight as she is. I watched her for a long while, needing to be sure she was safe. And then I simply watched for the pleasure of watching her bend those trees, and bend herself to them.

When she finally came in, it was nearly dinner time. The light slanted onto the pond through Ursula’s trees, silvering the undersides of their leaves as they lifted in the breeze. She, too, was radiant.

In “Birches,” the poet comes upon birch trees that have been bent to the ground by ice. He imagines instead that a boy has bent them —
As he went out and in to fetch the cows —
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

Such a boy, or girl, would learn “all there was to learn about not launching out too soon” about climbing carefully, “with the same pains you use to fill a cup up to the brim, and even above the brim.” The poet lets the imagined boy follow his desire, flinging himself outward on one of those slender saplings, “feet first, with a swish, kicking his way down through the air to the ground.”

I know without asking that Ursula understands exactly what Robert Frost meant when he said he’d like to
climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

She knows, too, that on some days at the end of summer, one can do no better than be a swinger of birches.

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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Our Teen Adventure: Picking up

“You’ll probably want to drive with your windows down,” one of the instructors called after us with a laugh. We’d just picked up Ursula at the conclusion of her Teen Wilderness Adventure and had turned to walk back to our car. Our friends Chris and Patty were with us; their daughters Sarah and Rita had also joined the week-plus backpacking and rock-climbing adventure in the White Mountains.

It was true: The girls gave off a robust fragrance. But what the instructors might not have realized is that being the parents of teenagers can require a sleuth’s skills, and that even the smell of sweat and wet socks can provide clues.

When Jim and I had first arrived at our pick-up spot behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Rita and Sarah had come over right away to give us big hugs. But Ursula had stayed where she was, shaking her head and rolling her eyes at us, to make sure we got the message. “Don’t take it personally,” Patty said to me. “Rita wouldn’t hug me, either.”

The trip instructors had asked the eight teenagers on the trip to help clean and put away the group gear. As those chores wound down, our three girls joined a boy who had unfolded a map of the Presidential Range on a picnic table and was trying to ink in their hiking route. We parents sidled in closer, detectives working the shadows. Ursula excitedly pointed out a cut-off they’d taken near Mount Adams. Rita confirmed a side trip to Madison Hut for water. And thus we learned that the group had stood on the summits of at least four of the White Mountain’s tallest peaks, had hiked over the summit of Mt. Washington in the clouds, that early in the week they’d retreated below treeline when a storm rolled through, and that they’d also climbed four (or was it six?) pitches of technical rock to the top of Whitehorse Ledge.

Who knows how long it might have been before one of them admitted to a parent that she’d enjoyed her trip? It was obvious, though, listening to them, that they’d had fun, that they’d worked well together, and were proud of what they’d accomplished. They seemed to wear their ripe aroma like a badge of honor.

Truth is, none of us minded the smell. Chris and Patty had powered up and down Boott Spur that morning, and Jim and I were coming off an ambitious two-night loop through the Pemi. The girls were out ahead of us, striding toward the parking lot and already conferring about ice cream and lemonade. Patty called back to the instructors, “That’s OK — we all need the windows down.”

Learn more
- Read “Our Teen Adventure: Packing to go.”
- Read “AMC’s Teen Wilderness Adventures: A Parents’ Primer.”

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jumping equals fun

Virgil has made a leap this summer — literally, and, for me, somewhat frighteningly. Just shy of his ninth birthday, he has improved enough as a swimmer that we’ve allowed him to jump by himself into deep water. It’s a moment that comes sooner or later to every parent when, despite your fears and concerns, you let your child get in over his head.

It happened this past weekend, on one day, and at two great swimming holes. On Saturday, after Jim and Virgil dropped off Ursula for her week of hiking and climbing, they headed over to Evans Notch and the deep green water of Emerald Pool. Virgil immediately asked if he could jump off the high ledge. Jim said no, that first he needed to try the lower bench on the opposite side of the pool. Virgil crossed and jumped in from there, to Jim treading water below just in case the ice-cold water or the surprise of the impact made Virgil lose his confidence or his equilibrium. He lost neither, and insisted on the high ledge. Jim let him jump from there, too — again, while he waited below in the pool, just in case. After that, the two of them jumped in together, then Virgil alone, as Jim stood watching from the shore. That was the moment, Jim said.

My chance to experience Virgil’s leap came later that afternoon when we met at another of our favorite watery places, Sculptured Rocks in Groton, N.H. I hadn’t seen Virgil’s success at Emerald Pool, so I insisted that Jim wait in the water while Virgil took the 15-foot plunge. Virgil popped back up like a cork. After seeing his ease, and his delight in what he’d done, I plunged down after him. Finally he jumped out from the ledge while both of us watched from the rocks. He’s still not as strong a swimmer as he’ll need to be, but he’s made a rite of passage.

At both swimming holes, Jim and I saw swimmers approach the lips of the high ledges and back away, or close their eyes and collect themselves for long minutes before daring to take the plunge. We asked Virgil later if he was nervous jumping from so high above the water. “No,” he said. “Jumping equals fun. Hesitation equals not jumping. Therefore hesitation equals not fun.”

That joyful lack of fear is a wonderful part of Virgil’s personality, but it’s also made us want to be extra careful with him around water. He has made a leap this summer. When he adds a coefficient of safety to his formula for fun, we’ll know he’s truly ready to jump on his own.

Learn more
- Read "Summer Tips: Water Safety" in Great Kids, Great Outdoors.
- Read "Swimming Holes: Emerald Pool" in Great Kids, Great Outdoors.
- Learn about Sculptured Rocks Geologic Site State Park

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

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Free Fridays and Other Summer Deals for Families

Summer is winding down, but there’s still time to explore free activities in cities around the AMC region, whether they’re near where you live, coincide with places your family is traveling, or give you an idea for one last trip before school starts again.

Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, the Highland Street Foundation has collaborated with cultural organizations around the state to offer nine “Free Fun Fridays” during the summer. Three such Fridays are left. On August 12, free events are being held in Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, Stoneham’s Stone Zoo, and the JFK Library and Museum. That evening, all 14,000 lawn tickets to an evening performance at Tanglewood in Lenox are free, thanks to the foundation.

The final two weekends in August showcase events from Worcester to Watertown and Stockbridge to Springfield. On Friday, August 19, the foundation has arranged for free ferry travel to the two most popular Boston Harbor Islands, Georges Island and Spectacle Island. Tickets are distributed on a first-come first-served basis at Long Wharf-North, near the Aquarium subway station, beginning at 6:30 am. Check the website for specifics on this and other Free Fun Friday events.

New York City. The Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden are free to the public every Wednesday. The Botanical Garden is also free on Saturday mornings, from 10 a.m. to noon. On the third Friday of each month, from 6 pm to 8:45 pm, the South Street Seaport Museum offers free admission, which includes the chance to board the historic schooner Pioneer. Or take the free Staten Island Ferry for a maritime tour of the city. Several New York City parks and museums are always free: the National Museum of the American Indian; Federal Hall, called the “birthplace of American government,”; Castle Clinton National Monument, with its head-on view of Ellis Island and park ranger talks; Jones Beach State Park, with 7 miles of sandy beaches for swimming and wading; and there’s always Central Park.

The Philly Fun Guide lists events in the Philadelphia area, many of which are family-friendly and free. Take a guided nature hike at Briar Bush Nature Center or visit a traveling Civil War Road Show and History Fair from August 12-14.

Baltimore. Walk or bike on the 15-mile Gwynns Falls Trail. The trail follows a green space and park system originally planned in 1904 by the Olmsted Brothers, successors to the nation’s first landscape architect firm started by their father, Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Take a self-guided tour of Baltimore’s many public monuments, which depict such people as Frederick Douglass, Babe Ruth, and Edgar Allen Poe, as well as sea urchins, boy scouts, and “the spirit of music.” Or take a free harbor taxi, the Harbor Connector. Start at the Frederick Douglass – Isaac Myers Maritime Museum in Fell’s Point (admission fees) and travel to the Tide Point Pier.

Washington, D.C. Many residents and tourists know about the extensive free museums and other national attractions in Washington, D.C. Two free activities that feature the outdoors: walk or bike the C & O Canal Towpath, which follows along the shore of the Potomac from Georgetown to Cumberland, M.D.; browse the farmers’ market in Dupont Circle on Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Do you have a favorite free summer activity to share? Add it here!

Photo: Georges Island in Boston Harbor.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Training Natural Leaders

How do you help create the next generation of environmental stewards? It's a question that Judy Silverberg and others have been trying to answer for several years—a question made both more difficult and more urgent by the knowledge that today's youth increasingly lack a strong connection to the outdoors.

In 2006, Silverberg, head of wildlife education at New Hampshire Fish and Game, read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. Convinced by Louv's argument that the nation's children suffered from "nature-deficit disorder," the environmental educator helped found the NH Children in Nature Coalition, which became a part of Louv's national Children and Nature Network. The next year, members of the NH Children in Nature Coalition, including Silverberg, met with Louv to brainstorm how to develop emerging "natural leaders" in the state—teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 who would help other youth connect with the natural world. In their conversations, the group realized that 12 of the 14 people on the board had attended conservation camp as teenagers—an experience that had been instrumental in guiding them toward environmental careers.

It's no surprise, then, that the first New Hampshire Natural Leaders program, in 2009, started off with an intensive summer camp. The Natural Leaders program has changed in other ways since that beginning, but the camp experience remains key. For the 2011 program, nine teenagers from around the state converged on Barry Conservation Camp in Berlin in late June for a week of outdoor activities, leadership development, and hands-on exploration of career opportunities in the outdoors.

The weeklong camp included hiking into the Presidential Range and spending the night at AMC's Lakes of the Clouds Hut. It was the first time that 14-year-old Elena Mednick, from Nelson, and 15-year-old Travis Akerstrom, from Canterbury, had traveled to the White Mountains. The weather didn't cooperate for a planned summit of Mount Washington, but the group did reach the top of Mount Monroe—Akerstrom's first 4,000-footer. Even before the week ended, the teen was making plans to return to the Presidentials for another attempt on Mount Washington.

This year's camp was strongly focused on introducing the young "natural leaders" to career options in the outdoors. The group toured a fish hatchery and participated in an "electro-fishing" exercise with a Fish and Game biologist one day, and learned how to identify trees and determine timber yields from a forester the next day. (Several state agencies, including NH Fish and Game, NH Department of Environmental Services, and UNH Cooperative Extension, joined the Appalachian Mountain Club and other organizations to provide program instruction and support.) Akerstrom, who wants to become a wildlife biologist or conservation officer, especially appreciated the sneak preview of a potential career. "At my school, they don't teach you that much about the outdoors," he said. During the camp he also learned about wildlife ("I had no idea there were so many small animals in the woods!") and the effects of climate change on New Hampshire's forests. "Did you know that a plasma TV uses almost as much electricity plugged in as it does turned on?" Akerstrom asked, following the camp. "I'm definitely telling my friends about that."

Three years in, Silverberg and the other program leaders are still trying to determine the best way to develop the next generation of "natural leaders." The program wants to reach motivated teenagers, inspire and teach them, and give them the tools to go back into their communities and make a difference. Those running the program have discovered that many of the students who are interested in participating are already heavily involved in their communities and schools—and don't have the time to commit to developing year-long service projects, an initial requirement of the Natural Leaders program. Also, many otherwise interested families weren't able to afford an initial $1,500 price tag. This year's formula attempted to address both of these issues.

The current program, at a cost of $575, takes advantage of an affiliation with New Hampshire 4-H Clubs (Camp Barry is a 4-H facility). The scope of the program has similarly scaled back: The teens are given the option to participate in pre-selected service projects in the school year following the camp. The first project, a coastal clean-up day, will be held in September.

At the end of this year's camp, Mednick considered what she'd learned and what she hopes to accomplish as a New Hampshire Natural Leader. "I want to try to get outside more," she said. "I know I want to help other people learn more about the environment and global warming," she added, "but I don’t know exactly how to do that. It seems kind of hard."

Learn more

One of the initiatives of the Children and Nature Network is to build a national Natural Leaders Network. The network has organized an annual Natural Leaders Day and created a toolkit to help young people around the country create the next generation of "natural leaders."

Photo: 2009 Natural Leaders explore a seacoast tide pool. Courtesy NH Fish & Game.

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

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Our Teen Adventure: Packing to go

Ursula’s new backpack leans against her bed, its top opened wide. All its 6.5 liters of volume are empty at the moment — the long underwear, socks, hiking boots, rain gear, and mess kit that will fill it still scattered about her bedroom. I’ve promised Ursula that I’ll finish packing today while she’s 20 miles away, preparing for a circus show tonight. Early tomorrow morning, we’ll deliver her to her first Teen Wilderness Adventure.

It’s already been an adventure just getting Ursula ready to go, which is to say that we’ve already been surprised and challenged. Back in January, I had no hesitation about signing her up for the AMC course, 9 days of rock-climbing and backpacking in the White Mountains. She’s always enjoyed our family backpacking trips, and she’s loved learning to climb. We’d just spent a ski weekend with family friends, who were signing up their two daughters for the same adventure. I told her about the course almost in passing, the rightness of it was so obvious to me.

Ursula has turned 13 since I filled out that registration. Over these past months, she’s asked for more responsibility in managing her schoolwork, her activities, and her schedule, and handled it very well. Over that same period of time, she’s complained that I signed her up for the teen adventure without consulting her. She’s hated that I’d treated her like a child.

There are moments in every parent-child relationship that mark a change in its ground rules. This course has been one such marker of change between me and Ursula. Once she made her frustration clear, I apologized and gave her the option of not doing the course. She chose to stay on, but I understand (having been a teenager myself) why she’s had a hard time getting excited about it. I also suspect (having been there before, too) that she may be feeling some anxiety about whether she’ll fit in. That’s a common concern among first-time campers, at AMC as at traditional sleep-away camps, and one that Ursula’s instructors will undoubtedly work to dispel.

I’m holding out hope that she’ll have a great time, for herself. And that the next time she goes on a backpacking trip, she’ll do her own packing.

Learn more
- Read “AMC’s Teen Wilderness Adventures: A Parents’ Primer

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

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