Saturday, October 29, 2011

First Snow


The first snow of the season arrived in a flurry earlier this week, here and around northern New England. The higher peaks had already received dustings, of course, and Mount Washington is nestled once again under the first layer of what will become its heavy winter blanket of snow.

Even more modest changes in elevation make a difference when it comes to snow. Our house sits at around 1,500 feet; the kids’ school, not far from the Connecticut River, is a thousand feet lower. “We have snow on the ground at home,” I told the kids when I picked them up on Thursday afternoon in a freezing rain. My news thrilled Virgil. He bounced up and down in the back seat as we drove back home, listing everything he wanted to do in the first snow of the year: roll it into snowballs, carve it into snow sculptures, pour warm syrup over it for “sugar on snow,” build a snow fort, have a snowball fight, get out his snowboard and practice… “We may not have enough snow for all that, not this first storm,” I cautioned him. “But we’ll get to do all that, I promise, before the winter is over.”

Ursula, on the other hand, put her hands over her ears and moaned. “It can’t snow before Halloween,” she wailed. “It’s just not right!” She loves winter, and will spend hours tromping around in the snow. But the October snow offended her sense of the proper progression of the seasons. It’s also possible that an early Halloween experience — as a toddler princess who insisted on wearing pink plastic sandals in three inches of slushy snow — helped form her distaste for foliage-season snow.

When we got home, Virgil put on rain boots and pulled open the mitten and hat drawer for the first time in months and then turned around and went right back outside. A while later, he brought me a perfectly round snowball. “This is great snow!” he exclaimed. With a little maple syrup added, the snowball became a sweet treat. Ursula stuck to her principles, too, refusing to go out in the new snow before the plastic bins with our winter boots and coats were in from the barn.

I thought I could reassure her that the snow would be gone before Halloween. But Jim whispered that an even bigger storm was headed our way over the weekend. I hope monsters wear snow boots….

Photo of Mount Washington courtesy of steveswhitemountainblog.com

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

Friday, October 28, 2011

Junior Naturalist: 4 cool facts about bats (and 1 scary one)


It’s almost Halloween, which means that construction-paper bats and pipe-wire spiders are going up in classrooms and on windows, and soon kids in all manner of frightening costumes will be going batty. It’s a good time to look at one of the things that go bump in our night.

- Bats are the only mammals capable of true flight. (“Flying” squirrels actually only glide.) Bats don’t have wings like birds. Instead, they flap the thin membranes between their spread-out digits, which act like fingers.
- There are more than 1,200 classified species of bats worldwide, nearly 20 percent of all mammal species.
- More than two-thirds of bats are insectivores — that is, they eat insects. Other bats eat fruit and a few eat fish.
- Then there are vampire bats: These natives of Central and South America feed on the blood of other mammals. They live in colonies in dark places such as caves, hunt only when it is fully dark, and use a special sense called thermoception to locate a good place to bite their victims, usually while the victim is sleeping. Vampire bats can survive only about two days without food, so bats in the colony that have fed regurgitate their meals into the mouths of bats that are hungry.

Now for the scary fact. (Yes, I know. You thought the vampire facts were scary.) Bats serve useful purposes for human beings, such as eating insects that can destroy crops and — especially here in New England — keeping down the mosquito population. But a mysterious infectious disease called white-nose syndrome has killed more than one million bats across the United States and Canada and wiped out entire colonies in many locations. Some species, such as the little brown bat and Virginia big-eared bat, are threatened with extinction.

Just this month, however, researchers proved that a fungus discovered in 2007 is responsible for the baffling disease. The fungus appears to interfere with bats’ immune systems during hibernation. Understanding how the disease is transmitted will help biologists develop remedies for infected bats and ways to protect vulnerable populations.

Happy Halloween.

Learn more
… about bats at Bats 4 Kids and Bat Conservation International.
… about the United Nations’ International Year of the Bat, which runs from September 2011 to September 2012.
… about white-nose syndrome.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The pleasure of gear


We’ve relied heavily on hand-me-down gear to outfit our children over the years. Uncle Rik and Aunt Susan from Washington State have kept the kids in fleece jackets and snowpants. Whenever we see friends Chris and Patty, they pass along cross-country ski gear that their girls have outgrown. Ursula’s downhill ski boots have another kid’s name up the side of the heel, Virgil’s pink snowshoes belonged to a friend’s daughter — and we’re grateful for all of it.

Outdoor gear is expensive. Kids sometimes grow out of footwear or clothing before they’ve used it even a full season. And if you want to ski, snowshoe, skate, paddle, hike, climb, and bike with your children using proper-fitting clothing and equipment, you’re either looking at regular outlays for new gear or looking for alternative supply chains. We’ve found them in the tradition of gear swaps, which are especially common around here for ski gear. And we’re lucky to have friends and family who pursue similar activities, and whose children are older than ours. Their gear flows down to our children, and we pass it along in turn to families with younger children. In fact, we take pride in how much we’ve been able to make the hand-me-down system work, year in and year out.

So this year, it was a big deal in our family when Ursula, at age 13, got her first new bicycle. When bike-riding season came around, it became clear that she was too big for the bike she’d been riding, and we didn’t have another hand-me-down in the pipeline. We decided to give her a new bike for her birthday. She went to a local bike store with Jim and carefully considered different types and models before settling on one. After they brought it home, she remarked on how shiny it looked compared to her old bike. “This is the bike I’ll probably take to college,” she said, and it took me and Jim a shocked moment to agree with her.

I remembered Ursula’s pleasure in her new bike when I was in an outdoor store earlier this fall. A red and black children’s backpack caught my eye, and I immediately thought, “Virgil would love that pack.” He didn’t need a new pack — he was just about ready for a hand-me-down from Ursula — and the one in the store window was not cheap. But I could imagine his pride in wearing a pack with his favorite colors; I could see him putting his sketch book in an outer mesh pocket, and zippering money or a pack of cards in a hidden compartment.

Yes, I bought it. And yes, Virgil was thrilled with it. Still, I was unprepared for one side effect of his new pack: He couldn’t wait to go hiking with it. He packed it and repacked it half a dozen times. And once we were actually on the trail, he took great pride in working the fasteners and straps, in how well it fit, and in how well everything he was carrying fit into it. I swear he stood up taller and walked faster and with more purpose, too — Virgil, the same child who normally starts asking right away if we’re there yet, the one we’ve had to bribe with M&Ms placed along the trail just to get him to walk uphill.

We aren’t going to stop accepting hand-me-downs. For one thing, we can’t afford to, not if we want to continue doing so many different activities with our kids outdoors. But I’m going to keep the lesson of the new backpack in the back of my mind. New gear, I’ve discovered, can be a powerful motivator. In some cases, despite the expense, that can be worth a lot.

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

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Exercising Bodies as Well as Minds


How much exercise do children get in school? As schools have focused on core academic subjects and on testing, have recesses and physical education classes been cut back, or cut altogether? How have tightening budgets in school districts across the country affected school-day exercise? How do the practices in my school district or in my state compare to those in other parts of the country?

These questions and more are answered in a hefty report, The Shape of the Nation, published last year by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education in partnership with the American Heart Association. I learned about the report from a New York Times article that profiled the efforts of several New York City public schools to get their students to exercise. One P.E. teacher applied for grant money to change a storage closet into an exercise room. In another school, students take quick breaks from math problems for calisthenics. The article also noted, however, that not one of 31 elementary schools audited recently by the city was meeting minimum requirements for physical education.

The good news, nationally, is that more states mandated physical education for their students in 2010 than in 2006. But only six states — among them Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont — require physical education from kindergarten through high school. (New Jersey and Rhode Island require it starting in first grade.) I learned that New Hampshire, where we live, does not mandate daily recess for elementary school students, and was grateful that the school Ursula and Virgil attend schedules twice-daily outdoor breaks anyway.

We’ve learned in recent years how much recess and physical activity matter to children. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that exercising regularly during a school week improves performance in the classroom and school attendance. In these difficult times, however, children are going to have to rely on the creativity of teachers, parents, administrators, and others. One example from the New York Times article: An elementary school teamed up with the New York Road Runners Club to create a challenge — students would earn the school a book for each mile they ran. At the end of the year, they’d earned 250 books. That’s what I call a win-win situation.

Learn more

- Follow the link in the New York Times article to the “Shape of the Nation” report.
- The New York Road Runners Club is hosting a Youth Jamboree on Sunday, October 23. The jamboree includes running, jumping, and throwing events and is open to all children in kindergarten through 8th grade and their families. No experience is necessary.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Best Fall Hikes with Kids: Mt. Cardigan


We started seeing cars on both sides of the road more than a mile from the trailhead. “This doesn’t look good,” I said to Ursula. In the other car, behind us, Jim was saying to our friend Andrea, “I’ve never seen it this crowded on Cardigan.”

But then, maybe we’d never tried to hike up Mt. Cardigan’s west side on an October weekend, particularly during a fall that’s had more than its share of rainy days. It doesn’t help — that is, when you’re trying to park with a car stuffed with restless children — that Mt. Cardigan, in central New Hampshire, is a famously easy hike with a big reward.

The view from Cardigan’s 3,155-foot summit, thanks to a fire that swept over it in 1855, is far more expansive than it has a right to be. The exposed granite and scrubby alpine vegetation is more typical of the much higher alpine zone of the White Mountains. Even better, on our side of the mountain (AMC’s Cardigan Lodge is located on the opposite, eastern, side), a long access road climbs to a parking area just a mile and a half from the summit, creating a hike that’s just right for families with young kids.

Oh yes, the parking area. It was beyond full when we arrived on Saturday afternoon, but two cars pulled out moments later. As we set off up the mountain — our two kids and four of their friends, ranging in age from 7 to 13, plus three adults — we met a stream of hikers coming back down.

A couple of things stood out on the hike. For one, the wide age range and the presence of friends totally mixed up the usual sibling dynamics. All the way up, the kids moved together as a pack or split into groups, the older ones looking after the younger ones and urging them on, or “competing” in teams, the younger ones hurrying to keep up.

For another, no one hurried. We three parents knew that we had more than enough time to reach the summit and get back to the cars before nightfall. No one had homework or a sports practice to get to. We noticed that the higher we hiked, the more the kids seemed to let their imaginations run. They stopped and explored colorful leaves. They found hiding places off the trail to jump out and surprise whoever was coming up. They built dams to re-direct small rivulets — it had been raining a lot. They called one trickle the Nile and named the dirt and gravel that fanned out from it the Nile delta. They created a “no-touching-leaves-on-the-trail” game — and, on top of the wind-blown summit, yelled, “I see Greece!” “I see California!” “I see Rome!” guessing at the directions they faced on the compass as they yelled.

While we were on the summit, a brief, fast-moving rain shower left dramatic dark clouds and open sky and a startling rainbow. We didn’t notice, right away, that all of the day’s crowd had left by then. We had the place to ourselves.

Learn more
... about AMC's Cardigan Lodge. Fall and winter service runs from October 23 to December 31.
... about other great fall hikes with children.

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Best Fall Hikes with Kids: Sunset Ledge on Vermont’s Long Trail


An occupational hazard of writing this blog is that no matter where I go, I think about kids in the outdoors. This past weekend, for example, we attended a wedding in Waitsfield, Vermont. Before we left home, I was mostly concerned that we’d packed our wedding best and knew where we were going.

Our first morning in the Green Mountains, though, I realized that we had enough time before the ceremony for a short family hike. While other guests quizzed our innkeepers on the best places to shop or to see fall colors, I asked a father sitting with his 9-year-old son at the table next to ours — the two of them up from Philadelphia on an annual hiking trip — for recommendations.

I’d asked the right guy: Jim, the dad, had spent childhood vacations nearby, and had continued the tradition with his own family. He and his son, A.J., seemed to know every trail in the area, from woodland rambles along the Mad River outside Warren (the trail starts at the airport, where you might see gliders take off, soar, and land) to longer and steeper climbs. I didn’t think we could squeeze in a 6-mile roundtrip climb of General Stark Mountain, but I was pleased that he thought we might.

“What about a ridgeline walk?” I asked.

“Ah! Then what you want is Sunset Ledge on the Long Trail,” he replied. We were to follow the north-south highway, Vermont Route 100, to the turn-off to Warren’s village center — where, he suggested, we could stock up on food for the trail at the general store. Just past the turn-off to Warren, heading south on Route 100, he told us to look for a sign to Lincoln Gap, and to follow that road west to the top of the ridge. “Even if you miss the trail signs for the Long Trail and Sunset Ledge,” he said, “you won’t miss the cars.”

We followed his directions exactly, buying apples and drinks at the general store, then driving the steep and narrow road up through one of the famous gaps in the Green Mountains between eastern and western Vermont. Jim was right about the cars: They were pulled in every which way on both side of the road. We wiggled ours into a space, then left the road for the woods, following the Long Trail and the ridge south. The morning sun filtered through the hardwoods and still gave off enough heat to warm patches of trail shaded by hemlock and spruce.

Virgil started a new version of Trailside Olympics, counting push-ups and sit-ups, before deciding that he’d rather duel with his father using long sticks for swords. Ursula and I tried to jump from rock to rock along the trail. Another family passed us on the trail, and I heard the dad say to his daughter, “I used to play that game! We called it Hot Lava.” We hadn’t been calling it anything, but now every step became a matter of life and fiery death. After I fell into the lava, I began another life as Ursula’s rock assistant, carrying a portable landing spot in each hand.

Sunset Ledge, appropriately named, faced west into the wide Champlain Valley. The view stretched across Vermont’s vibrant orange and red foliage into New York, to the high blue peaks of the distant Adirondacks. Other families joined us on the warm rock and soaked up the view.

The hike took less than an hour in both directions. It was enough, though, to make us feel that we’d traveled far, seen amazing sights, and performed great feats. At the wedding that evening, a woman we didn’t know came up to us and said, “Hot lava! Hot lava!” She recognized us from the trail — her husband had given our game its name.


Learn more

- Learn about classic fall family hikes in the White Mountains, Berkshires, Connecticut, the Hudson Valley and Catskills, and near Boston.
- Discover great hikes for families from Yankee magazine’s 2010 “Top 25 Foliage Towns.”
- Other hikes in the Mad River Valley

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

“Take Congress Camping”: Ideas from the Outdoor Nation Youth Summit


A few months ago, Emilie Colby attended an Outdoor Nation Youth Summit in Minneapolis. Outdoor Nation is a youth outreach effort started a year ago by the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit established by the Outdoor Industry Association. The 20-year-old college student had heard that the organization was looking for ideas to fund, and she had one.

It had started as a joke. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we took Congress camping?” Colby had asked other young activists who wanted to show lawmakers the importance of reconnecting America’s kids with the outdoors. “Emails can be deleted and dismissed,” she said. “With petitions you just tack your name on to a form letter.” But if you could talk to, say, Nancy Pelosi around a campfire….

That joke became the “Take Congress Camping” kit — a sealed plastic bag stuffed with postcards, crayons, and suggestions for personalizing comments to legislators — and one of 20 pilot projects given $2,500 in seed money by the Outdoor Foundation.

The pilot projects fall into three categories — mentoring, access, and engagement — outlined in the America’s Great Outdoors report published earlier this year. Several mentoring projects connect collegiate outdoor recreation programs with nearby K-12 schools. One access project works with outdoor specialty retailers to bring outdoor gear to under-served communities. Some of the engagement projects will focus on one neighborhood, while others, like Colby’s “Take Congress Camping” project, will target youth around the country.

Colby’s joke has translated into reality. This fall, she returned to New England, where she first learned to hike, ski, and paddle. She’s staying in touch with her far-flung project team as they refine their pilot season. Colby won’t be roasting marshmallows over a campfire with legislators, at least not yet, but those lawmakers will be hearing from her — and, she hopes, thousands of other young people — over the coming year.

Learn more
- “Take Congress Camping” and other Outdoor Nation grants
- America’s Great Outdoors Initiative and report


Photo: Outdoor Nation youth ambassadors at the White House Council for Environmental Equality.

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

Thursday, October 6, 2011

David Queeley: the not-impossible job of getting 500,000 kids into the outdoors


In August 2011, David T. Queeley joined AMC as Vice President for Outdoor Engagement. In the newly created position, he will oversee AMC's current and future outdoor engagement programs, including its Youth Opportunities Program for urban and at-risk youth; its "A Mountain Classroom" school program; guided backcountry Teen Wilderness Adventures; and youth and family programming at AMC huts and lodges. He'll also spearhead new efforts to create local community partnerships and diversify youth and family participation. Currently, AMC programs reach some 40,000 young people in the Northeast. Dave will be directly responsible for leading AMC's efforts to raise that number to 500,000 over the next decade, a key component of AMC's Vision 2020 strategy.

In his own words, Dave talks about the path that has led him to his new job, and the mission that drives him.

"When I was in first grade, we moved from Dorchester to Sharon, Mass., and my life changed from an asphalt existence to a wooded, leafy, suburban one. I spent a lot of time outside. There were woods all around, a pond behind our house that we skated on in the winter, a couple of nearby camps, and a blueberry farm."

"My parents saw the value of getting outdoors. My mother was always saying to me, 'Go outside! Go outside!' One of our first family trips was to Dolly Copp campground in the White Mountains, when I was about 10 years old. My brother and I were so excited that we figured out how to put up the tent before our father did. I saw someone fly-fishing for the first time there; even though it took me years to get around to trying it, it's now one of my favorite pastimes.

"I began to think that I'd like to pursue a career in the environment if I could combine my passion for the outdoors with work. With my first serious money, right out of high school, I bought a tent, an orange A-frame Eureka, and took it on a trip to the Grand Tetons. In college, at Wesleyan, I went on my first winter camping trip, near Lake Placid. We had no real clue: I wore corduroy overalls, a flannel cotton shirt, and suede leather boots, that froze up during the night because I didn't know to keep them inside my sleeping bag."

"I look back and can see that although my early jobs appeared somewhat disconnected from one another, all gave me skills that built toward the career I now have. I was inspired by the environmental movement of the '60s and '70s, specifically by Jacques Cousteau. The first career I pursued was marine biology, but my first jobs in that field involved a lot of rote lab work. That didn't fit my romantic vision of being another Cousteau.

"I then took a job as a science teaching intern at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California, which had an outstanding environmental education program that included rock climbing and hiking. Experiential learning got many of the kids to open up in new ways—and it enhanced their classroom learning.

"From there I worked for the state of Massachusetts managing a grant program that gave money to cities to create, repair, enhance, and maintain parks and playgrounds. I gained an understanding of how state and municipal budgets work, as well as how government can improve access to green spaces for children and families, especially in urban areas. Then I worked as a planner for what became the Department of Conservation and Recreation, where I oversaw a lengthy process to develop a master plan for the Neponset River from Mattapan into Dorchester, which had been terribly neglected. We ended up converting an old railway line into a greenway and converted a landfill into a park. It's been a great success story."

"After working in government for many years, I realized that local and regional environmental groups were also becoming more interested in urban work and in reaching new constituencies. Mass Audubon was creating a new nature center right in the middle of Boston. I thought, I have to have that job. I was the first director of the Boston Nature Center. I lived on the site—72 acres, including what at one time was the largest community garden in the country. Some mornings I'd even have a wild turkey on my front porch.

"I went to New York City for a couple of years to work with the Prospect Park Alliance, then returned to Boston and ran the Trust for Public Land's Parks for People program in New England. We worked on green spaces in Providence, Stamford, and Portland, Maine, and built a playground in Dorchester. The parks, greenways, and playgrounds we created made life better in those urban communities. I realized that making a difference in people's lives had to be an essential part of my work going forward."

"I heard about the new position at AMC. I'd been an AMC member off and on for many years. I often go backcountry skiing at Cardigan. I sea kayak and hike, and of course I fly-fish. Being an AMC member has been a very positive experience for me personally. And I knew of AMC as a well-run organization. People rang me up, emailed me. 'That's you!' they said. The new position seemed like an especially good fit for my eclectic background."

"AMC's president, Andy Falender, tells me I've taken on an 'impossible' job [of getting 500,000 kids outside by 2020]. I disagree. It's true that there are many moving parts. But it's a challenge, not an impossibility, to make seemingly disparate things come together. I've done a lot of that in my life. Another thing about me: I don't give up. I'll keep going until I figure something out."

"My main focus in the new job is to follow through on the goals laid out in Vision 2020. I want to reach 200,000 kids directly over the next decade, which means getting many more families engaged with AMC and increasing the diversity of kids and families in AMC. Reaching out is critical to the future of the organization. If our message is already reaching the converted, then who else can we reach, and how do we go about doing that? We need to reach more people where they are.

"We also want to work with the chapters to help us expand our audience. We need to hear from those chapters that have created successful family programs, and learn from them. It will be important to give chapters the resources they need, whether that's training or assistance or helping them enter into creative partnerships."

"Given the current economy and our concern for the environment, the question arises: Rather than ask people to travel, how do we do more right where people are? We'll be looking for population centers where we can have a big impact. We also have to use and market our resources differently. I think Cardigan Lodge may be an underused resource, as are Noble View, Mohican Outdoor Center, and Ponkapoag Camp. These are great places to introduce kids and families to the outdoors. We're hoping to bring in more kids, programs, and families from nearby population centers, like Springfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield for Noble View and the greater Boston area for Ponkapoag, to use these facilities."

"Louv's theory of nature-deficit disorder is true. I've seen what happens when kids don't get outside: There's a whole generation of kids joined at the hip with technology. We have something deeper, and more real, to offer the younger generation."

"Kids in urban areas without backyards need access to the outdoors. Kids need to be connected to nature. I can't tell you how many kids I've met who don't know where the water that flows out of their taps comes from, or that the food in their supermarkets comes from farms. They need to connect on that very basic level. If they don't, we are all in trouble."

"At Pinkham recently, I watched a father and son coming back from a long trip. I heard a young couple yell, 'We made it to base camp!' as they arrived in the parking lot. Another young man was just coming back from what looked like a night or two out. To a person they were all beaming and happy to be there. They exuded a sense of being home in the outdoors. If AMC can instill that sense in all the kids and families who don't have it right now, I'll be doing my job."

Learn more

- Vision 2020: A trail map for the next decade. (Don't miss the links to the AMC Commitment to Youth fact sheet at the bottom of the page.)
- Video: AMC's Youth Programs

- Tips for getting kids outdoors

Interview by Kristen Laine. Photo credit Megan Begley.

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