Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Winter Planning for Next Year’s Family Hikes


Hiking is a three-season activity for our family. We burst onto the trails in the spring, when they’re still a mix of mud and snow, eagerly seeking every sign of new growth, grateful for the lack of bugs. Summer means overnight backpacking trips and choosing hikes for their cooling water breaks, whether river rambles or the shock of an icy dip in a glacial tarn. My favorite hiking season is the one just ending. Fall’s cooler, drier weather energizes us. We try new trails and return to family favorites, stringing together as many hikes as we can before winter settles in. By November, each time we step on a trail, I think, This could be the last hike of the year.

I know that some people hike around the calendar, prompted by inner urgings or a temperate climate. Here at the edges of the North Country, though, winter becomes hiking’s off-season. Lately I’ve come upon several ideas on how to use the off-season, all of them quite workable with children or with the entire family.
- Think like a gardener. In cold-weather places, gardeners put their gardens to bed for the winter, then turn to many months of productive dreaming over catalogues and books or simply in the quiet company of a fireplace. Hikers can do the same: Pull out guidebooks and maps; explore trails on paper and in your imaginations. Use catalogues to draw up gear lists — and wish lists.
- Create photo albums. Share photos, and memories, from previous hiking trips. Ask your children to tell you their version of the hike and you’re likely to learn more about them, and about the hike. If you return to certain hikes every year, consider taking annual photos at the same location. Children love to see the changes in themselves over time, and in a beloved environment, too.
- Map it. For big hiking projects, think about setting aside some wall space or a table for the project. Maps, for instance, can show your progress on multi-year goals on the Appalachian Trail and other long trails. When the 7-year-old son of friends decided he wanted to hike every one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks, the family kept track of his summits in a logbook and also on a big wall map. Before he was done, the map bristled with multi-colored pins. A map can show you where you’ve been, and also — like planning to add sweet corn or pumpkins to your garden — give you new ground to cover.

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Geology Guide to Mt. Cardigan


If you’ve ever hiked up Mount Cardigan, stayed at AMC’s Cardigan Lodge, or simply driven by the rounded granite summit topped by a fire tower, you may be interested in a new website that explains the geology of the peak.

Dartmouth College earth sciences professor Brian Dade teamed up with retired doctor and hiker Howie Frankel to create a guide to the geological makeup of five popular hikes in the Upper Connecticut River Valley. The online guide includes Mount Cardigan and a 2-mile section of the Appalachian Trail known locally as the Velvet Rocks Trail. Mount Cardigan is one of what Dade calls a “string of pearls” — granite-based mountains formed during an intense period of volcanic activity 500 million years ago along the coastline of what would become the Atlantic Ocean. These mountains, now many miles inland, are thought to be “ancient magma chambers from a chain of volcanic islands,” Dade says.

Glaciers planed smooth the north side of Cardigan during the Ice Age. But each time a glacier crested the peak, it plucked and pulled rocks off the southern face, creating a more broken topography. Dade says, “Carpenters, think of trying to plane across the grain” at the end of a two by four: “All you get is cracks, chips, and splinters.” It’s an image I’ll keep in mind the next time we picnic in the lee of a big boulder.

Geologists learn to take the long view of history. In an overview of the area’s geology, Dade and Frankel describe a history of upheaval and change. The region’s abundance of slate, granite, marble, and gneiss — all metamorphic rocks that have been altered by heat, pressure, and folding — have been used as building materials around the world, and have created many a fine stone wall at home. The Appalachians were once like the Himalayas, the authors remind us, and the Himalayas will someday be like the Appalachians are now. Now that’s a long view.

The short guide, illustrated by gorgeous photos, is like hiking with a geologist. Take a look at it before your next hike up this popular small mountain.

Learn more
- Geology Guide to the Upper Connecticut Valley

Photo showing glacial "plucking" on the south side of Mt. Cardigan courtesy of the geology guide's authors.

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Creating Outdoor Holiday Traditions


It can be hard during the holidays to do something as simple, and as important, as getting outside. Body-cramping travel often eats up full days, and then there's that one day devoted to eating. Other family traditions — watching football, catching up on family news, shopping, arguing politics — can make the holidays entirely indoor events.

It can be easy, though, to create outdoor traditions. When I was young, there came a time each Thanksgiving when the cooks pushed everyone else out the door. That was the signal to start our annual touch football game. This was an earlier time, so the teams were comprised mostly of kids and fathers, with a few unattached men joining in. I can still recall the excitement of the huddle, listening to a bright-cheeked dad set out our play, the briskness of the air, and the sharp crinkle of leaves underfoot. When we were allowed back inside to wash up and change for dinner, the sun would be low in the sky and the house warm and filled with the smell of the meal we’d soon sit down to together.

Later, when I lived too far from family to travel back home for a short holiday, I celebrated Thanksgiving with friends. Our traditions included charades and a long trail run the day after the holiday. The big family gathering at my father’s in western New York now always ends with a ramble through the neighborhood. The contrast between the warmth of the hearth and the crispness of late November air invigorates us and brings us together in different ways.

Do you have a family outdoor tradition for the holiday season? If you want to start one, consider the following ideas:
- Play an outdoor game. Touch or flag football are the classics of this genre. Freeze Tag, Capture the Flag, and Red Rover work well in mixed-age groups.
- Take a hike. You don’t have to find a trail. Wander the neighborhood while the turkey is in the oven or walk off the meal in fading light. Take a walk with someone you haven’t had a chance to talk to, or take the kids out for a stroll.
- Make a game of observing. Keep young children from getting bored on a walk by challenging them with “I Spy”-style games. Ask them to come up with a plant or animal for every letter of the alphabet. Count words on road signs. Be creative!
- Have a leftovers picnic. If you’re lucky enough to have a warm or sunny day, try packing up some leftovers and go to a park or playground for a special “meal out.” Picnic tables may work best for older family members.
- Stargaze. The moon is new on Friday, November 25, so if the night of Thanksgiving is clear, you may be able to see Orion, the Pleiades, and Jupiter.
- Sign up for a Turkey Trot. Maybe it’s the alliteration that’s made these Thanksgiving-week road races so common. Some of the “fun runs” have walker categories. The Thanksgiving Day run in Buffalo, New York, calls itself the oldest continually running footrace in the country — even older than the Boston Marathon. Another claim to that category comes from the annual “pie race” held at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. Turkey head-gear optional.

Photo courtesy of the YMCA Buffalo Niagara Turkey Trot.

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Winter Bicycling with Kids


We put our bicycles in the barn after the early snowstorm last month and haven’t been planning to bring them out again until spring. But driving the school carpool one day last week, I heard a radio report on two cyclists from Vermont, both psychotherapists, who are encouraging people to bicycle through the winter.

The self-styled “cycle therapists,” Dave Cohen and Phil Brubaker, had some specific on-the-ground advice for winter cyclists: Put winter tires on your bicycle (who knew you could get studded snow tires for bikes?); let some of the air out of the tires for better traction; and dress for the weather, paying special attention to keeping feet warm. Cohen and Brubaker run bike workshops to encourage adults and children to spend time outside all year, even during the winter months. Speaking as a mental health professional, Brubaker told the Vermont Public Radio reporter that there’s plenty of evidence pointing to the benefits of daily aerobic exercise: “Even just 20 minutes a day is a huge boost to mental health in general,” he said, further noting that people often struggle with depression during the winter months.

The radio spot got me thinking, and looking. At my computer, I found Bike Winter, a website dedicated to winter biking whose practitioners approach the topic with good humor: “While riding in the summer seems normal,” one writes on the site, “cycling through the winter seems, to the uninitiated, as painful and ill-advised as licking a frozen pole.” The site’s page on winter biking with young children offers expert advice on navigating a bike trailer in slush and debates the relative advantages of bike trailers and bike seats for winter riders with children. It also introduced me to cargo bikes — “the SUVs of the bike world” — apparently an idea imported from the bike-friendly Dutch.

And if I’d doubted that children can continue biking through the winter, several stories on the national Safe Routes To School (SRTS) website convinced me. Safe Routes To School funds efforts by schools and communities to get more children walking and biking to school. In Anchorage, Alaska, a place that knows winter, the school district surveyed parents and discovered, not surprisingly, that they were concerned about their children’s safety during winter months, when there are often fewer hours of daylight than hours in the school day. The district partnered with the city of Anchorage and the state highway safety office to offer free reflective tape to more than 10,000 schoolchildren and then encouraged the children to come up with their own reflective designs. To celebrate the coming of spring and longer days, the district held a reflective tape fashion show. The district also partnered with a regional hospital to donate between 75,000 and 100,000 free bike helmets to students. School nurses handed out the helmets and helped fit them. The district saw increases between 30 and 70 percent in the rates of children walking or biking to school year-round.

At Bear Creek Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado, two-thirds of students lived within two miles of the school, but only one-quarter regularly walked or biked to school. The school’s SRTS program started with incentives and prizes. Students who used “active transportation” to get to school received daily recognition in class and in prominent displays and events at school. Principal Kent Cruger instituted the Cruger Cup, a year-long challenge to students to arrive every day without a car. Cruger took the challenge himself, arriving at school on bicycle, skateboard, and even a unicycle. Another teacher used the Tour de France to motivate students, forming class teams. Students kept monthly tracking sheets and won arm bands in different colors for different categories of trips, resembling the “leader jerseys” at the legendary bike race.

Students became so determined to meet these challenges that they insisted on bringing gear for an overnight school trip in bike trailers. By the end of the federally funded program, 70 percent of the school’s students had made biking or walking to school a daily habit. With such a change in the culture of the school and community, the school is finding that fewer external rewards and incentives are needed. One of the pictures accompanying the story shows smiling students walking, and biking, through snow.

I think of Phil Brubaker in Vermont. He said of his winter bike commute that it doesn’t take much time, but it makes his day.

Learn more
- Get tips from AMC on cycling through the winter, including how to prepare your bike and what clothes to wear.
- Read or listen to the “cycle therapists” on Vermont Public Radio.
- Check out the Bike Winter website. Or read this blog post from a real winter-biking kid.
- Learn about cargo cycles. Don’t miss the informative section on family cycling!
- Find success stories from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. at National Safe Routes To School.

Family biking photo courtesy of Bike Winter.

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What makes a hike a family hike?


We’ve had a hard time scheduling hikes with other families this fall. Some of our friends went straight from soccer to hockey with nary a free weekend in between. Others juggle long work commutes or business travel, making weekends precious family time. We’ve had our own problems freeing up even half-days for hikes, from household chores to homework projects to house guests. Every weekend we’re confronted with yet another perfectly good set of reasons not to put on our boots and get on a trail.

I spent some time last week looking at family trips listed on the AMC website, and what I saw there makes me think we’re not alone in finding it hard to get out the door. Out of 64 activities listed for last weekend, only two — a Saturday morning hike in Fells by the Boston Chapter and a family hike to Trustom Pond offered by the Narragansett Chapter — received a Family designation. I’m sure that other of the weekend’s hikes and outings were open to families with children. Still, that’s small number of family-focused offerings.

It can’t be that hard to get kids and families — our own and others — together on trails, right? What are your solutions for overcoming the black hole of family logistics and schedules? Have you organized family hikes through your AMC Chapter, or your scout troop, or with friends? What advice can you share with the rest of us?

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (and other Thoreau books for kids)


Even after last weekend’s time change, it’s still dark on school-day mornings when I wake up Ursula and Virgil. This morning as I leaned over to give Ursula a first shake, I stumbled over a pile of books next to her bed. The pile avalanched onto my bare feet and nearly toppled me. Threats were made and promises extracted, along general lines that the entire mountain of books be put back where they belonged, or they would be carted away.

Later, after the kids were gone, I returned to Ursula’s room for a better look at the pile. Teetering on the very top was my Riverside Shakespeare — no doubt the very tome my toes had met with such unexpected force — and several other copies of plays by the Bard. Ursula’s eighth-grade class has been studying Shakespeare this fall, so the books didn’t surprise me, now that I saw them in daylight.

But the broad base they were resting on did surprise me — many children’s books, most of them picture books: Greek myths, fairies, African folktales, silly stories, all mixed together. And at the bottom, all five of our “Henry” books: Henry, as in Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, civilly disobedient protester, adventurer, and naturalist.

D.B. Johnson wrote and illustrated five picture books based on events in Thoreau’s life. The first, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, was based on an event that Thoreau wrote about in Walden:
“One says to me, ‘I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars [the train] and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.’ But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first.”

Thoreau’s sly trick, in the book as in real life, was to insist that his friend earn his 90-cent fare for the 30-mile train ride while Thoreau, depicted in all the books as a black bear, covers the distance on foot. We see the passage of the day on the watch carried by Thoreau’s friend, as he fills the woodbox in Mrs. Alcott’s kitchen (10 cents), sweeps out the post office (5 cents), and other jobs to earn his way to Fitchburg. On facing pages, we see Henry: While his friend is pulling weeds, he’s picking ferns and flowers; he climbs a tree while his friend moves bookcases.

By the time Henry’s friend has earned enough money to buy his ticket, Henry is 7 miles from Fitchburg. While his friend sits on the crowded train, Henry eats his way through a blackberry patch. When Henry arrives in Fitchburg, night has fallen and his friend is waiting for him. “The train was faster,” his friend says. Henry hands his friend a pail filled with fresh berries. “I know,” he tells him. “I stopped for blackberries.”

Henry Builds a Cabin describes the cabin that Thoreau built by Walden Pond and lived in for two years. The night that Thoreau spent in jail after refusing to pay his taxes to a government that supported slavery provides the frame for Henry Climbs a Mountain. Henry Works celebrates Thoreau’s contributions as a naturalist, and Henry’s Night draws on a moonlit walk Thoreau described in Walden.

At the end of Walden, Thoreau wrote, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” If Ursula steps to music from Shakespeare and Thoreau, I won’t complain. She just has to make enough space on her floor for me to step inside her room without injury.

Learn more
- about Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and other books by D.B. Johnson.

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

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Outdoor Safety: Tips for Parents


"Parents are natural risk managers," says Aaron Gorban, AMC's manager for leadership training and risk management and the father of a 4-year-old daughter. That protective concern, however, shouldn't keep parents and their children away from outdoor activities. By trying to avoid risks, Gorban says, parents may actually risk something more serious, in experiences lost and connections not made. By getting children outdoors, parents can provide important opportunities to learn and grow.

Gorban's first suggestion to parents: Do whatever it takes to get comfortable enough to bring your children outside. Read books and articles, get help from people with more experience, and if necessary, sign up for a class to learn new skills.

Second, Gorban suggests assessing children's sense of risk. Some have no fear. Some live in constant fear. "Parents need to be dialed into these dynamics," he says. "At AMC, we educate our leaders about how children may behave at different ages and at different developmental stages."

It can make a lot of sense for families new to outdoor activities to join outings that are organized by groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club. In these organized outings, parents and kids, both, can learn from others who are more experienced. AMC trip leaders, for example, undergo safety training, which includes wilderness first aid, and carry first aid kits.

Once parents have a basic level of familiarity with the outdoors—and a sense of what activities are appropriate for their children—they are ready to develop safety skills for the entire family. For short outings, these skills can look a lot like simple common sense, and parents and children can learn them together. HikeSafe, a joint program of the White Mountain National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, offers a short list of safety guidelines that parents can teach children:

Dress appropriately for the outdoors. On a hike, wear sneakers or hiking boots, not sandals. Wear bright colors that make you easy to spot. Bring a jacket and extra clothes even if it's warm at home. Temperatures in the mountains are often cooler than in cities, and mountain weather is more variable.

Carry safety essentials — food, water, warm clothing, whistle, large garbage bag or rain poncho, flashlight or headlamp — with you on the trail. Even young children can carry small packs with these basic safety items.

Stay together. Keep to the trail. Wait at trail junctions.

If you get lost, stay in one place, preferably in the open. Stay warm and dry. Blow your whistle (three short blasts) every few minutes. If you hear a noise, make a noise back: It might be someone looking for you. Don't worry about wild animals (they'll try to avoid you) or your parents being angry.

AMC's "Lost and Alone" workshops teach children how to stay with a group in the outdoors and also what to do if they become separated from the group. Parents may be surprised by the attention their children give such lessons. And, of course, the safety whistles are always a big hit: "We give them about 15 seconds to blow them as loud as they can," says Gorban. "And then we tell them, OK, now it's a tool."

Courses can also help parents reach the next level of safety skills. AMC destinations and chapters offer map and compass courses that teach basic navigation in the woods. Although many trails are well marked, it's useful, Gorban notes, to know how to orient yourself if a trail sign is missing, or if you get turned around in the fog.

For more experienced hikers looking for advanced safety skills, Gorban recommends two-day Wilderness First Aid courses. Like map and compass courses, these are taught throughout the year at AMC destinations and through AMC chapters. The course teaches participants how to manage problems that may come up during a weeklong hiking trip and builds a "dynamic list" for first aid kits, depending on a changing set of variables. AMC also holds a more extensive two-week Wilderness First Responder course.

More safety tips from Aaron Gorban:

- For younger children, keep track of how much they're eating and drinking on the trail. Take frequent breaks to create down time for snacks. Use games like scavenger hunts along the trail to get food in them. Some parents bring drinks that are otherwise forbidden, such as sports drinks, to encourage drinking, or buy kids' daypacks with built-in hydration systems.

- Use pragmatic controls to minimize risk. For example, you can minimize the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses by avoiding going out at sunset, wearing long sleeves, and using appropriate insect repellents. Similarly, dress appropriately to avoid sunburn or frostbite; learn what's appropriate to the season and outing you are planning.

- With older kids, give them enough information to make wise decisions on their own about risk and health. At the start of AMC's Teen Wilderness Adventure trips, for example, some leaders circle up the teens, have them rub their hands together, and talk about heat and friction, which can cause blisters. The instructors remind the kids that if they get a blister in the first two hours of a weeklong hike, the entire trip, for everyone, will be affected.

- Watch for slips and falls. When children get hurt in the mountains, it's often because they're running or engaging in a behavior that makes them less aware of their surroundings. Or else they're just tired. "Fatigue is a commonality" in many accidents in the backcountry, Gorban notes. "Add wet or icy or slippery conditions or other environmental hazards" and it's more likely that an injury will occur.

Gorban would like to see parents move away from being concerned about the risks of being outdoors and focus instead on teaching children to assess and manage risks. "The outdoors is a perfect learning environment," he says.

Learn more

- AMC's Tips for Getting Kids Outdoors

- HikeSafe Guidelines for Parents

- Wilderness First Aid Courses from AMC

- Map and Compass Courses from AMC

AMC Family Adventure Camp leader and hikers. Photo by Herb Swanson, courtesy of AMC.

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Getting Ready for Winter


Out on our pond, a pile of partially submerged branches spreads out from our local beaver lodge. The beavers are good neighbors, if a bit cheeky: They had the nerve to build their lodge right at the edge of our property, although at least it’s tucked into a marshy curve of the shoreline that’s hard to see from our house. Their log skids lead back into the swamp, not onto our land, so while they’re cutting trees that technically belong to us, at least they’re not cutting trees in our front yard.

Each year as we reach the end of foliage season, our shy neighbors become, well, as busy as beavers. Every evening, they leave home and head to work, taking nighttime shifts to chop down trees with their sharp teeth, nibble off the branches, drag them to the pond, and swim them over to the lodge. They’ll eat leaves and bark from these branches — poplar, birch, ash, beech, and willow are favorites — during the long New England winter and use the bare wood for construction come spring. If ice holds off long enough, their food cache can spread out into the pond 20 or more feet and grow 5 or more feet high.

We’ve been preparing for winter on our side of the pond, too. Our shifts run more to daytime and weekend hours, but not full ones, so by beaver standards we’re slackers. We’ve been traversing the edges of the yard and what we call “the back 40” (more like the back quarter-acre), looking for leaners — dead or dying trees that aren’t downed. If the wood is sound, we chop them down. Virgil and Ursula and I use saws and axes on the smaller trees; for bigger trees, or sometimes just for ease, Jim fires up the chainsaw. Once the trees are down, we limb them and drag them up to the house, where we chop them into firewood. (Elsewhere, I've revised the old saying that firewood warms you twice; revising again, I'd say that this wood will warm us four times over by the time it’s in the fireplace.)

After last weekend’s early snow, Ursula and I pulled the logs up from the field on a sled, creating our own smooth skid road. The four of us took turns chopping wood in the fading light. We were cleaning up when I heard the distinctive slap of a beaver’s tail. We stood quietly, listening to the sound of our neighbors’ evening commute.

Winter will come, but I hope not before we — our family and our beaver neighbors — bring in enough wood to make it through.

Learn more
- Read "Junior Naturalist: Beavers," and view a video of beavers creating a lodge.
- Read "Chop Wood, Carry Water," about teaching Ursula and Virgil to split wood.

Photo of beaver feeding in Canada's Gatineau Park courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson.

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