Thursday, December 29, 2011

Resolutions for Outdoor Families

Before I was married, I liked being out in the mountains on New Year’s Eve, dug into the snow up high, stepping out of the tent and looking at the stars in the winter sky, musing on the year just past, thinking about the year to come. I made lists in my mind of things I resolved to do, wrote them down when I was back at home, and referred to them throughout the months that followed.

Jim’s favorite New Year’s Eve tradition, before we married, was more festive. It involved a gathering at a friend’s camp on a small pond. There would be music and a fire and skating. At midnight, they’d take down from its perch on a wall an unwieldy, 10-foot-long Swiss alpenhorn, throw open the door, and take turns trying to send a recognizable rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” out into the night air. One year, he remembers, coyotes in the surrounding hills answered back.

As a couple with young children, ringing in the New Year has been a more domestic affair. This year, we’ll have just returned from a visit to family, so our celebration will be simple, and at home. Ursula and Virgil will no doubt insist on a game of Risk (a Christmas gift), which means that one of them may start 2012 as emperor of the world. Jim and I have been talking about spending part of the evening coming up with family resolutions: things we want to do individually and together, promises we want to make, and goals we’d like to reach.

We’ve noticed that many of our ideas have to do with the outdoors. We’ve noticed, also, that the ideas fall into a few categories, and that thinking of the categories inspires us to come up with more ideas, whether they become resolutions or not. I thought I’d share the categories, and some of our ideas, here.

Places we’d like to go. We keep a family list of places we’d like to travel to, or return to, tacked to the kitchen bulletin board. Some of these places are not in our current budget — I’m thinking of the moon, on Virgil’s list — but many are parks or natural areas. We’ll ask Ursula and Virgil each to pick one of these for family trips we’ll make in 2012. Will we visit Gettysburg? Yosemite? Acadia?

Goals to motivate us.
A neighbor tries to climb nearby Mount Cardigan at least 100 times each year. What if we climbed it 25 times as a family? Picked some number of 4,000 footers to climb in 2012? Made a family commitment to hike a certain number of miles on the Appalachian Trail? Even asking Ursula and Virgil about their outdoor goals should make for an interesting conversation.

Changing daily behaviors.
In the “if everyone lights just one little candle” vein, we want to consider the small things that add up, like leaving the car behind and walking to do our errands, buying fewer things, and turning off lights when we leave the room. If we lived closer to town, we’d add ‘walking or biking to school’ to that list. Putting these, and other small changes, on our list of resolutions will help us create new habits.

Joining with others to help the environment. Ursula and Virgil are old enough to join a local group that maintains trails on Mount Cardigan several times a year. Other groups organize cleanups of nearby rivers and parks. Ursula may want to expand a school project, growing endangered lady slippers, or Virgil could translate his love of animals into helping protect wildlife habitat.

Keeping promises. One of Jim’s regrets for the year that’s ending is that he didn’t follow through on a promise he made to Virgil to spend a night together outdoors. We took several backpacking trips as a family, but Virgil didn’t get that night in a tent with only his dad. Jim is determined not to let such an omission happen next year. He’s also promised to take Ursula fishing on the Rapid River. I’ve promised to take Ursula and a friend to Rumney Rocks. We’ll put these on the table and ask the kids what outdoor promises they’d like from us, then ask the same of each other. (I think I see fly-fishing in my future…)

May your New Year bring new outdoor adventures and new commitments to protecting our natural places and this beautiful big blue planet.

Learn how to make a "Resolution magnet" on

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Children’s Crusade on Climate Change

“I am 16 years old and live in Harrisburg, Virginia,” the legal document starts. Grant Serrels, the young Virginian, goes on to describe what it’s like to be a 21st-century kid growing up on the Shenandoah River:

When we moved to Timberville, Virginia almost six years ago, our family lived in a house located on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. My excitement of being able to play, fish, and swim in the river was quickly thwarted. As a new resident, my family and I soon learned the river had become polluted as a result of lax standards of factory discharge into the river. The river water had also increased in water temperature due to climate change and the bottom of the river was covered in algae. The Shenandoah River had become unsafe for swimming. Also, ‘fish kill’ became a common vocabulary word for the die off of trout, bass, and sunfish (sometimes in large numbers). My dad is a fisherman, and we would go fishing together a lot. We caught several fish in the Shenandoah River that had lesions. The reason for these lesions and the fish kill is related to the increased temperature of the river waters over the past decade.

Serrels is one member of an unusual group of plaintiffs suing the federal government: unusual, because they’re between the ages of 10 and 17; unusual, because they are suing to ask government agencies to more effectively and more quickly address climate change; and unusual, because their case relies on the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires the government to protect and maintain certain shared resources for the health and survival of everyone, including children and future generations — that is to say, Serrels and his fellow plaintiffs. According to Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit organization that assembled and filed the case, it is the first time that the Public Trust Doctrine has been applied to the atmosphere and on behalf of the country’s youth.

The young people’s quarrel with the government is that it’s dragging its feet on addressing climate change. Their voices combine youthful sincerity and naiveté with a scientific understanding of climate change, its troubling trajectory, and its political gridlock, which makes this adult both sad and ashamed. The shame comes when I read Madeleine MacGillivray Wallace’s plea for adults to address global warming before it reaches a scientific “tipping point.” “I’m not in a position to take action of the scale needed to fight climate change,” the 15-year-old New York City native writes. “I have to instead depend on my government to live up to its responsibility of protecting the public commons and making sure I, my generation, and future generations have a livable planet.”

Serrels ends his declaration with a similar combination of concern and determination: “I felt very depressed but at the same time motivated to do something about protecting the earth before it’s made uninhabitable for my and future generations.”

These young people are far more politically engaged than the average teenager (or the average adult), but their anxiety about the future is shared by many of the nation’s youth. In a 2011 survey of teen attitudes about nature by The Nature Conservancy, nearly three-quarters of the respondents agreed with the statement, “Previous generations have damaged our environment and left it to our generation to fix it.” Less than one-third thought the government was doing a good job of addressing such major problems.

The young people involved in the climate-change lawsuit have already won a first victory. A hearing was originally scheduled earlier this month in San Francisco, but when the case began to receive national publicity, the hearing was moved to Washington, D.C., at a date yet to be determined. Several of the plaintiffs hand-delivered letters to members of Congress before the holiday break urging them to take action.

Learn more
- Read a letter by Alec Loorz, 16, founder of youth movement iMatter and one of the climate-change plaintiffs.
- Watch videos made by the young plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by Our Children’s Trust.
- Get updates on the climate-change lawsuit.
- Learn about The Nature Conservancy survey.

Photo of climate-change youth plaintiff Alex Loorz.

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Family ski memories, vintage ski photos

Wooden skis, leather lace-up boots, cable bindings. Space-age skis, plastic boots, step-in bindings. Stretch ski pants and anoraks. Jean overalls and down jackets. These are details that bring back a flood of memories from a childhood spent on skis — details shown to great effect in a “Vintage Skiing” photo archive on

If you grew up skiing in the White Mountains, Massachusetts, or Vermont, you’re likely to find photos in this archive that bring on the same rush of memories. Photos stretching back as far as the 1930s offer an interesting pictorial record of skiing in New England. There are the ski trains, with ski-carrying passengers disembarking for the walk up the ski hill; single-chair ski lifts; lessons showing techniques long consigned to history; children crying, children smiling. Many of the pictures, not surprisingly, were taken on sunny days, appropriately for sunny memories of skiing. And who doesn’t give a rouse for 70-year-old Win Smythe, shown chatting with 17-year-old Harry Muzzy after the older man had finished skiing the challenging Thunderbolt Trail in Adams, Mass.?

The ski scrapbook was prompted by a similar visit to the photo archives by The New York Times.

Click through the 31 photos on or 20 photos on The New York Times website this holiday season with someone who taught you to ski. It’ll be a schuss down memory lane…

Learn more
- View "Vintage Skiing" on
- View “Vintage Skiing” on The New York Times website. Some of these photos also depict skiing in the Northeast.

Photo of old ski passes from "Mod Remod"; ski school from the archive; "Ski" photo from a short history of skiing in New England by Laurie J. Puliafico.

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"North" and other picture books for a snowy day

The New York Times Book Review last Sunday contained a small feature, “Bookshelf: Snow,” a round-up of picture books about life in the cold. If you want to bring the pleasures of winter to a young child on your holiday gift list, take a look at the 5 recently published books in that article. Or consider one of the children’s winter classics below.

Some of the books on the “Bookshelf” list will feel familiar to any child who builds snowmen or spends time exploring snowy woods. Making a Friend shows a red-capped boy making a snowman, but the book — and the friendship — doesn’t end when the snow melts. Soft watercolors show the snowman in rain and in fog, and then back with the boy the next winter. In Over and Under the Snow, a girl goes cross-country skiing with her father and follows clues to the “secret kingdom” of wild animals in the winter months.

Two of the new books travel to cold places that most of us will never see. Little Dog Lost tells the true story of a dog who drifted out to the Baltic Sea on an ice floe. The story gives author and illustrator Monica Carnesi the chance to describe, and show, the immensity of the Arctic landscape — with a happy ending. The subtitle of North explains what the book is about — “the amazing story of Arctic migration” — but the large paintings of migrating polar bears, gray whales, snow geese, and caribou, among others, convey the poetry and majesty of migration.

That list prompted me to scan our bookshelves for our favorite picture books about winter. Here are a few:
- The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. We have the board book version of this Caldecott-winning classic from 1962, now dog-eared from many readings. A small boy explores the snow outside his apartment building.
- The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs. The kids’ British grandfather gave them the wordless “comic-strip” story of a boy who makes a snowman and embarks on a magical adventure. We then discovered that the story had been set to music and animated. Both the book and the short movie are perennial favorites around our house.
- Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a Robert Frost poem illustrated by Susan Jeffers. Caldecott Honor–artist Jeffers adds touches of red to an otherwise pale color palette to help answer the question of why Frost’s traveler has stopped in December’s snowy woods. When Ursula and Virgil were very young, they loved to follow those color clues and help solve the mystery of the poem.
- The Mitten, by Jan Brett. Brett understands that children love to linger over picture books; her distinctive illustrations pack additional story lines around the edges of each page. The Mitten retells a Ukrainian folktale in which many animals, from a mouse to a bear, climb into a little boy’s lost mitten.
- Trouble with Trolls, also by Jan Brett. Brett combines trolls, every child’s desire for a dog (“want dog!”), a resourceful heroine, and possibly the best ski descent in children’s literature.

Learn more

- Read "Bookshelf: Snow" from the December 18, 2011 New York Times Book Review.

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

“Whose Woods These Are…”: 16 Family Snowshoes

“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To see his woods fill up with snow.”

These lines from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and other poems by Robert Frost decorate an unusual literary trail. During the years the great American poet lived in Vermont, he walked through woods not far from the college town of Middlebury. Many years later, snippets from some of his most famous poems mark the paths of his home woods — perhaps in the very places that inspired them.

We'll be visiting this part of Vermont later this winter, and now that we know about the trail, we hope we’ll be able to snowshoe it with Ursula and Virgil, both of whom have grown up hearing Frost’s poems. I bet they’ll enjoy the way that the trail fits some of the poems. At a “Y” in the trail, for example, two lines from “The Road Not Taken — “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less traveled / And that has made all the difference” — are etched into a wooden marker.

Snowshoeing can be “the road less traveled” for families during the winter months. Getting outside as a family with young children during the winter takes a fair amount of effort. Some of the activities most strongly associated with the season — skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, ice skating — require specialized equipment, rentals, lessons, and tickets, all of which can be expensive. Dealing with the logistics alone can feel like enough exercise for a day.

Snowshoeing offers a simple alternative. Snowshoes developed thousands of years ago to help people walk on snow. The basic design of a snowshoe hasn’t changed much over time, and neither has the basic technique: a slight waddle. Even very young children can get the hang of it in a short time. The equipment is inexpensive to buy or rent, and there’s nothing special about the clothing you need.

I recently put together a list of 15 family-friendly snowshoe trails in the Northeast. If a visit to Middlebury isn’t on your schedule this winter, check that list for other trails where the woods are also "lovely, dark, and deep.”

Learn more
- To visit Vermont's Robert Frost Trail, look for a sign on Route 125 heading east out of Middlebury.
- Read “Snowy Walks: 15 family-friendly snowshoes hikes in the Northeast.”

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


The first really cold night of the winter is forecast for tonight, and as far as we’re concerned, it can’t get here soon enough. Over the past week, calm nights and just-below-freezing temperatures have slowly spread a skim of ice over the pond, which has gradually thickened near shore. Jim, who grew up skating on ponds just like ours, has initiated Ursula and Virgil into the pleasures of smooth ice. We’ve been monitoring the ice like cooks who can’t wait for the pot to boil — except in this case, we want the container, our pond, to freeze.

On one of those monitoring forays last weekend, Virgil ventured out onto the ice in his winter boots. Jim has taught both children to measure its thickness by getting down on their hands and knees and using hairline cracks to see how far below them the ice extends. A few feet from shore, the ice was already more than two inches thick — certainly sturdy enough to hold Virgil, who weighs only 70 pounds. He slid several feet farther before we told him that was far enough.

I understand why he wanted to keep going: The ice Virgil was standing on was hard and clear — “ black ice” so transparent that he could clearly see the rocks and weeds on the bottom beneath his feet, and so smooth it feels frictionless. It’s also a rare treat, formed in just the right combination of cold temperatures and calm, clear air: no wind to ripple the surface, no snow or rain to mix in milky bubbles. For pond-hockey players and pond skaters, black ice is a cause for celebration. But this ice wasn’t quite ready to skate on.

Virgil reluctantly slid back in to shore, and for the next 20 minutes he supplied the rest of us with shards of shelf ice, which we flung, skipping-stone or Frisbee-style, across the surface. Some of the better efforts resulted in impossibly long distances — 150, 200 feet — as if the projectiles actually picked up speed as they spun or slid along the ice. I could see Jim imagining skating along the surface, a hockey stick in his hands, a puck sliding out ahead of him…

Last night was cold again, but not cold enough to add the two or three inches that will make the ice safe for adults and big kids. (Four inches of solid lake ice is generally considered safe for walking and skating.) Tonight should be different. If we step outside, we may be treated to an otherworldly sound: the traveling whooping and booming of ice shifting and cracking as it thickens. With no snow in the forecast until later in the week, we may be lucky enough to skate on black ice at least once this year.

Learn more
- Read an ice thickness chart from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
- Learn more about ice safety.

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Gift Ideas for Outdoor Families

If you have children (or their parents) on your gift-giving list this holiday season, don't finish your shopping until you've read the following recommendations from AMC staff, volunteers, and family members. All the ideas listed below are backed by experience and by the belief that family time in the outdoors is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

I've added links for some specific options, but don't forget to look for local options, too.

Babies and Toddlers
- Matt Heid, AMC's Equipped columnist and blogger, has hiked thousands of wilderness miles and is the father of one young child with another on the way. For babies, he recommends fleece booties: "Great for keeping little feet warm and super easy to put on and take off," he says. (Try Patagonia fleece booties.)

- Sara DeLucia, AMC's Adventure Programs Manager, and Alex DeLucia, AMC's Leave No Trace coordinator, are the parents of Leo, age 2. "My all-time favorite gift," Sara says, was a combination stroller, jogger, and ski pulk. "We've been putting Leo in it almost since he was born, using it for walks, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing"—in other words, four-season recreation. She notes that families with young children sometimes feel limited in their outdoor activities. "Something like this or a backpack carrier," she says, "really increases the options." (Look at Chariot child trailers to see one option.)

- "The best gift we've given our daughter is a bright green raincoat," says Stefanie Brochu, director of AMC's Youth Opportunities Program. "We invested in a lightweight, good quality coat and it was worth the money. It cinches at the wrist (very important!) and grew with her. We bought it when she was just 18 months and it lasted until she was almost four. Then we passed it down to her younger sister. We've had some great adventures together, knowing that she is just as comfortable in rainy and windy weather as my husband and I are. When other families stay inside on a rainy day we're out hiking, stomping through giant puddles, or exploring a coastline. Our daughter now loves being outside in all types of weather and I think that the little green raincoat has been a big part of that.

Older Children
- Sara DeLucia recommends sleds as great gifts for kids in snow country. AMC member Owen Borek, age 12, who hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail in 2010 with his mother, Cheryl Borek, seconds that idea, but with a slight difference: He's hoping for a toboggan this year.

- Headlamps, Cheryl Borek says, "open up all kinds of possibilities for exploring outside at night." For extra fun, Matt Heid suggests LEGO-person flashlights and headlamps.

- AMC Senior Interpretive Naturalist Nancy Ritger and Shannon LeRoy, office and programs manager for AMC's Maine Woods Initiative, offer ideas to encourage children's interest in nature: binoculars and a bird book; a butterfly coloring book and a net; a bug cage and activity guide; a guide to the seashore like AMC's Seashells in My Pocket packaged with a hand lens or activities book; a guide to the stars plus hot chocolate and a promise to go outside and stargaze.

- One of the best gifts AMC guidebook authors and photographers Jerry and Marcy Monkman ever got for their children were child-sized snowshoes, bought when Quinn and Acadia were preschoolers. Snowshoes "let us explore the outdoors as a family at the drop of a hat," Jerry says. The family also paddles together. Before Jerry and Marcy invested in kayaks for their children, they signed them up for a week of kayaking camp. "The kids loved it," Jerry says. "By the end of the week they could handle a kayak as well as we can."

- "I'd love to be able to give my 9-year-old son an experiential gift instead of a tangible gift," says Eric Stones, a trip leader for AMC's Connecticut Chapter. His son Roderick, he says with fatherly humor, "unfortunately prefers to open presents." For gifts a child can unwrap, Stones recommends hydration systems ("It gets them carrying their own water and makes it fun to hydrate on the trail") and ski gear packages. These packages, which are available for cross-country and downhill ski gear, start with one purchase and then offer low-cost upgrades: "Our local downhill ski store does a free trade up for children's equipment (for children up to 110 lbs.) if you buy a ski package from them," Stone says. "It seemed expensive when the little guy was 4 years old, but he's traded up 4 times now for free and he's still only 60 pounds."

The Whole Family
- Heid calls the REI Base Camp 6 the best family camping tent: “Huge, straightforward to set up, and bomber weather-proof.” h

- Nathan Schumacher leads trips for AMC's Youth Opportunities Program. He suggests sparking outdoor adventures with homemade gift coupons. Create coupon books that can be redeemed for particular hikes—sections of a long trail, perhaps, or to the summits of 3,000- or 4,000-footers, or for 10 state parks or conservation areas. Or add coupons to other gifts—coupons for trips to letterbox locations, for example, that accompany a stamp-making kit and a compass.

- Spending time outside with children is a year-round gift, as Kim Foley MacKinnon learned while researching AMC's new guidebook, Outdoors with Kids Boston, due out in spring 2012. "As I wrote my book," she says, "I was acutely aware of how little in our day-to-day lives my family (and our friends) spend just 'being' together with no agenda (and not much of it outside). During my research, I spent hours with my 12-year-old daughter and many of her friends, and it was freeing just to wander around together." MacKinnon thinks it was easier to be outside when she was growing up. "It is rare for my daughter and her friends to have that much time now," she says. "As counterintuitive as it sounds, I think we have to plan those kinds of days now." MacKinnon hopes other parents will give their children this gift by scheduling hikes, or clearing the family's calendar and taking off for an afternoon of exploring. Being outside together as a family, she says, is "invigorating and renewing and ultimately very rewarding."

Present enough.

Image from Ollie's Ski Trip, by Elsa Beskov.

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cut your own tree for $5 in three Eastern national forests

This year, as it has every holiday season since 1970, the U.S. Forest Service hand-selected a tall, straight, and full tree to grace the nation’s capital. This year’s tree, a 65-foot white fir, was cut from the Stanislaus National Forest in California and was delivered to the West Lawn of the Capitol last weekend.

The Forest Service has another holiday tradition, as well. A number of national forests have offered $5 tree-cutting permits in November and December for several decades, but interest in the special program has increased dramatically in recent years. In the Eastern region, the permits are available for the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

You can buy tree-cutting permits through Thursday, December 22, at White Mountain National Forest offices in Gorham, Conway, Campton, and Lincoln, in New Hampshire; and at Green Mountain National Forest offices in Rutland, Middlebury, Manchester Center, and Rochester, Vermont.

If you’re interested in cutting your own Christmas tree in one of these national forests, be sure the nearest office will be open. The Androscoggin Ranger Station in Gorham, N.H., is offering limited services in December, but will be open the first three weekends in December to accommodate Christmas tree permit sales. The Conway office is closed on weekends.

Not surprisingly, the nation’s capital is home to several Christmas tree traditions. The National Christmas Tree, a live Colorado blue spruce, was originally transplanted to the White House lawn from York, Pennsylvania, in 1978. The President and First Lady begin the Washington, D.C., holiday season by lighting that tree. That ceremony occurred this year on Thursday, December 1. The Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony will be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, December 6.

For your own holiday tradition, you can bundle up your family, grab a hand saw, plunk down five dollars for a permit, cut your own tree, and celebrate your own season of light.

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

Popular Posts