Wednesday, October 20, 2010

All Abooooard! A Stop at Steamtown NHS

Trains greet visitors as they arrive to park at Steamtown National Historic Site.

Where can you find a Park Ranger wearing overalls and an engineer's cap instead of the iconic green uniform and Ranger hat? Where can the magic of the Island of Sodor and the Polar Express be touched by a 4-year-old's little hands? Where can you climb inside the rail cars that most children can only imagine from stories like The Little Red Caboose and The Boxcar Children series?

Only at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, PA.

If you live outside of Pennsylvania, its very possible you've never heard of this little gem under the National Parks Service umbrella. I know I never had and I have two train-loving boys and only live two states away. And that's truly a shame, because this is one of the most unique National landmark we have yet been to. And it should be on the must-do list for every steam and smoke loving child under the age of 95.

I actually stumbled across Steamtown while doing some pre-trip planning for our short jaunt up to Massachusetts. I was scrounging around the internet looking for something to do or see on our way home that would help make it feel like more of a fun road trip and less of a marathon drive for a quick friend's wedding. Of course, since I have the National Parks Passport, I inevitably ended up on the National Parks website to see if we'd be passing by someplace where I could get my book stamped. There were quite a few participating locations on our route, but when I checked Pennsylvania and saw the words "Steamtown National Historic Site," I knew I had a winner. A park filled with old-style trains would most definitely be more interesting to the kids than walking around a battlefield. Plus they not only had a stamp for my book, but a Junior Ranger program as well. Sounded like a slam dunk to me!

So I told the Hubs a little about the place and that we were going to play the stop by ear depending on how our return trip was going. Scranton wasn't precisely on the route back home, and would require about an hour detour plus a few hours to explore the site. Adding three or four hours to an already 12 hour trip sounded daunting, but I already had my heart set on stopping... for the kid's sake, of course.

About three years ago we were in the Great Smokey Mountains (for another wedding, go figure) and had the opportunity to go see and RIDE the 'real' Thomas the Tank Engine as he traveled across the country on his "Day Out with Thomas" tour. It was awesome. My oldest was four at the time and in full-blown Thomas heaven. My youngest, though, was only about 6 months old at that time, so now with him just a month away from turning four himself, it seemed only fair to give him a chance at an unforgetable train experience.

The return trip was going quite well (shockingly) and so we veered off course shortly after entering Pennsylvania to head towards Scranton. Having spent some of my childhood living in a town outside of Philly, I recognized the look and feel of an old PA city right away. The site was easy enough to get to and located just on the opposite side of a small downtown district. Pulling in to the lot, the kids faces were nearly smushed against the window glass as they took in the trains littering the rails surrounding the parking lot.

By then it was past lunch time, so we diverted the kids eyes as best we could and walked first over to the adjacent mall for a hurried meal in the food court. (Yes, there's a mall right next to the site, and its even named "The Mall at Steamtown." A Ranger joked they were the only National Parks site with a mall named after them!) Then we diverted my eyes from the mall stores and walked back over to the train yard.

Right out front of the site's ticket counter we were greeted by an enourmous engine which we later found out is nicknamed "Big Boy." The boys were in awe of the massive size of him, and that was only the beginning of the fun.

The kids in front of "Big Boy."

Our first stop was the gift shop to be sure I didn't run out of time to pick up patches and pins to remember our visit. The second was to the Park information desk so we could get the Junior Ranger booklet and see if it would be doable on our short visit (it was). Then we hurried off to the next (and last) train ride of the day. Billed as a 20 miute ride for a low cost of $3 per person over 6 years old, The Scranton Limited ride sounded like a great chance to experience what a real trip was like on an old-timey train.

For me, the grown up, though, I was slightly dissapointed in the fact that A) it wasn't a steam engine pulling the train (it is called Steamtown, after all), and B) the ride was just a quick back and forth on a small section of track contained within the park site's boundries. The Ranger explained that to go off the park's portion of the track meant they had to pay the company that owned the other portion, and that just was not feasible for such a short, cheap ride. Well, I could understand that problem, and the boys didn't seem to care at all that we hardly even went anywhere. The bouncy seats and views of even more dilapidated and antique trains in the back of the yard were enough to make the boys happy, so it was worth the small price to see their smiles. P.S. - Other, longer rides are available for a higher cost if you have time, and also special excursions for things like fall foliage viewing, Halloween rides and the extremely popular Polar Express rides. Don't bother to look at the Polar Express ride for this year though, they're already sold out! If we had more time I would have gladly paid for a longer ride through the countryside!

Train bliss for a nearly-four-year-old.

With all the important business out of the way, we then proceeded to begin our exploration of the various buildings and exhibits around the area. Most of the public portion of Steamtown is contained within an old fasioned roundhouse, one of the few left standing in the country. We even got to see the turntable actually turn when a steam engine puffed into the roundhouse toward the end of our visit and was turned so it could be put to rest in its shed for the night - just like Thomas!

Different sections of the roundhouse had been converted into themed exhibit/museum spaces. I must say the park's designers really knew their audience, becuase nearly everything in the exhibits was hands on. There were buttons to push, levers to pull, wheels to turn, and fun things to look at everywhere we went. Far from being a stuffy museum with lots of boring photos and explanations of trains (though it does have those too if that's what you're interested in), Steamtown encourages kids and adults to naturally be involved in the history and technology of trains by immersing you in them as much as reasonably possible. Pull up a crate and watch a short movie inside a real box car. Lay down on a cot inside a real red caboose. Take a walk through a long mail car and see how you might sort the mail in days of old.

A steamy steams into the roundhouse
for a spin on the turntable.

The boys try their hands, and arms, at a real working hand car. Not easy!

Perhaps the most surprising experience to me, though, was the walk through the original 1907 portion of the old roundhouse. It was dark, it was dirty, it was smokey, it had huge engines looming eerily in the dim light, one of which was still quietly steaming from its recent trip into the shed. Try as I might, I couldn't imagine ever happily working in such a place. Even with the windows and electric lights, there seemed to be no stopping the sence of gloom in that other-worldly place. And amazingly, people still actually do work on the trains in there!

A Percy look-alike inside the 1907 portion of the roundhouse.

My oldest train enthusiast thouroughly enjoyed finding the answers to the Junior Ranger work book all throughout the buildings and was excited to be sworn in (again) as a Junior Park Ranger. Now he has another badge to add to his growing collection, (and I have another stamp in my book!). Though our stop was somewhat short, we had a great time exploring one of the lesser known National Parks and it was reasonable to get all the important sights in to our brief couple of hours. Some extra time would have been welcome so we could have taken a longer train ride and explored the trolley museum at the opposite end of the parking lot (and maybe shopped at the mall?), but with the time we had it was an afternoon well spent. Both boys had a wonderful time and were sad to leave such a neat place.

Working on the Jr. Ranger booklet in
one of the cabooses and learning how
people would live in that little room.

Though it hasn't been in any book on National Parks that I've picked up so far, even the ones listing the best parks for kids, Steamtown is a must stop place for anyone young or old who has ever longed to hear the whistle of a steam engine and the hoarse cry of the conductor as he yells out "All Aboooooaaard!" Make a stop at Steamtown on your east coast to-do list. Say hello to Big Boy and revel in the sights, sounds and smells of America's railroad heyday.

The boys pretend to buy a ticket to ride.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October Mountain: Plugging ourselves in to nature for a recharge

So, yesterday you spent over twelve hours in a cramped SUV with two kids, your husband, mother-in-law and two frustrating Tom-Tom GPS's that didn't seem to agree on which route you should be taking. It was a L-O-N-G trip. Today you wake up in the hotel (with hubby and kids, M.I.L. got her own room!) with a sore back and not much sleep, and you have one of your best friends weddings to go to at 1pm that afternoon.

What do you do for the next few hours?

Watch some TV, relax, grab some breakfast at the pathetic continental spread in the lobby. Maybe have a short drive around the cute little town to see what's there and grab a light lunch.

Yep, that's what 'normal' people would probably do.

Fortunately for me, I'm not 'normal.'

Early fall in the the Berkshire Mountains near Lenox, MA

First, I wasn't driving all the way up to the Berkshires only to look at the scenery from the car window. Second, I knew that I'd be on the brink of going stir-crazy after such a long trip in such a small vehicle. Third, well, what would you expect two highly active little boys to act like at a wedding after a day in a car and a morning in a hotel room? Sitting still and quiet would NOT be on their to-do list for the afternoon, I can assure you of that.

So a little pre-trip planning gave me a lot of choices for a quick morning adventure. I printed off the info and directions to a few before we left and chose October Mountain State Park the night before, mostly becuase it was close and had such an imagination-inspiring lovely name! Saturday morning we awoke, packed our day packs, strapped on our hiking boots and proceeded to have an incredibly lovely day.

To my surprise and to my kids pleasure, there was another perk to going to October Mountain. The Massachussets State Park system offers a free passport book for kids which they can stamp at every park they visit using a special stamp located near the offices. The boys were thrilled to unlock the box and stamp their new books, and I was thrilled to have a very nice and FREE momento of our trip. And who knows, maybe sometime we'll go back and can get more stamps from other parks!

Our hike was fantastic. The autumn colors were beautiful, the park was lovely, and the trail was exactly what the boys and I needed to recharge ourselves and get back into a good mood after all the crankiness in the car. I opted for hiking part of a trail out-and-back for a total of only about 1.5 miles. We couldn't be late for the wedding! We took our time playing on rocks and in streams and generally having a wonderful time in the woods.

After making it to a set of small cascading waterfalls and racing many sticks and yellow leaves down the natural water slides, we turned around to head back to the campground where we were parked. The kids didn't want to go, but even a outdoorsy-girl like me needs lots of time to primp and try to make myself look fabulous for a wedding. My oldest asked if we could do another hike after the wedding. I could not have been happier with their enthusiasm, even though I knew it'd be too late by then to do so. October Mountain was the perfect way to get outside and have at least one small experience in the beauty of fall in New England.

Family shot while taking a break on the trail.

Getting ready to send that leaf on a ride down the cascades.

The little falls and the park and the trails were all beautiful.

My Jr Explorer and future hiking guru.

Our one and only Massachussets State Park stamp... for now at least.

(P.S. - Where was my hubby? Off doing his Best man duties with the groom of course!)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reviving the All-American Road Trip

Twelve-plus hours in the car. With two kids.

(Cue the sounds of all parents groaning together)

An extended family car trip. For pretty much every parent I talk to lately, this scenario ranks up there with root canals and proctology exams. It may be an occasional necessary evil, but something to be avoided whenver possible.

Honestly, I'm one of them. But for good reason, I think. There's a bad gene somewhere in my oldest son, and when he was an infant he HATED riding in the car. He was colicky, fussy and quite the screamer. "Take him for a ride in the car!" People would tell us. "He'll fall right asleep." Umm, no. The sreaming only got louder. What a set of lungs a 4 month old can have! So car trips became a torture worse than anything the Chinese military could dream up. Even seven years later, we are still haunted by those memories and feel a sence of dread whenever packing up the car.

My oldest boy as an infant caught in a rare moment
of smiling. Funny, we have no pictures of him in the
car. I must have been holding my ears instead of the
camera at those times.

Fortunately, our second child wasn't affected by the rouge non-car loving gene. He's never been one to fall alseep instantly at the slightest hint of a motor's hum, but at least he didn't make us think we were the most evil parents on the planet for strapping him into a car seat. Still, with two young children in the backseat of a car without one of those fancy DVD systems, travelling more than three to four hours away was almost out of the question for our family.

My, how things have changed.

I was recently reminicing a little with a fellow Cub Scout dad. We found we both have fond memories of the family car trips of our youth. A clunky station wagon, silly made-up car games with siblings, maybe some song singing and coloring books. There were no seat belt laws for kids that we knew of, so generally we'd ride in the "way-back" where there were no seats at all, much less belts. My parents would put a couple sleeping bags back there for cushioning and we'd laze the day away, playing and napping and watching the "upside-down movie" by laying on our backs and looking up through the rear window. Those were the days...

Old steel bridge somewhere in New York State.

I guess my rosy-colored memories don't account for the arguing over who-is-on-who's-side that I'm sure my sister and I did, or the frustration of my parents being lost and trying to figure out the map while we kids whined about being hungry or bored or needing to use the potty (or all three at once). The only unpleasant memory I have of a car trip was the extrordinarily hot summer we first went to Cape Hatteras. did I mention our station wagon did not have air conditioning and had faux leather seats? Sticky is a good word to describe that particular flashback. Ewwwwww.

Now, we have done some road trips already with the kids, but not without a certain amount of trepidation. Usually its been for a good unavoidable reason, like a wedding or important family visit. When planning our regular family vacations, I generally try to keep within a four-hour radius unless we have plans to simply fly there. That's been about as much as I can reasonably handle in keeping the whole family from decending into mayhem. This most recent trip of ours was to Massachusetts from our home in Virginia. Over 12 hours cocooned in the car, the longest we have ever yet attempted. And to make it worse, we only stayed in MA one full day, then it was back on the road for a 12 hour drive home. Oh, and I should mention my mother-in-law was in the car too. Talk about crowded. Kill. Me. NOW.

Country road in western Mass.

But to my surprise, the trip really wasn't that bad. In fact, my biggest complaints would be the senceless routes our TomTom took us and the ache in my back after all that time without good lumbar support. Those dumb (read the sarcasm here people) seatbelt laws that keep my kids forceably chained to one place finally didn't seem to affect our two boys much. At ages 7 and ALMOST 4, there is something better than license plate scavenger hunts and upside-down movies to keep the kids occupied. This may be the only time I'll say it, so mark these words: Thank you, Nintendo, for inventing the DSi.

Sorry Mom & Dad, but you were better parents than I. Yes, I resort to plugging in the electronics to enjoy the ride in peace, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Between their DS games and Leapster games and the portable DVD player we (finally) got for Christmas a couple years ago, there was not one instance of "I'm booooored" to be heard. In fact, they didn't even touch the coloring and activity books I brought as backup. Now don't get in a huff, they did not play video games for 12 hours straight, there were breaks. But my sanity was on the line and on *some* occasions, being plugged in can be a real blessing.

Pretty river view from the car window, maybe in Pennsylvania?

Of course, that 12 hours is total kid-trip time. It includes multiple stops at rest areas, a picnic lunch to let the kids have a good leg streatcher, and dinner along the way. On the way back I even dared to plan a real stop along the way. Just like the stops of old along Route 66 to see giant balls of string and other random items of interest, I decided before we embarked that we were going to try and make a real American trip out of this speedy three-day jaunt, and put a big star on the map for Steamtown National Historic Site. For the kids, this was probably the best and most memorable part of the trip, and one stop I am so happy we chose to make. (More about the awesomeness of Steamtown in another post!)

Boy heaven.

So with a successful, lengthy, whirlwind all-American road trip under our belts, I think I'm going to expand our family vacation radius by a few hours. Who knows what kind of fun adventures we'll be having next year as we venture farther away from home near Richmond, VA? Just as long as there's some electronics in the back seat, I think we could even tackle a 14 hour drive to Disney World! Well, maybe. But this time I'll bring a back pillow and a DS of my own.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Creepy Halloween 'Gum Ball' Spiders!

Ugh. Gum balls. Generally detested by those unfortunate enough to have a Gum tree in their yard. But last night these annoying little seed carriers got a creepy Halloween makeover at our Cub Scout den meeting!

Halloween means many things to many people, and some parents may not appreciate crafts involving witches, skeletons or monsters, so this creepy looking spider is something that can be universally enjoyed by all the boys and parents. After all, what boy doens't like bugs and spiders?

I can't take full credit for this craft idea, I did see it somewhere else but for the life of me can't remember where. Just something that stuck with me in one of my many late night web surfing marathons. Without the ring they are a neat decoration to put on a table or in those fake cobwebs that are so popular for spooky home decorating. But I decided that this craft would make an awesome Halloween themed neckerchief slide, and I think it went over quite well with the boys!

New! Scroll to bottom for printable directions...

Step One: Go to your backyard or local park and spend 30 minutes bent over with a plastic bag looking for the narliest, spikiest gum balls you can find. You will need 2 balls for each child or decoration you are making. Add three bonus points if you get your kids to help on the hunt, add two bonus points if your kids are outside playing while you are hunting, add 5 bonus points if you stay outside to enjoy the fall weather even after you've collected enough gum balls for your craft. Oh, you didn't know we were playing a game? Silly me, perhaps you should be...

Step Two: Use hot glue to glue two balls together. Because of the spikes, this may take a lot of glue. Let set before going to next step.

Step Three: This is optional, but I liked the effect. Take the glued sets of gum balls outside and spray paint them black or whatever color you are making your decorations. Other fun choices would be a spooky purple, ugly green, or Halloween orange. Take a short walk around the neighborhood to look at the chaning leaves while you wait for the paint to dry.

Step Four: This is the remaining prep work to do before the meeting if you are making a Cub craft. You'll need a bunch of chenille stems, the type that has four puffy sections per stem. For my craft I used black so we'd all look the same, but feel free to use other festive colors. These you will cut up between each fluffy section. You will need 6-8 of these pieces per spider, so plan your purchase accordingly. If you are turning the decorations into a Cub neckerchief slide, you will also need some regular straight chenille stems (pipe cleaners). Cut those in half and make into circles about the size of two fingers by twisting the ends together.

Step Five: Give each boy a set of glued gum balls, 6-8 cut chenille fluffy pieces (we used six to save money and supplies, even though its not authenticly arachnid), and a circle shaped piece if you are making slides. Also put out a container of assorted googly eyes. I used two on mine but some of the boy's spiders ended up with odd numbers of eyes and look all the better for it!

Step Six: Let the boys figure out which way their spider will look best, then find holes on the sides of the balls where the seeds were. Put a dot of craft glue in the hole and push in a puffy stem to form a spider leg. Do this a few more times on each side. Bend the legs so they look spider-ish. Glue on eyes towards the top and the chenille ring to the back (if using). We found the craft glue didn't work so well on this part, so each kid brought their creation up to an adult who was manning a hot glue gun and instructed her where to put the pieces.

Let dry and they're ready to wear! Since this was one of our early Wolf den meetings, we left the spiders on the tables and went outside to practice flag folding and flag ceremonies. The boys being boys, they got a big kick out of trying to creep out their parents and friends with their spooky creations. The craft goes very fast (you really do most of the work at home, the boys stuff is very easy), so its perfect for fitting into a busy fall meeting schedule. I can't wait for our boys to show up at the end of the month Pack meeting wearing their creepy six-legged pets on their necks!

Below is the supply list for 10 spider creature slides. If you make this creation yourself, please let me know how it turns out or send me a picture! I'd love to see other scary critters!

Spider Slides (makes 10)

20 large prickly gum balls
5 regular chenille stems (pipe cleaners), black or color of your choice
15 chenille stems with the four fluffy parts (or 20 if doing 8 legs)
Package of assorted small googly eyes
Hot glue
Craft ("Tacky") glue
Spray paint - OPTIONAL

Download printable directions here!

(Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required for viewing)

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Review: National Parks With Kids

Get Kids Outdoors Book Review:

Open Road's Best National Parks With Kids
Paris Permenter & John Bigley

Let me just start by saying that I have recently become a National Park Nut. Yup. Certifiably crazy for them. That being the case, any book with the words "National Parks" in the title is probably going to get a good review from my brainwashed, um, I mean, well saturated brain.

If you're a National Park freak and outdoorsy science-minded mom like me, then you need to have your fingers rush to the nearest online book seller and order this book up, stat. If, however, you are a casual outdoor family or perhaps only have plans to visit one or two parks any time in the forseeable future, then I still highly recommend this book, but instead you may want to actually get in your car and visit your nearest library. Be warned though, once you pick up this book, you may find yourself making a bucket list for your 6-year-old!

It was our family's trip to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons this summer that really sealed the deal on me becoming a National Park fanatic. At both parks the kids had an incredible experience seeing the sights and the animals and earning Junior Ranger patches. Plus, I picked up a National Parks Passport book and so far it has far too few stamps for my taste. So now I find myself buying books titled "National Parks with Kids" and trying to figure out when our next big trip will be.

The family at the Gardiner entrance of Yellowstone National Park, July 2010

But enough about my fantasies, on to the book...

This is not a huge in-depth volume on every detail of every National Park. More like an overview, the book highlights 21 of the best parks to do with a family that includes young-ish children. Though not specifically geared toward any particular age, I would say that it is especially good if you have children between the ages of 4-12. Obviously younger and older kids will still have lots to do at these parks, but the types of activities mentioned in the book lend themselves best to this mostly elementary school age group. I had to concur with most of the author's choices of parks for kids. If you are able to visit every park in the book, your kids would get to experience a world of alligators, glaciers, caves, coral reefs, gushing geysers, dinosaurs, volcanoes, Native American culture and American history, just to name a few.

Each park section includes a general map of the park and subsections with titles like "Are We There Yet?" for directions and "What's There To Do Here?" for a list of kid-friendly tours, drives, hikes and activities. The latter section also lists special ranger programs or Junior Ranger projects that may be available at that park. A wonderful piece of information to have if you're patch-happy like my boys and I are. When applicable, the writers also feature a "Where Are We Going Next" section for the parks to mention other nearby noteable destinations that your kids will also enjoy, some of them even being other NPS destinations! The authors, who have been to most if not all these parks with their own families, also can't help but point out which parks they have special personal ties to, a nice touch for those who might be on information overload and need help choosing just one or two vacation spots.

Information on the major sights, how long you'll need to see them, and how to get the best experience for your time and money buck are all well covered in this travel guide. Many of the kid-friendly activities list base prices as well so you have an idea of how expensive the trip may get. A "Where to Stay" reference is also included for each park, noting when and how many camping sites are located within park boundries (and if they have running water!) and where and how far other hotel, motel and cabin rentals are for those that enjoy the creature comforts.

This is a great book to pick up if you're interested in travelling to some National Parks and are either making a list, like me, or just trying to figure out which one would be your best best for the family. With 21 parks to cover, it is not a comprehensive guide to any of them. I'd consider it light reading and easy to flip through to get to the places that most interest you. Throw it in your tote bag and bring it out whenever you have a few boring minutes to fill and start dreaming about your next family vacation.

As far as travel guides go, this is a good entry-level book to have on the shelf. The photos are small and somewhat sparse throughout the book, but the ones included are beautiful and often show kids enjoying the experience. My advice would be use this book as a starting point to plan an adventure or two, then go out an buy a detailed book on the park(s) you plan to visit. For around $11-$13 bucks though, this is an excellent resource to start your own National Park mania or fuel your existing addiction. Maybe I'll run into you at one of the MANY parks on my list one day. Happy travelling!

Sunset Over Pamlico Sound

One of the best beach sunsets I've ever witnessed, and we happened to have an incredible built in view. Taken Sept 4, 2009 in the village of Avon on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. One of our favorite family destinations. And yes, this is my laptop's background walpaper.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Contest: Name Fred's Friend

Meet Fred.

Fred has recently come out of the cave under our house where he lives most of the year to make his month long appearance in our front yard. Fred has been with us for many, many years but only aquired his friendly name last year when he was a little spooky looking for our then 2-year-old. Its a silly name, but it stuck nicely and our now 3-year-old has already re-introduced him to all the neighborhood kids, in case anyone forgot his name. Fred's favorite pastimes are chillin' in the cool fall weather, lording over his graveyard skull buddies and watching over the kids as they play in the cul-de-sac. Fred loves the out of doors even though he only spends about 30 days a year out in the fresh air, and he especially loves spending time with the neighborhood kids out there! He's a great fellow and we are proud to have him in the family.

About two years ago we had another addition to our fall family. Meet Fred's good friend who is currently in need of a name. Fred's friend (say that 10 times fast!) enjoyes hanging out in trees, scaring the bejeesus out of kids as they walk down the driveway in the dark, and letting his cares float away in the breeze. Fred's friend is a little less friendly than Fred has proven to be, but we love him just the same. And even though he can seem especially spooky to unsuspecting kiddos who don't notice him until the last minute, he really is just a nice guy who enjoys his short break from the garage loft to sway in the trees during the best month of the year.

This year I'm thinking Fred's friend needs a name of his own. So here it is, the Name Fred's Friend contest. Please reply to this post with ONE NAME ONLY that you think best suits this tree hanging ghoul. You may include a short explanation if you think your chosen name needs one, but please only reply once. You may 'vote' for someone else's name if they replied with one you like. The winner of this fabulous contest receives a wonderful 'Thank You' from yours truly, their name (and site, if you have one) mentioned in this blog at the unveiling of nameless's new moniker, and the everlasting glory of having christened the scariest member of the Scott family.

Can't wait to see what you all come up with. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fall in Love With Fall again in Virginia

After hearing that I went to the mountians last weekend for LNT training, no one asks about the training. At least, not at first. FIRST they ask if the leaves have started changing color there yet. Yes, it must be the onset of fall in Virginia, when we all crane our necks from car windows waiting to see that first hint of yellow in the trees. We find ourselves scouring the internet for things to do outside to enjoy the FINALLY cooler, less humid weather. As an east coast girl, fall has always been the ultimate season for enjoying the great outdoors and the full beauty of nature.

Fall just beginning at Shenandoah National Park, Oct 2, 2010

So in response to the many questions, yes, there was a little bit of color starting to show in the leaves, but just a hint was mixed in with the regular vibrant greens. Actually, there was already a great deal of brown dead-looking trees there too though. the Shenandoah Mountians have always struggled with having a completely healthy tree canopy, so it could be those trees were just standing dead anyway, or it could be that they had been so stressed by this summer's heat and dry weather that they went and dropped their leaves rather than put on the display we wait so anxiously to see. According to some 'foliage experts' (like this Penn State one), the color potential for fall 2010 is lower than normal due to the intense summer temps and drought. Obviously there will still be some beautiful colors to see as we progress further into the fall season, but from the looks of things it won't be a banner year for fall colors this time.

But Virginia will always be an excellent place to visit in the fall no matter what the foliage forecast is for the year. So for those neck-craners who are tired of boring green and getting antsy to see some really vibrant yellows, oranges and reds dotting the landscape, I have a couple website recommendations for you to bookmark. The first is a site I hope you already know about if you live in or plan to visit Virginia. It is the Virginia Tourism site at, but did you know they have a special section of pages dedicated just to fall foliage, travel and crisp outdoor adventures? Everything from apple picking places to best scenic autumn drives to wine tastings to quick camping get aways. Its a great place to start planning your weekend fall celebration.

Fall near Quantico, VA, October 2009

My second suggestion of sites on fall tree viewing is a little less flashy than the Virginia is for Lovers tourism site, but has some different and just as interesting information. The Virginia Department of Forestry at has a page dedicated to fall foliage in the Commonwealth. Here they post a weekly foliage report (still mostly green at this writing) and information about expected peak color dates, which trees turn which colors, more fall driving tours and information on why the leaves change color (its okay, we know you've forgotten that middle school biology lesson so go ahead and look). If you are hoping to be out to catch the leaves at their best, the DOF site is a good place to check the reports and find out if your planning calendar is on target!

Fall hike with the Tiger Cubs, Nov. 2009

So go with me now to that buried box in the closet, take out your comfy-coziest fall colored sweater, shake out the wrinkles and the moth balls and put it on as you head out the door on your autumn adventure. Plan a trip to the mountains and forests of Virginia and fall in love with fall all over again this year. Even if the trees don't put on quite the show that we've come to love and expect, you'll be sure to enjoy the outstanding fall air and your favorite sweater will show the trees that they have competition to aspire to beat for next year's display. Fall will always be my favorite season. Post a picture of your autumn escapades and send me the link, I'd love to see you and the trees at your fall finest!

Horseback riding, one of our family's common fall activities, Nov 2009

Welcome the Newest Member of the LNT Training Force: Me

This past weekend I got to spend learning more than I ever could have in books about Leave No Trace outdoor ethics. It was a truly wonderful, but COLD, experience and one I'm so glad I decided to be a part of.

The instructors, both LNT Master Educators, were incredibly well versed and experienced at both teaching and spreading LNT principals and, even better, at practicing them when out in the backcountry across the country. As for the participants, I was so pleased to be surrounded by people with such similar values and experiences as I have. I almost felt out of place surrounded by such people as a woman who had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and part of the Pacific Coast Trail, a man who had been a seasonal Ranger and Forest Fireman at Crater Lake, and another young woman who had hiked signifigant trails and parks in almost every state in the US and many other countries, including Hawaii, Alaska, Jamaica, and various South American countries. Suddenly my trip to Yellowstone and the meager day hikes I do locally with my kids didn't seem like the proud accomplishments I had thought they were. But, there was also a woman who hiked and camped with her son's Boy Scout troop but had never backpacked, and none of the more worldly experienced hikers looked down on us less active ones at all, so the varied company and experiences really was excellent.

Student led session to start off the class, covering pricipal #1: Plan Ahead (pretty much like the Boy scout motto "Be Prepared")

As for the 'train the trainer' part, I learned so many new ways to approach not only teaching people and kids in a formal setting like a camp station, but also how to gently spread the ideas and ethics to strangers we might find on the trail doing somthing less than acceptable. Since each portion of the class was student-led, we got to experience many different teaching styles and audience types, which I found especially useful to take back to the diverse world of Scouting. The books and resources we recieved to take with us were very well written and something I feel I will actually use, not file away to never be read or brought out again. Seeing many of the activities played out in real life was also invaluable, especially for some activities where we weren't always sure what the lesson was really supposed to be. And to think, I was leery of going since I'm not currently an avid back-country camper and wasn't sure I'd learn anything I could take back to my Cub Scouts. My only regret was not bringing long underwear - it was quite a bit colder than any of us really anticipated!

The weekend was incredible for other reasons too. I arrived in Shenandoah National Park early on Friday to go for a hike on my own. I decided on the Lewis Falls Trail, but I got a little frightened before I started the hike and ended up leaving this note in my car (I blurred out the numbers here, but of course they were there for my hike!). I guess the stories about missing and sometimes dying hikers, especially the recent one about Ed Rosenthal in Joshua Tree (which thankfully had a happy ending) got me really worried about the fact that no one would find me if something went wrong. Perhaps it was a little silly, but without cell service I'd rather be accused of being silly than being found dead 10 days later, or maybe never, becuase no one knew where to look for me when I went missing. With that piece of mind, I had a wonderful hike with peace and quiet like I hadn't experienced in a very long time. The cool air and recent rain and leaves just starting to turn their various shades of yellow and red made for a perfect start to my weekend of nature appreciation and conservation.

I'm almost ashamed to admit how many years it has been since I'd been to Shenandoah national Park, even though it just over 2 hours away. Going back was almost like experiencing the beauty of our gentel rolling mountains for the first time, except that I had an incredible sence of coming home again. I'm already planning my next trip up there, which unfortunately will have to wait until next year. Perhaps I'll get lucky and be able to get into the Master Educator class that will probably be held there next spring. Because I certainly will be continuing on my LNT education and taking the next step in spreading the message to more people, Scouts and general public, here in the Richmond, VA area. Even though we were told we're not actually "certified" because the word certification implies some amount of backing from the LNT center, I was still proud to get the pin stating that I am an official un-official LNT trainer and look forward to getting the non-certified certificate in the mail.

But even so, if anyone has need of someone to teach how to tell a durable surface for walking and camping, how to best hang a bear bag, how to 'take care of business' in the backcountry, how much weight a backpacker should carry, why your dog should be kept on a leash, what colors to wear when hiking, how to dispose of wash water and anything else that might be ethically questionable in the wilderness, just give me a shout. I'm available for Scout camps, den meetings, weddings, birthday parties, Pow-Wows, training seminars and bat mitzvahs. Looking forward to spreading the word of using natural places responsibly and LNT at your next meeting or marriage celebration! ;)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hansel and Gretel Need LNT Training

This weekend I'm headed to the majestic Shenandoah National Park to spend a few days in the beautiful mountains learning about Leave No Trace and getting certified as a LNT Trainer. I could not be more excited. Spending my days in 'class' surrounded by newly changing autumn leaves and crisp mountian air with others who share my passion for the outdoors will be a tough challenge, but its one I'm ready and willing to face.

As a kid I always knew the old phrase "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." What good hiker doesn't? Later I heard about Leave No Trace but figured it was just a way to make that old basic concept more well known to new outdoor explorers. In a way, it is, but it wasn't until I actually started working on the Leave No Trace Cub Scout Award with my Den that I found out just how big and involved their mission was. The more I read up on the foundation of the program, the more I was hooked and knew I wanted to be a part of it. Though I have been informally teaching Leave No Trace principals to kids for almost a year now, its high time I get properly educated and certified to lead real sessions with adults and children in our community.

As part of the training, I have been tasked with leading a session for the group on LNT principal #6: Respect Wildlife. I can instruct as if for any age and experience level I wish, so you can be sure my peers will be told they are a group of 6 to 10 year old boys. After my teaching session I will be critiqued on my material, presentation, teaching style, and the knowledge I was able to pass on. That part I'm honestly not so excited about, but I will try to take their constructive critisism to heart and use it to better my presentations in the future. Yes, I will.

I have some ideas up my sleeve to teach about respecting wildlife that I think will be fun, but my plan is to first start off with a little story. Here is the gist of what I've come up with to open my session, I hope you like it. It could actually be slightly expanded and used as a campfire story for young children as well, with bonus points to the story teller for having a good lesson embedded in it. Constructive critisism is welcome. Really. But, well, try to be gentle, it is my first time sharing a made up story like this. Just remember, it for young kids and meant to be told orally, the feeling of which I have tried to capture in the writing style. Feel free to use the story or idea if you wish, just do me the favor of giving me credit please.

"Hansel and Gretel, Version 1.5"

Has anyone here ever heard the old fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel? Well, if you haven't heard of it, it is a story about a young boy and his sister who walk through the woods and mark their trail by leaving breadcrumbs behind them. Eventually, they find a witch living in the woods, whose home is made up entirely of gingerbread! BUT, what happened to Hansel and Gretel and the witch is not the part of the story I want to tell you about today, you can find that in any fairy tale book. Today I'm going to tell you about what happened to that trail of breadcrumbs that they left behind.

The animals of the forest could smell those delicious bread crumbs from miles away, because animals have much keener noses than we people do. So the animals came sniffing around to see what the yummy smell was. When the squirrels and racoons and foxes and even bears found the bread crumbs, they couldn't help but eat them up since they smelled so good. The bread crumbs tasted good too, so the animals went looking for more crumbs left on the trail. Soon there were no bread crumbs left. Hansel and Gretel weren't going to be very happy about that when they found out, but the animals weren't very happy either. They really liked those bread crumbs and had never had anything like them before. So the animals of the forest went looking for more places to find breadcrumbs like those.

The squirrels decided to follow other people that hiked along the paths, hopeing they would drop more tasty bread and food items. Sometimes the hikers just ignored them, but sometimes there were mean kids that would throw rocks or chase the squirrels and make the poor things very scared.

The racoons liked to roam around at night, and there weren't many hikers out in the dark, so they decided to go to where the people live and see what they could find around the houses. Those racoons found wonderful stashes of food in big plastic bins that the people seemed to call 'trash cans.' The racoons had fun tipping over the cans and eating all the yummy trash treats they found inside. But the people didn't seem to like this at all, and soon began poisoning the trash so the racoons got sick. Some people even tried to shoot the racoons to make them go away. But the racoons loved all the new people food so much and it was so much easier to get than the food in the forest that they kept coming back to the trash cans, even if it meant some might die.

The foxes also prefered to come out at night, but they were a crafty bunch of animals and thought they could do better than the racoons. So the foxes would sneak onto farmers lands and steal all sorts of good things to eat. They didn't find many breadcrumbs to steal, but they did find yummy eggs in the chicken coops and lots of corn and vegetables. Of course, being stolen from made the farmers VERY angry, so the farmers set traps to catch the crafty foxes and get rid of them and thier stealing for good.

But the bears, being the biggest animal in the forest, didn't feel like being sneaky or following hikers patiently to find tasty human food. Instead, they helped themselves to all the treats left in people's campsites right there in the bears own woods. Of course, the campers were very afraid of the huge bears that came to their tents and were worried that the bears would hurt one of them, so the Park Rangers were called in to remove the bears from the forest. The bears were caught and sent very far away from their homes, some even to zoos and other countries where they never got to see their home forest again.

The animals that had tasted the bread crumbs had other problems, too. Sometimes they would eat something that smelled and tasted good, but made the poor animal very, very sick. This was bad, but not bad enough for the not sick animals to stop eating the people food. Eventually, they loved the human food so much, and for a while had such an easier time getting it, that they forgot how to hunt and gather their own regular forest foods. Then a time came that the people stopped coming into that part of the forest, or stopped putting their trash where the animals could find it, and all the animals that had come to rely on the new human food suddenly didn't have it anymore. And they didn't have their own animal food anymore becuase they'd forgotten how to find it. Many of the animals either died or left the forest in search of new sources of easy food.

So now, when you walk the path that Hansel and Gretel walked through the woods, you may not see any animals at all. The forest is silent and sad for the animals that went away. And that is why we teach people now about Leave No Trace and respecting wildlife by not feeding them our own people food. Perhaps is Hansel and Gretel had learned Leave No Trace, we would still be able to enjoy the sound of the squirrels in the trees, the glimpse of a fox at dusk, or the tracks of a bear in the mud by a stream on that trail that the children took. So remember, when you are out exploring your neck of the woods, be sure you Leave No Trace, not even a crumb small enough for a mouse. Taking your food and trash with you will help keep the wildlife wild and a part of the nature we love.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Get Away From it all at James River State Park. WAY Away...

In many ways I am lucky enough to live just south of Richmond in Chesterfield County, VA. Lucky because not only do I have a GREAT State Park almost around the corner (Pocahontas State Park), but also because there are at least half a dozen other wonderful State parks all within a 1-2 hour drive in almost every direction. What's more, the types of landscapes and ecosystems of these parks offer a wide variety to suit your whim.

Lately my whim has been to go to the mountains. The cooling air and hints of fall weather have me itching to get away. But with all the kids activates and sporting events its almost impossible to get away for more than one weekend night. I knew a long drive to the mountains for a quick one-night jaunt wasn't the ideal way to spend our limited time. So instead, last weekend we decided to head to James River State Park and check it out for the first time. The park is west of Richmond, towards the mountains, and I figured it was sure to at least feature some nice rolling hills as we entered the piedmont region of the State.

By the directions I had, the park was 60 miles west plus 7 miles down a country road. We figured a little over an hour to get there. After an hour and a half of driving a long road through things that could hardly qualify as 'towns' and a sign telling us we were leaving Buckingham County (where the park is located), it was time to get out the map and Tom-Tom and start questioning our directions. Luckily we had not passed it, and soon came to the road sign pointing the way to the park. Fifteen minutes later we pull into the park, very relieved to have found it and wondering where in the WORLD the nearest store might be in case we forgot something. This was by far the most remote State Park we'd been to yet.

But remote was good. Maybe it is because peak summer season has now ended, but there were relatively few other campers around the park, and with three separate camping sites, we were very well spread out. My family chose to stay in the primitive Branch Pond sites, a very quiet area of seven nicely spread out tent sites with adjacent trails. My only complaint would be that we had to get in the car and drive to the nearest drinking water source to fill our water cooler. I know primitive means no water on site, but a spigot within reasonable walking distance would sure have been nice.

In our short overnight visit we explored the park, threw rocks into the river, watched some kayakers paddle by, hiked some lovely trails surrounded by trees just beginning to show a tinge of autumn yellow, said hi to every passing horse and rider we saw, made ooey gooey s’mores, listened to owls calling in the night and generally relaxed and enjoyed the incredible natural peace of the park. It was a trip well worth the slightly longer than expected drive. As we drove away down the winding road that travels by riverside farmland, I knew this one night trip was only the first of other excursions to James River State Park. It will go on our short list of places to get away – far away – from it all, while still remaining at an easy, kid-friendly distance.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Take a Walk to 3 Million Years Ago at Chippokes State Park

This summer the boys in my Cub Scout rising Wolf dens worked on their geology belt loop and pin. Boys and rocks and volcanoes and fossils just seem to go together naturally, and I knew they'd enjoy working on the activities. We made pet rocks, brought in mineral samples from products around our homes, made working volcanoes and casted a full dinosaur skeleton in plaster. As predicted, it was a LOT of fun, but one of the best things we did was take a field trip to a nearby Virginia State Park to take a trip back in time. Chippokes Plantation State Park may be known for its working old-style plantation farm, but we were interested in something even older than the days when cotton grew in fields that were plowed by teams of horses.

Hugging the banks of the James River where the water runs wide as it approaches the Chesapeake Bay, Chippokes State Park is a lovely area with beautiful water views. And three million year old fossils. Yup, fossils right here in the middle of Virginia. And you don't even have to dig to see them.

We began our field trip by meeting the hunt leader in the parking lot near the old river house. The gentleman (forgive me for not getting his name!) is a retired William and Mary professor who vollunteers at the park for fun on the weekends. He showed his impressive collection of fossils, many of which were found right there in the park, and then proceeded to give me, the Leave No Trace trainer, quite a shock. He told us the fossils were strewn out everywhere underfoot along the river bank, and we were allowed to take as many as we wanted home with us. I was floored. The kids were excited. We had not come prepared with bags to take things home, but luckily many of the parents had something in their cars, so off the boys went on our hunt with bags in hand.

Strewn about is right. Millions of years ago, all of Virginia was under a deep sea. The fossils we could see everywhere were of the seashell type. Many looked similar to scallops and clams of today, but were generally bigger and, shall I say, somewhat more prehistoric looking. The river banks are slowly eroding, and the sand cliffs that are being formed show a geologic history of Virginia, including layers of fossils poking out of the soil. The river's narrow spits of beaches were coverred in these fossil shells that had been uncovered due to the errosion.

The boys (and I admit, adults too) had a ball running about the beach collecting every cool thing they could find. We were told that if we look carefully we might find a coveted black sharks tooth mixed in among the ancient shells. Try as I might though, I only managed to find a crooked back from bending over so long, no one went home with any sharks teeth that day.

Even though the boys had the blessing of the trail guide to take as many fossils as they wished, the parents and I tried to rein in the collecting. True, it appeared there would be an almost never ending supply of the shells as the banks continues to erode, but we adults felt that taking them from the river in buckets-full must somehow have an impact on the condition of the area for the future. Those shells probably become hiding spots for river creatures and break down into beach sand one day. I personally was torn by my excitement of briging home a three million year old object and my burdgeoning Leave No Trace ethics. In the end, the boys got to take home a few good fossils each, and I took a few to show those in the Dens that couldn't make the trip.

The boys show off some of their best finds.

The Cubs headed for home, happy as little clams (fossil clams?) and the family and I headed back towards the visitor's center for a picnic dinner and some play time on the park's two playgrounds. Yes, we had to try them both. We jotted down the park's Trail Quest code and enjoyed the beautiful view across the water, trying to pick out exactly where Yorktown might be. It was somewhere right across from Chippokes. There is even a nearby free ferry that takes riders over to the historic Yorktown/Jamestown area. The beauty of the park's location and the proximity to other area attractions made us agree that we'd have to come back for a weekend camping trip sometime.

Chippokes Plantation State Park is well worth a visit. Take a stroll along the river and touch something older than you can wrap your mind around. Take a fossil, but leave more for others to find and marvel at the thought of being deep under and ocean. Look closely, maybe you'll find that lucky sharks tooth. If you find two, can you send one to me? Its all I'm missing from my collection!

View of the James River from Chippokes State Park, VA.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Graduate from Junior Ranger - Be a Scout Ranger

If you have kids and love the outdoors, you probably already know about the National Parks Junior Ranger programs which are available at almost all NPS locations across the country. While no two programs are the same (they are individually created by each park), generally the requirements are for the child to fill out a work book and attend one or more Ranger led programs. Most are programs designed to be completed in a one or two day visit to the park. Upon completion, the child is awarded a Junior Ranger pin or patch, or sometimes both, to show off their accomplishment. It is a wonderful program to get kids excited about learning, the outdoors, and to remember their trip by for years to come. I still have many Junior Ranger patches from my own childhood!

But for those overachieving Scout girls and boys looking for even more patches to add to their vests, consider checking out a lesser known program at the National Parks for Scouts of all ages. The Scout Ranger Resource Stewardship program is designed to encourage kids to do and learn even more about our country's incredible National Parks by offering a certificate for 5 and a patch for 10 hours of participation at any combination of parks. Participation can be through a service project or educational program offered at any National park. And yes, Junior Ranger requirements count as educational participation! Depending on the park, I estimate that most kids could complete the certificate hours by completeing 2 to 3 Junior Ranger badges, and could earn the patch with an additional 2 to 3 badges. Of course, vollunteering at a park clean up event or trail maintenance day for a couple hours would help diversify the child's park experience and speed up the Scout Ranger earning process!

Since the requirements can be fulfilled with a variety of activities and across more than one park, completion of the Scout Ranger program is verified with your child's 'Scouts Honor.' Information about the program and a log sheet to help keep track of hours is available here for Boy and Cub Scouts or here for Girl Scouts on the NPS website.

Encourage your kids to develop a lasting love and relationship with the outdoors and our National parks by getting them excited to earn this special award. Spread the word with your Troops and Packs to get the kids earning and learning together. Or don't. If your own child earns it on his or her own, have it presented at an awards ceremony or brought to a meeting as a show-and-tell. There's sometimes nothing better to get kids interested in earning an award than by having one child with a patch that the others then oooo and ahhhh over. You can bet those ogglers will go home and ask their parents if they can go to a National Park tomorrow and start working on their own patch!
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