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!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Please DON'T Go to Hatteras Island, NC

I believe that everyone who lives in the eastern half of Virginia, north Carolina and Maryland is required by law to vacation at least once in the Outer Banks of NC. Its a rule, and if you haven't yet fulfilled this requirement then by all means you should, and soon. However, I want to urge you to visit and stay in the popular Nags Head or Corrolla beach side locations. There you can have the busy beach sceane and all the bars and restauraunts you could ever hope for while enjoying the sound of the waves against the shore... or is that the cars whizzing by? Sometimes its so hard to tell through the noise of your partying college-aged neighbors.

Whatever you do, please do not plan on spending much if any of your vacation on the island of Hatteras further to the south. Perhaps a short day trip to see and climb the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is permissable, but other than that you will want to skip this area entirely. Trust me when I say that driving through the unique and fragile landscape of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and being able to view both sound and ocean from the same sand dune are things that are quite uninteresting to most vacationers. Really, how many cranes do you want to see wading through the marshes and Pamlico Sound anyway?

There's truly not much to do and see south of Nags Head unless you enjoy quiet and peaceful days of soaking up the sun on the ocean or sound beaches. You won't find many people to talk to or beach babes to stare at over dark sunglasses. Lots of open sand even in the peak of summer makes it hard to choose the perfect waterside spot. You'll really only have the company of a few casual surfers, young families and, on the sound side especially, some friendly but quite solitary kite boarders. Trust me when I say you will miss the planes buzzing overhead with their advertisement banners and the cozy feeling of sand kicked on you every minute from the swarms of people passing by your tiny blanket area.

Shopping is much too difficult on the island as well. Chain stores are few and far between and almost nonexistant until a few years ago. Only one major grocery store means you may have to shop at a smaller locally owned market, or plan ahead to bring specialty food with you. And you'll probably have to bring food, because there are very few 'name brand' places to eat out while you're there. True, there are some smaller restaurants, most of them mom & pop shops with a weather beaten exterior, but if you can't eat at your tried and true Ruby Tuesday's you may as well just stay home, right? I know we wouldn't want to ruin our vacation by planning meals ahead of time and having to actually cook, maybe even outside on a grill, while we're supposed to be relaxing. Best to just stay on the north of the OBX were Shoney's and Outback Steakhouse are easy to find.

If you are vacationing with kids you will be even more frustrated. Yes, there is a somewhat run down water park and go-cart track on the island, but you will find no arcades or extravagant putt-putt golf courses or, God forbid, a McDonalds. In fact, there is NO PLACE on the island to get a fast food kids meal that comes with a toy. So what will your children do? Seriously, how many hours can kids actually play in the sand and water? I wouldn't know since mine have never yet told me they were bored of it, but I'm sure I wouldn't want them to be out there for more than 5 or 6 hours, tops. I guess you could always go to the shipwreck museum or take the neat (and free) ferry over to the even more remote island of Ocrakoke, or visit the one small local toy shop or pottery studio or Native American museum, or even complete the Cape Hatteras National Seashore junior ranger activities, but don't you think your kids would be better off near 'civilization' and arcades and fast food? Plus, you know they can't possibly be happy without being shuttled from one shopping mall to the next, so I advise you to not even consider the villages of Hatteras Island as vacation alternatives.

But most importantly, whatever you do, DO NOT tell your friends to head down to Hatteras for a truly relaxing vacation. We wouldn't want them to be dissapointed by having nothing to do at night besides watching the same old spectacular sunsets over the water. There's way too many empty houses and campgrounds down there too. Anyone visiting for any length of time might become lonely or actually come to feel like they are one of the unlucky few who get to enjoy such a quiet, if temporary, life. Although you can find an occasional small local spa or coffee shop, amenities are few so those who go have to make due by keeping themselves occupied by a reading good book and walking some of the trails in the park areas. Be sure your friends do not underestimate the incredible solitude they may experience if the venture past the popular OBX tourist spots. Its certainly no vacation for the faint of heart.

I urge you not to go, just skip the lower secton of the barrier islands entirely. If you don't, you might accidently fall victim to the lure of this protected national treasure and be lost to the overcrowded and over commercialized beaches farther north forever.
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