Outdoor Life

Cold and Crows

NWRThere were a few days last week when we flirted with spring. Squirrels and chipmunks frolicked in the yard, birds were singing, and we actually went outside without mittens once or twice. Then, mercurial as always, spring disappeared and we found ourselves back in deep cold with wind gusts between 30-40 mph. A month ago this might have been enough to send us scurrying to the couch in front of the fireplace to hide under fleecy blankets and read books, but we just couldn’t take it anymore, and so outside we went.

We trekked over to a local Wildlife Refuge. It was rough going at first; even bundled up, cold winds whipped over the open field at the start of the trail and brought tears to our eyes.  The Mancub caught a crow feather blowing down the trail, and used it to draw designs in the frozen crust of snow. He carried that feather the entire hike, clutching it tightly with his mittened hands. There were crows calling in the woods; perhaps one of them was the feather’s previous owner. We pushed past the wind and into the trees, where a little bit of shelter made a lot of difference. We trundled along for a while, accompanied by chickadees and some birds I didn’t know, until we found a beaver pond. Just before we turned around, a flock of Cedar Waxwings descended on a tangle of bushes to the side of the trail, a hopeful sign of warmer times to come.   March 19, 2015

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Play Again: New Film Focuses on Children and Nature

Do video games and increased screen time signal the impending death of childhood in our society? What happens when children are deprived of outdoor play in nature? These questions are tackled in the new documentary film “Play Again“, by Ground Productions, which is currently being screened around the country. I’m hoping it will come close to my town so I can see it soon, rather than having to wait for it to come out on Netflix. I’ve enjoyed the small clips I’ve seen so far, and was particularly chilled by some footage that shows 3 and 4-year-old kids identifying commercial logos, like Apple and XBox, but unable to do the same for a single type of plant.

It sometimes feels like an enormous battle to try and fight against the intense commercialization of childhood. We really limit what the kiddo sees in terms of television, even so-called “educational” programs, because we are trying to set habits that will lead him away from situations where he’ll watch program after program and commercial after commercial. However, we already notice that he is drawn to the screens. Sean and I are both borderline computer-holics during the week, and often spend our evenings working on our respective projects. Already we see our son trying to imitate us, grabbing at the laptop, and the remote control, and reaching for our glowing cell-phones. We will most likely have to look at limiting our own project work time to after he is in bed in order to be better role models for screen-free time. But this is our culture, and we aren’t quite sure how to walk away from it. I know that he will have friends and go other places where he’ll watch shows and play games we don’t like, and he’ll be influenced by friends to buy-buy-buy. It’s a tricky situation. We will try to counter it as much as possible with time outside, time spent creating and imagining and exploring in the woods fields and shorelines we are lucky enough to have access to.

There is a memorable quote in the clip above from the director of the Nature Conservancy, “What they do not value, they will not protect, and what they do not protect, they will lose.”  THIS is the reason we do what we do, why we get outside every chance, and bring the kiddo out into the backyard to roll on the grass, and into the mountains, despite the snow and mud and bugs. This is why we will pack him into a canoe and paddle him all over the northeast, even before he can walk: the enduring hope that he will learn to value and protect the natural world around him, despite the odds.

Here is a longer clip from the film:

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Grubs, Roots and Shoots: Inspiration from Jane Goodall

Copyright © Jane Goodall Institute of Canada

I met Jane Goodall once. I was an eager student of anthropology and had been devouring every book on primates and paleoanthropology I could find, including all of Goodall’s work. Miraculously, she came to speak at my college, and I planned to skip out of my favorite class to hear her presentation. In the week leading up to her appearance, I busily wrote out all the questions I wanted to ask her, just in case there was a chance to talk one on one. I tried to come up with complex questions, not ones that just anyone off the street would ask, oh no; these would be questions that showed I not only read her books but could offer deep insight into her findings.  I was certain it would lead to a lively and stimulating exchange of ideas, and that this would be one of the better networking moments of my anthropological career.

When the presentation ended, I hurried to the back of the auditorium to line up for her book signing. Along with every other person there. The line wrapped around the room, and it became clear to me that I was going to have about 30 seconds to impress Dr. Goodall. I was doomed. My hands got clammy and started to shake. As my turn approached, all rational thought deserted my brain. I reached out with my sticky hand, and barely  managed to choke out a strangled, “I liked your book,” before receiving a cursory thank you and being guided away by the handlers. I had choked.

All of this has little to do with today’s post except to emphasize my long-standing science crush on Jane Goodall.

"Grub the Bush Baby" is the photo story of Jane's son's first two years in the forest at Gombe.

In 1967, Jane Goodall brought her months-old son into the field with her at Gombe in Tanzania. Her careful observation of the reserve’s chimpanzees had shown her that they hunted, and often killed the young of other primates in the area, and she was concerned about the safety of her young son. In order to protect him from both the chimps and the many other wild animals in the area, she built him a cage. Both she and her son slept in it at night, and though it was painted a cheery blue and decorated with birds and stars, she received heavy criticism from a number of people about her child rearing methods. But she always maintained that “Grub”, as she nicknamed him, had led an extraordinary childhood. She took her parenting cues from the chimpanzees she studied, and noticed that, “chimp mothers… that were affectionate and tolerant raised babies that had good adult relationships and were successful community members”(Quote from Jane Goodall by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallan).  She took six years away from direct fieldwork to raise him, and he accompanied her in her research travels around the countryside.

Grub grew up running around the forests and plains of Africa, and in the process learned firsthand the value of the wild creatures surrounding him even when they were a direct danger to his family. Goodall has since formed the Jane Goodall Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting humanitarian, environmental and animal protection efforts around the globe. As part of the institute’s efforts to reach out to youth, Goodall formed a  program to help children become actively involved in influencing the world around them. Roots and Shoots encourages youth-led campaigns to effect positive change in the three focus areas of the institute, and helps kids identify how they can make a difference. Anyone can form a Roots and Shoots group, and there are thousands of children now working on service projects related to the program. For folks looking to not only get their kids out into the woods but also teach them to preserve those things they love, this program seems like a great way to get started. You can search for local groups, or learn how to start your own here.

Categories: Infants, Inspiration, Outdoor Life, Toddlers, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspiration: The Chukchi Sea at Toddler Speed

        Erin Mckittrick isn’t afraid of a little hardship.  In 2007, along with her partner Hig, she travelled the 4000 miles from Seattle, Washington to the Aleutian islands, Alaska using only non-motorized transport. Pioneers of “packrafting”, they used small inflatable rafts to ferry themselves and supplies along the coast , and hiked or skied many thousands of miles through remote terrain to reach their goal. By the end of the journey, Erin discovered she was pregnant, and stage two of their adventurous life had begun.  The duo have a greater purpose than just adventure in their outings; they formed the nonprofit organization Ground Truth Trekking as a vehicle to bring awareness to critical environmental issues, and use their expeditions to visit and talk about habitat that is on the verge of being impacted by coal mining and other human endeavors.  For them, having children couldn’t stop their expeditions. Their larger goal was too important.
          In the summer of 2010, they spent a month travelling along the Chuckchi Sea. Erin was 6 months pregnant with their second child during the journey, and carried their toddler, Katmai, on her back as they bushwhacked through thick brush and climbed scree slopes. Bear tracks, and the bear that made them, feature heavily in the video clip, and I can’t help but shiver a little when Katmai stands alongside the giant tracks in the sand. But a larger part of me envies Katmai; he will grow up with physical knowledge of  a wild and untamed landscape, and his earliest memories will be of sitting with his parents under the stars, watching them passionately pursue their dreams for a better world.
          On September 15, they are leaving for their next big expedition. For  two months, they will be  living on the ice of the Malaspina Glacier with a 7 month old baby and a 2 year old. They will have to carry all their supplies with them, as they are too far out for resupply stops other than a few plane drops. They will have to watch for grizzlies and extreme weather, as well as maintaining the basic needs of the family. Among it all, they will investigate the impact of global warming on this fragile ecosystem.
          Read more about their journey and other stories from the family expeditions here.
         Or, check out their book about their amazing journey north.

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One Trail, Two Paths


My feet don’t make much noise on the damp pine needles as I climb up the steep hill that marks the beginning of my favorite local trail, the one I used to run laps around when I lived down the street from the small state park, ten years ago. On this trail, I am used to pushing myself. The hills aren’t long, but they are steep, and covered with roots that make you dodge and weave. It takes complete focus to run top speed on a downhill stretch covered with pine roots and not wind up on your face, or worse, tumbling down a steep embankment into the tidal river.

Over the past week, I’ve returned to this park several times as part of my plan to take the Kid out for at least an hour a day to explore someplace wild. This is also part of my plan to get in pre-pregnancy shape as fast as possible so we can do some bigger hikes in the mountains this fall. The trail is longer than I remember, and the small hills are harder to climb, even though I’m walking and not running. It could be the ten pound meatloaf in a carrier on my chest, but I find myself gasping for breath and having to stop before the top of small climbs I would have powered up a decade ago. As I get further along, though, some of the old me kicks in and I find myself thinking ‘faster, go faster, push up this hill, go, go go’ . My pace quickens. My heart rate rises. I feel some of the same endorphins kicking in that used to keep me running till my feet hurt. I blow by a couple of women leisurely walking up ahead of me, and it feels good.

And then,  I slip on a root. My reflexes kick in and I do an awkward tap dance on root tops until I catch myself. I stop, heart pounding, hands shaking a little, and take a deep breath before moving on. The Kid is still asleep in his carrier, no idea how close we came to falling.

The flat parts

There is a constant battle between the old me, who wants to push-push-push for the best workout, the fastest run up the hill, the hardest route, and this strange new me, the Mom, who has this tiny little creature sleeping against her chest and completely trusting her to take care of him. I’m going on instinct these days, and my instincts are screaming at me to slow down. So I do. We finish the hike at a more reasonable pace, and he finally wakes up a little. He stares, entranced by the light in the woods, and then turns and smiles right at me.

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Laughing at Thunder

Sacked out in the Peapod

Ten minutes after I pushed the last tent stake into the dirt, the first raindrop hit the fly, immediately followed by a slow growl of thunder. Liam was lounging in his car seat a few feet away, and I ran to get him under the safety of the tent before he was soaked to the skin.  His eyes grew wide and his little arms jerked in a startle reflex at each crack of thunder. Just when I was afraid he’d break into tears and screams, his lips turned up at the corners, and a slow smile grew on his face.  Yup, this kid laughs at thunderstorms. For the next twenty minutes or so, I sang sea shanties and he listened to the rain and  watched the shadows dance across the tent fly, smiling and cooing at the strange turn of events.

The storm was also the beginning of his love affair with the tent. He woke early both mornings, but instead of fussing to be held, he babbled quietly to himself, and stared at the tent, engrossed in the patterns of moving light and shadow across the fabric. I think that he spent more awake time inside the tent than any other time during the weekend. He slept all through the hikes, the river games, the campfires (with the exception of one minor screaming fit during dinner on Saturday night, which was resolved by retreating to the tent). But the TENT, man, that was the best part. It was also the part of our first campout that had me the most worried initially, as I had visions of him screaming all night long, and angry neighbors storming into our site with pitchforks and torches.

We have a longer trip planned in a few weeks, a possible backpack, and I’m hoping this infatuation continues. In the meantime, I’ll keep on with playtime in the Peapod out in our backyard, and daily mini-hikes in the conservation lands near our house. But so far, we are off to a great start.

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Small Adventures: Moonlight and Horseshoe Crabs

A mating pair of horseshoe crabs heads into deeper waters. Sean Donohue©2011

Around the full and new moons in May and June, a strange phenomenon occurs all up and down the Atlantic Shores of the US: the spawning of the horseshoe crabs. Sean and I first discovered this event about 8 years ago when we set off on an evening paddle to watch the full moon rise over a nearby bay. As we paddled close to shore, we noticed piles of horseshoe crabs in the shallows and along the beach. On closer inspection, we realized they were mating, and thus began our fascination with these strange prehistoric animals. Where we go we’ll often see a dozen or two mating pairs in a single trip, but there are places where the crabs are more abundant, and hundreds of pairs pile up on the beach.

Horseshoe crabs look ancient, and in fact their origins predate most species on the planet. These living fossils are covered in spiny body armor and have a long, spike-like tail that they use for righting themselves if they become flipped upside-down. During Mating, the male clings to the females back, and they stay linked for  hours. The female will then dig a hole in sand or mud, and the male will fertilize the 60-120,000 eggs as she lays them. These eggs are an important food for at least 11 species of migratory shorebirds, as well as many other small shore animals. After mating, the male and female separate, and head off into deeper waters.

The mating of the horseshoe crabs is a great natural event to look for with kids. The crabs themselves are fascinating with their spiny armour and long spiked tail, and the presence of so many in one place can be awe-inspiring. Add in some moonlight and an expedition that involves flashlights, and the event becomes even more fun. It’s also a great chance to show kids how to observe nature without touching (and potentially disturbing a special moment for the crabs). If you are doing nature journaling with your kids, this is an exciting observation to write about.

Image via Creative commons

If you want to find popular spawning locations near you, the University of Delaware’s Horseshoe Crab Spawning Website  has a great page with an interactive map  that will help you plan your trip. I particularly like their tip about using a red filter on flashlights and camera flashes when doing night observations to avoid blinding the animals for an entire tidal cycle.

Categories: Ideas, Outdoor Life, Preschoolers, School Age, Toddlers, Trip Planning | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Tarantula Snacks and Wilderness “Norming”

I’m a big fan of nature documentaries in general, and  BBC Nature  productions in particular, so was excited when I stumbled across this clip from the new BBC series Human Planet. The clip shows very young kids in Venezuela foraging for tarantulas to grill up for snacks. Of course, these tarantulas are among the most poisonous spiders in the world, with long fangs and stiff body hairs that cause an itchy rash when they come in contact with skin. There are no adults present during the scene, and it is clear that these kids are experienced spider hunters who know the jungle landscape like an old friend.

A lot of people I’ve shown this clip to are horrified that these kids are allowed to “run wild”, or express pity that they don’t have the levels of education and protection that kids in western society have. Very few make the connection between how capable these kids are and how they were raised to become so independant. As I’ve mentioned before, I think it’s important to take away the idea that kids “norm” to what their upbringing allows them. A child who is taught how to survive in the jungle from an early age will become an expert at it. Place that same child in a city, and that confidence may disappear. At the same time, if we give our kids the freedom to explore the natural world around us, along with some instruction about the dangers of that world and how to avoid them, then they will “norm” to it, and become fluent in the language of their own environment.  If we overprotect them and don’t give them the chance to develop critical leadership and independance skills, they will “norm” to a lifestyle where they aren’t able to make important decisions for themselves. I’m not saying encourage your children to play with poisonous spiders; maybe start with something smaller, like what’s in the backyard, or a local tidepool, or on the hiking trail. Learn together what is safe, and what is not, and let the kids lead us for a while…

Click on the picture to check out the rest of Human Planet.

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