Sunday, October 26, 2014

I Couldn't Start the Fire

The survival book made it seem so easy. Crumpled paper. Twigs. Kindling. Dry wood. Light the fire. Done.

We did a fun hike with a shopping bag to collect twigs on the trail from Culler's Overlook to the RV campground.

We had our smore sticks, our marshmallows, chocolate, and our Graham cracker squares.

We put four $1 bills into the collection box and carried a bad of heavy wood back to our camp site.

I tried. And tried. And tried again.

I rearranged the paper, the kindling. I lit. I blew air on the little fire.

I blew so much breath I felt lightheaded. I thought about that guy from Survivor who passed out into his fire many years ago. Maybe he fainted because he was blowing his breath on to his fire.

After an hour of trying to start a fire, I have up and played Crazy 8's in the tent with the girls.

When I got home, I saw the large, unopened box of firestarters in the garage. Next time I will take one.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ranger Bill and the Bear Song

I remember Ranger Bill Jones from our camping trip last summer at Big Meadows. His genuine kindness and patience for children shined through immediately during his Junior Ranger program. 

So, I was happy to see Ranger Bill the first Friday we stayed at Loft Mountain.

I think the expression on his face while showing my 8 year old a bear foot print communicates how much he likes what he is doing.

Plus, Ranger Bill sang the "I Met a Bear" song. Once we got back to the car, I realized we had this song on one of our cds and we listened to it many times with new enthusiasm as we drove Skyline Drive.....but I still like Ranger Bill's rendition of the song better:

Saturday, July 26, 2014

What Is This Footprint?

One of the guests at a ranger program showed a photo on her cell phone of a strange animal track on the Simmons Gap fire road in the southern district of Shenandoah National Park.

The girls and I walked the fire road the next day not really expecting to find the print since it was 24 hours old, but my 8 year old has keen eyes and she spotted the track on the right just past the metal bridge.

While I was getting the camera ready, my 8 year old took her index and middle finger and made fingerprints in the third and fourth toes of the track. I told her not to do that next time!

Note that this track has four big toe prints and no claw marks. Bears have five toes and leave claw marks. A cat, however, has four toe pads and no claw marks since cats retract their claws until they need them.

Bobcat tracks are like house cats so they could not have been this animal. 

Mountain lion? My 8 year old is wearing a girls' size 2 shoe in this photo. Note her double sideways fingermarks on toes 3 and 4.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Evil Tick Beasts

While spending two weeks camping at Loft Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, I checked the girls and myself daily for ticks. Nearly every day, I found at least one embedded tick and many more that I flicked off before they could bite.

I remember finding a teeny tiny tick on my 3 year old and showing another mother in the bathroom. She was shocked how tiny ticks can be and told me that she had not checked herself or her children even once for ticks during their four day visit.

Even embedded ticks are easy to remove if you catch them within the first couple of hours. I take my needle nose tweezers, grab the tick as close to my skin as I can, and gently pull for up to three minutes. I wait for the tick to get tired so it comes out whole. If you pull too hard too fast, the head of the tick breaks off and stays inside your body. Yuck. 

The tick below came off my 8 year old easily because we caught it early. It had only bitten into the outer layer of the skin on her scalp. The tick is very much alive after removal and still clutching a bit of human skin in its mouth.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Witch Hazel with wasp eggs

Ranger Zak Skelton led a hike at Blackrock Summit Loop in the southern section of Shenandoah National Park. 

He knew a lot about plants and pointed out how "witch hazel" got its name. Wasps lay eggs on the leaves and they look like little witch hats, hence the name, witch hazel.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nature-Inspired Art

Nothing like spending time outdoors to get children drawing. These four were inspired by our time at the Loft Mountain section of Shenandoah National Park.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Great American Backyard Campout 2014

We attended the National Wildlife Federation's wonderfully organized Great American Backyard Campout at Sky Meadows State Park last weekend. 

This campout was very easy considering Ranger Christa Kermode (who I think should be cloned and dispatched to every state park in need of an energetic leader with good people skills) put together dinner and breakfast with the help of park volunteers. All I had to pack was the tent, our sleeping bags, and a change of clothes. The car was practically empty.

Adding to the ease of this campout was the fact that barely had to entertain the girls. The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center brought an opposum on a leash, a cuddly skunk, a snake, and a flightless screech owl. The girls did not fidget once during the entire presentation.

The Shenandoah Mountain Rescue Group showed a video called Lost But Found Safe and Sound  that tells young children what to do if they get lost in the woods. As a result of their talk, I am making waist (fanny) packs for both my girls with a space blanket, a loud whistle, and a small light source. I will remind them before every hike that in the unlikely event that they should get lost, they should stop and wait, not run around and get more lost.

The Great American Backyard Campout staff set up a table giving away binoculars to the children and crafts like creating a picture frame from sticks and pinecones and crayon rubbings of animals.

After the presentations and dinner, the rangers built a campfire and some musicians with a good sense of humor did their best to sight-read traditional campfire songs. What good sports they were to drag a bass and two banjos all the way across a field to a campfire.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Steer on the Loose

It used to be that I only prevented the girls from running ahead on the trail when we were in black bear territory. Now, I will extend that rule to all trails. 

We walked the Snowden trail at Sky Meadows last week and we deliberately chose a trail that did not enter the cow pasture because I didn't want to be surrounded by the beasts with my small children. Apparently, though, farm animals can escape their fences. 

Luckily, the park staff and the cattle ranchers reacted quickly and we didn't run into this steer alone. I'm not even sure what I would do if that happened. Hug a tree, perhaps.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Astronomy for Kids with NOVAC at Sky Meadows State Park

I like star parties. I went to my first and second star parties at Whipple Observatory in southern Arizona. I lucked into my third star party hosted by the Shenandoah Astronomical Society when I took the girls camping over spring break at Shenandoah River (Andy Guest) State Park.

By my fourth star party, I knew to bring a headlamp with a red light mode so as not to ruin my night vision with white light. I knew to bring a jacket for the cool night air and a bottle of coffee for the drive home.

Star party #4, hosted by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, was the largest I've seen. Up to forty astronomers brought their telescopes to set them up during the afternnoon so they would be ready by sunset.

Before sunset we saw the sun through a filtered lens, sunspots, solar flares. An amateur astronomer used beach balls to demonstrate how big our solar system was. 

At night we observed the craters of the moon, Mercury, the bands on Jupiter and its moons, and Saturn with its rings.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Waiting for Paw Paw Fruit at Mason Neck State Park

Two years in a row I have stumbled upon ripe paw paw fruit on Leesylvania State Park's Lee's Woods trail. This morning my 3 year old looked up at the trees near the playground picnic tables at Mason Neck State Park and called my attention to the fruit dangling in a stand of three trees grouped together in a row. She found some early paw paw fruit dangling green on the vine. We will have to keep watch on this fruit as it ripens because the animals will get it immediately if it falls.

Here's some ripe paw paw fruit from August of 2012 that shows what we are looking for:

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sky Meadows Snowden

Sky Meadows is a gem. It's exit 23 off Interstate 66, way before the turn to Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal and much closer than Shenandoah River State Park in Bentonville, but it was deserted.

Next time we go I hope the girls will be brave enough to try the North Ridge Trail. They were almost there, but then had second thoughts about encountering cattle in the wild. I don't think the cows will hurt us, but you can never be sure. I haven't seen very many athletic, aggressive cows.

We opted for the Snowden loop after the cows were too scary and we were lucky. The Snowden loop reminded me of the Merrimac Farms trail from Prince William County, wandering through light green spring vegetation and a little stream with lots of wildflowers. The trail is rated easy and is only a little over a mile, but  with two little girls, this trail took well over an hour.

The Snowden trail is very well maintained with several bridges over little creek crossings. This bridge even had a wire grate placed on it to help people not slip.   

The gift shop at Sky Meadow is the best-stocked I've seen. They have educational games, stuffed animals for creatures and birds that live in the park, camping supplies, and snacks.


I would love to come here for a Star Party if our bedtime wasn't at 8:00 PM. Apparently, there are several coming up. I want to come here again.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Powell's Creek Walk with Ranger Caitlin at Leesylvania

From July 2013

We met Ranger Caitlin Greene at the Powell's Creek trailhead for her Ecosystems Explorations walk through the forest. We weren't very far down the trail before Malia picked up a nut and started asking questions.

Ranger Caitlin identified Malia's treasure as a hickory nut that has a strong fragrance if the nut is still green and young.



Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mason Neck State Park Babies and Eagles

The girls and I took advantage of a 65 degree day and visited Mason Neck State Park on a day when the Rangers were presenting a program on springtime babies.

Ranger Kevin told us about the bald eagles that nest in the park and they have already laid their eggs. The eggs will hatch in April and the babies will be full grown by June. Adolescent eagles are dark brown and don't get their white heads until they are a grown up eagle after five years.

An eagle's grasp is so strong that if it were to land on your bare arm and squeeze it could easily squeeze you down to the bone. Sounds terrible.

This nest on top of a telephone pole is the nest the park tried to build for osprey, another bird of prey, but the ospreys rejected the nest because it was too close to people.

At the back of the Visitor Center, there is a "box of bones" so that animals can chew them up for nutrition or to use for nests.

Ranger Kevin demonstrated how eagles and osprey fly differently. The eagles fly with their wings in a straight line. The other people in attendance must have had better eyes than I did. I need binoculars to see such things.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Frozen Waves at Leesylvania State Park

While walking at Leesylvania State Park after a week of cold temperatures, I noticed that the Potomac River had frozen nearly all the way to Maryland.

Despite the signs warning of danger, this man walked far out on the frozen ice. If he had fallen through, he would have been in trouble and put his rescuers in danger, too.