Thursday, 28 June 2012

Even the Internet Can Get a Little Rusty

A couple years ago I put a few big sandstone rocks in my flower bed to fill holes that my dog dug up, and inadvertently created a nature play area.

Last week my seven-year-old announced he was going mining in the backyard. A couple minutes later I heard what sounded like a hammer on rock. Sure enough, he'd discovered that sandstone breaks really, really easily. My first thought was, "Those sandstone rocks were hard to find..." Then he held up a piece that had been stained red and asked, "What's this dark spot?"

That triggered a discussion of how the sandstone had iron in it and the red was rust (I held it next to the rusting grill on my fire pit so he could see they were the same color), why you can't see the iron, how they get little bits of iron out of rocks, how they get the rocks, what the hole looks like after they've gotten all the rocks they want and so on.

When we were done, he looked me straight in the eye and said, "You knew there was iron in your rocks all this time and you didn't tell me? Don't you know I mine for iron in Minecraft!?"

Minecraft is an online game he and his brother play where you build your own sort of world out of stuff that you find, mine or otherwise accumulate. I learned two things from this:

  1. 1. A few rocks in a garden can be a natural play area. (He also discovered that there are bugs under the rocks, so the ones he didn't break into smaller rocks were turned over onto the flowers beside them to see what was there.)
  2. 2. Computer games, in moderation and of the non-Grand Theft Auto variety, maybe aren't entirely evil. If I take a more active interest in them than just censoring and banning the inappropriate ones, maybe I can use them to engage my boys in the real world.
On the flip side, I (or more likely the rocks) infused Michael's virtual world with the real world. The fact that iron occurs in real rocks that he can touch and break into smaller rocks--in his own backyard--has led to an interest in where man-made things come from. It's also led to a new found joy in hitting hard things with a hammer to see what's inside them, but that's another blog post...or counseling session...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Burns Ridge

Over the last couple of years leading kids hikes, two of the things I learned are:
  1. I don’t give kids enough credit. They can handle a lot more than I think can, whether that’s in terms of kilometers, meters of elevation gain or the steepness of a trail. Kids hikes don't have to be easy hikes.
  2. Picking a trail that ends somewhere fun like climbable boulders makes the entire experience more fun for kids and helps motivate them.
I put both of these learnings into practice on Father’s Day this year. The previous Sunday I’d scrambled 700 m to the high point of Burns Ridge in Kananaskis. A little over halfway up, I looked down to find a couple of big rocks with fossilized clams in them. I checked the altimeter on my watch: we’d ascended 400 meters from the trailhead. After snapping some photos I continued up the ridge.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

Back home, I told my seven-year-old and 12-year-old sons about my find. They thought it was cool, wondered how clams got up on a mountain (answer: what’s now a mountain used to the seabed), then kept on playing. I knew they would have a blast searching among the rocks for fossils, but I wasn’t sure if bushwhacking and scree slogging 400 m up a steep and trail-less mountainside beneath the "ridge" part of Burn's Ridge would make for a good kids hike.

I decided to risk it. After all, if the hike/bordering-on-scramble was too much, we could turn around and find somewhere else to play. With the exception of one boy and his dad who turned around because they were freaked out by the thought of going off trail (dad had phoned 20 minutes before the hike to see if he could join, and he clearly hadn’t read the hike description beyond the title: “Kids Hike—Fossil Hunting Expedition on Burns Ridge"), all the kids seemed to enjoy the route finding and what was for them an extreme experience. Michael, my seven-year-old, looked proud of himself as he firmly planted my ice axe in the scree above him and pulled himself up for most of the way. 

After a couple hours and maybe 250 meters of elevation gain, we popped out of the trees to find a scree slope that was literally littered with fossilized clams. While the other adults ate lunch, myself and all five kids scattered across the scree, yelling when we found a particularly fine specimen. Although the boys gave me a two-way radio set that I’d been looking at for a while, their real Father’s Day gift was persevering up the side of a mountain so I could share my experience of the week before with them. The wrapping paper on the gift was watching the amazed looks on their faces as they slid down the scree on their bums, as if they were tobogganing on rocks without a toboggan. Which, of course, they were.

Distance: 7 or 8 km round trip
Elevation gain: Up to 400 m
Hiking/Exploring Time: 4 to 6 hours
Directions: Take the 22x to Highway 22 and head south. When you get to Turner Valley, turn right at the four-way stop and you're on Highway 546. Drive west all the way to the end, where you should find the Junction Creek day use area. Hike up the old logging road for 45 minutes to an hour, watching for a scree slope on the right that descends close to the road. Here, leave the road and bushwhack up and slightly to the left to follow the ridge up. You'll cross game trails that traverse across the slope but don't lead up. When you reach the treeline, start looking for fossils.

Click here for a driving map. 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Hiking with Kids: 7 Steps To Make Hiking Fun for Kids

This is boring. How much farther? Can we go back to the car?

When I first tried to introduce my two boys, then 5 and 10, to hiking, I heard those statements a lot. And let's be honest: walking through the trees, usually uphill, can be boring. I seldom hike on trails that don't get above the treeline, and the sooner those trails get into the alpine the better. When picking mountains or ridges to ascend, I look for ones that don't have long approaches through the trees. I'll drive for 1.75 hours to the Highwood Pass, home of Canada's highest highway, or 2.5 hours to the Icefields Parkway, both of which typically have shorter approach trails, to save a half hour or more of trudging through the trees.

Click here for kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies. 

Climbing a big grey rock half up the trail to Sparrowhawk Tarns
So what can you do to make hiking fun for kids? Here are some suggestions:
On a big grey rock overlooking the Spray Lakes
  1. Make hiking fun by making hiking fun--Pick a destination with something fun to do, like climbing on boulders or throwing rocks in a lake. This weekend I'm leading a kids hike halfway up Burns Ridge in Kananaskis. Last weekend, while scrambling the ridge with adults I found fossilized clams in a bunch of boulders. With the kids, we'll hike to just above the treeline, drop our packs, and start fossil hunting.
  2. Don't call it hiking--Once you've picked your destination, say a boulder field they can play around on, tell them you're going to play around on some big rocks. Or that it's a fossil hunting expedition, not a hike halfway up a ridge.
  3. Go at the kids' pace--Let them mosey, dawdle and do what kids do. If they stop to look at a rotting log, let them. Nothing will turn them against hiking like continually pushing them to go faster or stop taking so many stops.
  4. Take an interest in the things they take an interest in--Say the words "Wow," "Cool" and "Neat" a lot when they point stuff out. You want them to engage in your love of the great outdoors, the least you can do is engage in their curiosity and encourage their sense of wonder.
  5. Take other kids with you--This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you. It was a hard learned lesson, no matter how simple or how obvious it now seems. I've seen kids go from "I'm tired. I can't go any further" a mere five minutes from the parking lot, to running down the trail with a new-found friend within 10 seconds of meeting each other. I lead kid's hikes for the Calgary Outdoor Recreation Association, so I have a constant supply of hiking buddies for my kids. If you aren't up to leading group hikes, join a group that has kid's hikes or bring one or two of your kids' friends.
  6. Go for ice cream--I call it the post-hike bribe, and in the beginning it was one of the main attractions for my kids. They knew that if they humored me and made it to wherever I said we were going, we'd stop for an ice cream cone on the way home. Now that they have the mountain bug, they still want the ice cream but it's not the end of the world if we don't have time.
  7. Stay off their backs--Kids get cuts and scrapes and bruises. It's in their job description. At least it used to be. These days, us parents seem to spend more time worrying about keeping our kids safe than in teaching them how to be safe. Part of learning how not to get cuts and scrapes and bruises is getting them. So let them. Try not to tell them how to do everything, or to be careful of this or to watch our for that. Unless what they're doing could end in tragedy, let them do their thing and be kids. Nothing is more fun than that feeling of being free to have fun. If your kids come away from the mountains having felt that, I guarantee they'll want to keep going back.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Mountain lions and ticks and bears! Oh my!

"Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

Helen Keller

The deaths on Everest this year, and the predictable responses from armchair critics calling the climbers foolish and demanding that the mountain have ticket takers to regulate the number of climbers, got me thinking about why I take risks in the mountains, and how much risk I’m willing to take. What I wasn’t expecting were the people who asked me about exposing my children to risks by taking them hiking where all manner of bad things can happen to them.

A black bear by the side of the road near Junction Creek in Kananaskis.
Am I exposing my kids to risks? Absolutely. When we reach the trailhead and step out of the car we’ve re-entered the food chain.

When I head out in the Canadian Rockies—with or without my boys—I’m always mindful of the bears, cougars, and grumpy bull moose that we could run into. And ticks that hitch a ride and may (or may not) bring disease carrying bacteria with them. In the winter, there are hypothermia, frostbite and avalanches. In all seasons, there are cliffs to fall off, rivers to drown in, and falling rocks to dodge. There are many ways to get injured, maimed, crippled and killed in the mountains. But is it safer to not expose your children to these and other risks, or to teach them how to identify the risks and manage them?

As a kid I survived in the mountains when there were more grizzlies and no one had bear spray. I learned to identify avalanche terrain, assess conditions and make good choices. I drank out of alpine streams without a filter and without getting beaver fever. Now, my kids are also learning and doing these things. When we’re in bear country, I take the proper precautions and I teach the boys when and how to take them, as well as why. In the winter, I teach them how to dress for the cold and, for now at least, avoid avalanche terrain (although I’ve introduced avalanche safety by making a game of finding an avi transceiver buried in the snow).

Regardless of where kids live, there is more risk associated with today’s “safe”, sedentary, electronic-focused, urban lifestyle than there is with getting out in nature—a park, a path by the river, the mountains, wherever. Kids can’t learn to identify and mitigate risks in the real world by playing Wii or Minecraft, or by playing organized soccer on a well-marked field that the coach has cleared of any hazards. They can’t gain the self confidence that comes from assessing risk and deciding whether it’s too great or manageable. This is a confidence and ability to deal with risk that transfers to all aspects of their life. The opposite of this self-confidence is irrational fear. Without the knowledge that they can spot and manage risks in some aspects of their life, they can become fearful of the plethora of risks real and imagined they hear and read about, that may or may not be out there, but don’t know how to identify or deal with.

Monday, 11 June 2012

A bear, a caterpillar and a fossilized clam walk into a bar...

Fossilized clam shells at 2085 meters. A caterpillar crawling across the snow well above treeline. A bear print filling with rain water on a trail.

Fossilized clam shells on the way up Burns Ridge.
I could go on. I've been noticing a lot of the smaller things on hikes. Getting up on top of a mountain or ridge, taking in mountains stretching around me in all directions, and feeling the expanse of the world still drive me to push one foot in front of the other for hours on end, but more and more I'm able to focus on the little things in the mountains that in the past I didn't even notice. And with that micro-focus I find my sense of wonder in the alpine world expanding. It's almost like I'm a little kid again, discovering the mountains for the first time.

Not surprisingly, it's my kids that I have to thank for this. Before I began leading kids hikes in the last couple of years, I'd largely forgotten about the wonders under my feet. On the way up a mountain or down a trail, I would be focused on my footing to make sure it was secure, but I wasn't very concerned with the details of what I was stepping on, over and around. It had all become just scree, talus, boulders, roots, branches, fallen trees, puddles, streams, dirt and mud to be negotiated.

A bear track on the approach trail to Burns Ridge.
My kids gave me the opportunity to rediscover this world underfoot. Seeing them find the one piece of scree with a fossil among the millions of limestone shards on a slope, and the excitement of the find in their eyes, rekindled that excitement in me. Examining a fairy shrimp in a jar that they'd dipped into an alpine lake and pulled out with life I had no idea existed reconnected me with the life that teemed around me. Answering questions about who had laid five or six blades of grass on a rock to dry (the elusive pika, that's who) reminded me to ask myself questions big and small.

I'm no longer concerned only about the big animals, like bears, that I don't want to encounter. I'm interested in the little things that can do me no harm but can teach me so much.

(Click here for more photos of the Burns Ridge scramble.)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Little Lougheed (The Tale of No Trail)

Bushwhacking is one of those things you either hate or tolerate, but I've only met a few people who truly enjoy it. My 7-year-old son seems to be one of them.

On a recent kids hike we bushwhacked to the boulder field mid-way up way up Little Lougheed in Kananaskis. The week before, I'd literally stumbled across the boulder field while descending Little Lougheed with a bunch of grownups. On that trip, everyone was okay with bushwhacking, but I've seen some people go stark raving mad at the thought of stepping off trail. In their minds, no trail = lost. Once, we had to bushwhack up and around a small waterfall on the way from Sherbrooke Lake to Niles Meadow in Yoho. That short bushwhack put a couple people on edge. Having to cross the stream--repeatedly--without a bridge (rock hopping and log walking were the only ways across) pushed them waaaaaaay beyond their comfort zone. We were forced to turn around far, far short of our objective. Enough said.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

But kids seem to love bushwhacking. They love the freedom of not having to do as they're told, even by a path. Instead of hiking in single file, they can explore, check out brooks bubbling straight from the moss, step wherever they want. I knew Michael, Mack and the other kids on the hike were having fun, but I didn't realize that the bushwhacking was the high-point of the trip until we got home, when Michael told his mom, "There was no trail, and we were, like, is this the way? Is that the way? Are we lost?"

The smile on his face made it clear he hadn't been afraid he was lost, or if he thought he was lost fear wasn't the emotion it had elicited. So what happens between the ages of 7 and 27 that transforms bushwhacking from a grand adventure to something to be tolerated at best, an experience in shear, abject fear at worst? I guess it has something to do with whether you think walking on an invisible path that you must choose is liberating or life threatening.

Distance: About 4 km round trip
Elevation gain: About 200 m
Hiking/Exploring Time: 3 to 5 hours
Directions: Take the Smith Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail (Highway 742) south from Canmore. At the start of that highway, set your odometer to 0. In about 22.2 kilometers you'll come to a small creek that passes under the highway in a culvert. Stop by the side of the road, and hike towards the mountain (stay on the north side of the creek). A minute or two after you enter the trees, leave the trail and bushwhack slightly to the left. Eventually you'll come to the boulder field.

Click here for a driving map.
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