Thursday, 28 February 2013

Raising Outdoor Kids: 10 ways you can tell if it's working

You're committed to raising kids who are as passionate about playing outside as you are. You buy them the gear. You sacrifice "me" time in the outdoors to take them on easier hikes, snowshoes and other kid-size adventures. You clench your teeth and live through all the "This is too hard" and "Can we go back yet?" comments. You budget money to take them white water rafting and heli-snowshoeing instead of to buy new backcountry skis for yourself. And at the end of the day, you ask yourself, "Is this working? Is it all worth it?"

Here's how I know my efforts to raise outdoor kids are working, and why I get at least as much out of it as my boys do:

1. Upon making it down the steep scree above the meadow at Ptarmigan Cirque my 12-year-old says, "I didn't have any trouble coming down that. All this hiking must be working."

2. My 8-year-old tracks some kind of big cat while we're snowshoeing and says, "I bet I'm going to study wildlife when I grow up."
3. My 8-year-old goes to a summer camp at Mount Royal University and announces, "I'm going to Mount Royal University when I'm older. They have a climbing wall."

4. Their favorite ride at Disneyland is Grizzly River Rapids because "it's like being in the mountains."

5. Standing in line at the Matterhorn in Disneyland, I have to tell my 8-year-old not to climb up the fake mountain.

6. Both of my boys say they'd rather go back to the Jean-Michel Cousteau family camp on Catalina Island than Disneyland for their summer vacation.

7. My 12-year-old says he wants to go snowshoeing for his 13th birthday instead of playing laser tag.

8. It's February, and my 8-year-old asks if we can go camping in the spring because he doesn't want to wait for summer.

9. While waiting at Panorama's activity center to go white water rafting, my 12-year-old looks at the tennis courts and says, "I'm an outdoorsy person. But not the tennis kind of outdoors."

10. When grandma asks my 12-year-old about his favorite part of going to Hawaii, he doesn't say it was playing at the beach or the hotel pool. It was caving at the Kula Kai Caverns.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Tubing with Kids at Mt. Norquay: You don't have to ski to have fun at this ski hill

Do you miss the good old days when all you needed to have fun was an old inner tube and a snowy hill? Tired of all the newfangled toboggans and sleds that cost a small fortune?

Snow tubing parks are popping up at ski hills everywhere. True, they use tubes specially manufactured for the purpose instead of recycled tire tubes, but they slide just as well. An added bonus is they usually have a rope tow of some kind to haul the tubes back up the hill, so you don't have to pull them yourselves. And the runs are separated from the people walking up, so you don't have to worry about your kids being bowled over by an out-of-control Krazy Karpeter.
So we decided to leave the skis at home and give the tube park at Mt. Norquay a try. Located at the bottom of the double-black diamond North American run, the tube park didn't look too daunting from the bottom. But after climbing up to the top and looking down, the intimidation factor set in. The North American is so named because it was once the steepest ski run in North America. When you're standing on it, you can reach out and touch the hill. Back in the day, before Norquay expanded and it consisted of a few black diamond runs (there was no such thing as double black yet; yes, I'm that old) and a couple greens, I got my 35,000er pin by completing 27 runs in one day down its quad killing moguls. Now, standing at its least steep section, I could feel the burn in my thighs and ache in my knees return. There was no mistaking the feeling: I was more than a little apprehensive at the thought of speeding down the carefully groomed run in an inflatable device. I hadn't felt that way at a ski hill in years, and it was exhilarating.

Our youngest son Michael (8) shared my apprehension, so on the first run we went together, holding onto each others' tubes until we came to a stop on the burlap covered run-out on the bottom. After experiencing the speed rush of that first run, he was ready, willing and able to go solo. Mack (12) needed no parental guidance. He was ready to go it alone right from the start and even asked the attendant to give him a spin. I was also ready to brave the hill on my own, and we spent the rest of our two-hour pass alternating between solo and tandem runs. On your own, the speed and cold air racing past your face was a blast. But tandem, the weight difference between the boys and myself turned a little nudge from the attendant into a wild, lopsided spin that bounced us off the sides of the runs. To say it was fun would be an understatement.

At the end of two hours, my quads were indeed a little tired from trudging up the hill over and over. The boys had gotten a good workout too, something I hadn't expected when we set off for our tubing adventure. But it makes sense. Walking up a hill, whether you're hauling your own tube or it's being pulled up for you, is great exercise. And how else could you convince kids to do a hill workout?

Taking a well-earned rest on a snow sofa at the end of the day.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Skiing with Kids: Getting Down the Hill Safely Starts on the Chairlift Up (with video)

When I was a kid, I remember a girl showing up at school one Monday with a cast on her leg. She'd been skiing and fell off the chairlift.

The next winter, the son of my hockey coach was paralyzed when the chairlift he was on broke down and he broke his back jumping off.

My friend Clint would regularly get smeared across the disembarkation station of chairlifts because he kept forgetting to lift his tips. You could also count on Clint to have at least one wipe out a day on the t-bar because he was goofing around. Perhaps not surprisingly, Clint was eventually taken off the hill in a sled when he skied into the tower holding the t-bar cable up. He still can't straighten his left arm.

So I wasn't surprised when Youtube footage surfaced of a 17-year-old falling from a chairlift in New Mexico (scroll to the bottom of this post to watch). He slipped while throwing a snowball at a friend, managed to hold on to the chair for a while, then fell 45-feet. He was lucky to "only" break his skull and suffer internal injuries.

Today, high-speed quads equipped with safety bars have replaced rickety old doubles and t-bars at most resorts, and magic carpets whisk kids up bunny hills that used to be serviced by rope tows. I can't even remember the last time I saw a Pomalift. With all this newfangled technology, a lot of us let our guard down once we're down the hill and in the lift line. This is especially true for kids, who are often never taught even the basics of lift safety.

The good news is that lift safety hasn't changed much. After showing my kids the video of the teenager falling off the lift, this is what I told them:
  • Always take the pole straps off your wrists before getting on the lift.
  • Always lower the safety bar.
  • Always sit with your butt as far back as possible in the seat, and don't slouch.
  • Don't goof around on the lift.
  • Don't slap your skis together to get snow off them or swing them back and forth.
  • Don't turn around to throw a snowball at your friends on the lift behind you.
  • If the lift breaks down, wait. It'll either start back up or someone from the resort will come to get you.

You can find more information on lift safety at

Read more about winter safety for kids in these posts:

Kids Outdoor Skills: Age-Appropriate Avalanche Safety Education
Kids Outdoor Skills: Avalanche Safety Video for Teens 

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Friday, 22 February 2013

New Winter Olympic Sport: Youth Bodsleigh

We're still working out the rules, but we hope to get bodsleigh into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as a demonstration sport. No word yet from the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation on whether they'll sanction bodsleigh, but no news is good news, right?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Kids Fitness: 5 Ways to Make Kids Want to Be Active

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give the orders.  Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
Antoine de St. Exupery

"If you want to make hiking fun, make it fun."
Ken Schmaltz 

One of the reasons I'm passionate about getting my boys out to the mountains--or anywhere outdoors--is the fitness aspect. Whether they'll be active, healthy adults or sedentary, less healthy adults depends in large part on whether they're active now. So it's up to me, as their parent, to set them up for a lifetime of active, adventurous living. In this age of always-on digital stimulation, it's unlikely that they're going to log out of Minecraft and ask me to take them hiking or for a run. Although in the summer they will spontaneously go for a bike ride once or twice a week, inertia is a powerful force in their lives. Their bodies at rest are likely to remain at rest unless they're motivated to put those bodies in motion.

Be active yourself--This is the most powerful way of motivating kids to be active. Kids watch us. They copy what we do. They want to be like us, even if it doesn't seem like it at times. If they see you sitting around, they'll follow your lead (or lack of lead). If they see you enjoying an active lifestyle, they'll learn that moving their bodies is fun.

Make it fun--This is the second most powerful way of motivating kids to be active. Let's face it, a nice stroll through the park or beside a river isn't the average kid's idea of fun. Pick activities that have a "wow factor" or built-in excitement. At the park, make the stroll a game by seeing who can reach the next tree first (then let them pick the next finish line) or bring a soccer ball to kick your way through the park. On your river walk, throw in a log and see who can hit it the most times with rocks. Or better yet, take them on a hike--but whatever you do, don't call it a hike--that ends somewhere fun like rocks they can climb on or fossils they can hunt. (For more ideas, see my post Hiking with Kids: 7 Steps to Make Hiking Fun for Kids.)

Set them up for success--We've all done it. We pick an activity, a hiking trail or a ski run that's too much for our kids. Shortly thereafter, the complaining reaches a crescendo or they have a blow out or they just can't go any further, and what you expected to be a glorious day in the great outdoors comes to a screeching halt. Instead of learning that the activity is fun, your kid learns that he/she can't do it and it's the opposite of fun. Instead, pick something that your kids can succeed at. It will build their confidence and make them want to do it again. At first, hat might mean choosing a trail or ski run that's too easy for them, but at least there will be a next time when you can go further or faster or steeper.

Don't nag--Again, we've all done it. Our kids don't live up to our high expectations or they do something we've learned not to do. So we nag, cajole, criticize, correct, warn, scold...We make the activity not fun. The opposite of fun. Horrible. In the eyes of the kids, the outdoors and the activity become just another time and place for us to pick at them. If they're not going as fast as you'd like, adjust your pace to theirs. If they've given their best but can't go any further, stop, have a rest and turn back. If they walk through a stream instead of hopping across rocks, let them get their feet wet and learn their own lessons.

Set a family goal--Indoor soccer season ends in a couple weeks, and I'd like my 8-year-old to maintain his conditioning for the outdoor season in April (and the hiking season; I'm going to take the boys on a scramble this summer!). So we've all entered a 5 kilometer fun run in July, and we'll all train together once or twice a week. Sue and Mack (13) will run the whole way, and Michael and I will run for a few minutes, walk for one, and repeat. If I have to, I'll run with a pack on my back that contains a soccer ball to kick down the course. I'll run at Michael's pace (actually, I can't run any faster or I'll aggravate a couple of old running injuries; nothing builds a kid's confidence like running a 5K faster than his dad). And if he needs to stop and rest or walk more than he runs, I swear I won't nag, cajole, criticize, correct, warn or scold. I swear.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: Canyon Creek

You know all your efforts to get your kids outdoors are working when your 12-year-old says he'd like to go snowshoeing instead of laser tag for his thirteenth birthday party.

The day of Mack's birthday, his younger brother Michael had an indoor soccer game that ended at 12:15 p.m. (he won, go Rangers!) so we needed someplace close to Calgary. It also had to have snow. Calgary had just experienced an unseasonable week of 9 C weather, and much of Kananaskis within an hour's drive was brown and dry. I selected Canyon Creek, west of Bragg Creek on Highway 66. While other parts of the Elbow Valley tend to melt quickly in warm weather, Canyon Creek is in a tight enough valley that it doesn't get as much sun and holds its snow longer. Still...9 C can melt a lot of snow, even in the shade, so I didn't know what we'd find when we got there. And considering our less than successful mountain biking trip at Canyon Creek...

I needn't have worried. As soon as we turned off onto the road to Ing's Mine parking lot, it was clear that we'd have plenty of snow. This was a new activity for two of the boys, who only moved to Canada from India a few years ago. You could see the excitement in their faces as I helped them put on the rented snowshoes (three pairs of MSR's for $30 from the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre--way cheaper than laser tag). As soon as they were strapped in, they were off.

From the parking lot, we made our way down a short steep section to the creek bed and headed upstream. In places the snow was up to our knees, even with the snowshoes. In other places, we found bare ice, which the kids had a blast crossing, stomping the spikes on the bottom of their snowshoes into the ice for traction. And of course there were big grey rocks. Using their snowshoes like ice climbers use crampons on mixed ice and rock routes, they scaled the rocks and pelted those below them with the loose snow on top.

After an hour or so of tromping up the creek bed, the boys were soaked. So when clouds blotted out the blue sky and began pelting us with snow, we headed back to the car. I'd like to say they were tired out, but by the time they got home they were ready for more. Add three more fresh kids who showed up for the sleep over portion of the party, and it was a late night at the Schmaltz house.

Distance: 4 km return
Elevation gain: Negligible
Hiking/Exploring Time: 2 to 4 hours
Driving Directions: Heading south on Highway 22 from the Trans-Canada, go straight through the traffic circle. At Bragg Creek, turn left at the four-way stop. You'll come to a T-intersection. Turn right onto Highway 66. Follow this until you reach the Ing's Mine day use area.


Need help picking out kids snowshoes? Read this post:

Kids Snowshoeing Gear: Picking out Kids Snowshoes

Wondering where to go snowshoeing with kids? Read these posts:

Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: River View Trail
Snowshoeing with Kids in Banff: Lake Minnewanka
Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: Hogarth Lakes
Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: West Bragg Creek
Heli-snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Heli-Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: How couldn't this be fun?

"The first time I was on helicopter we went hiking."

That was Michael, my 7-year-old son, talking to another person waiting to board a helicopter. He had his first ride in a helicopter the previous summer when we'd gone heli-hiking in the Cline River area east of Banff's Saskatchewan Crossing. Only seven, but flying in helicopters--helicopters!--was already old-hat. I'm still not sure if that's a good thing or not.

As Michael said, this would be the second time he and his 12-year-old brother, Mack, had flown in an aircraft capable of hovering. We were standing in the Kananaskis Heliport waiting for our pilot to guide us to the helicopter that would take us on our heli-snowshoeing adventure.

Soon we were climbing into the five person helicopter, the ground crew rushing to buckle us up and jam helmets on our heads. Mack sat up front with the pilot, and Michael would have his turn on the way back. For the boys, it was right out of an action adventure movie. We could hear the pilot talking to ground control through the built-in headphones and then we were lifting off. The adventure was to include 20 minutes of sightseeing and an hour on the ground snowshoeing. Heading south, we did a fly over of Barrier Lake before turning north, crossing the Trans-Canada Highway and squeezing between Mt. Fable and Yamnuska.

Better than the amazing, close-up views of the mountains was the sight of Mack and Michael. Both were totally lost in the experience, and I have to admit that the helicopter was bringing out the kid in me, as well. Once or twice the pilot stopped to hover so we could take in our surroundings, and the sway of the helicopter in the mountain winds was an exhillerating reminder that we weren't in a 737 on our way to LAX.

Then we were heading west out of the mountains to Dog Leg Lake. Sitting on the prairie just beyond the mountains, Dog Leg wasn't exactly what I'd envisioned when I'd booked the flight. I was expecting something out of Travel Alberta's Remember to Breath campaign, with the helicopter setting us down on an idyllic snowy alpine meadow. Instead, we landed at a lake on the flat land.

Upon climbing out of the helicopter, the first thing we all noticed was the lack of snow. The inch or so of mostly hardpack didn't warrant snowshoes. Not being ones to let a lack of snow ruin our winter fun, we left the snowshoes in the helicopter's cargo hold and ventured out in our boots. What we'd thought would be a glorious alpine frolic through waist deep snow turned into a fun tromp across the frozen lake, through spruce and leafless aspen forest, and taking breaks to make snow angels.

Although it wasn't what we'd expected, the heli-snowshoe trip was definitely an adventure. It was also a reminder to us all that we shouldn't hold too tightly to our expectations. Back at the heliport, we overheard other adventurers griping about the un-snowshoe. Maybe it's because we had kids to show us where the fun was, but I have to say it was the most exciting un-snowshoe I've ever been on. I mean, how can't you have fun when the mountains and a ride on a helicopter is involved?

For more information on heli-snowshoeing in Kananaskis, go to Kananaskis Heli Tours. If they don't have special pricing posted on their website, check out Groupon and Living Social for deals.







Wondering where to go snowshoeing with kids? Read these posts:

Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: River View Trail
Snowshoeing with Kids in Banff: Lake Minnewanka
Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: Hogarth Lakes
Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: Canyon Creek
 Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: West Bragg Creek

Monday, 11 February 2013

Kids Outdoor Skills: Age-Appropriate Avalanche Safety Education

February 1 was the tenth anniversary of seven grade 10 students being killed by a massive avalanche near Revelstoke, British Columbia. The group from Calgary's Strathcona-Tweedsmuir private school had been on an annual backcountry ski trip, which was part of the school's respected outdoor education program.

At the time, the tragedy shocked Canada's mountain community. The number of deaths and the age of the victims were unthinkable. Every parent who takes their kids out to the mountains couldn't help but share the sorrow of the victims' parents. The press had a field day second guessing those parents for allowing their kids to participate in such a risky activity, and the adults involved in the trip were roundly criticized.

As tragic as that day was, some good did come out of it. Today, avalanche safety awareness is light years ahead of where it was ten years ago. Parks Canada developed the Avalanche Terrain exposure rating system, which is now used in other countries that include the United States. The simple three-level rating system helps people rate the risk of the area they're venturing into and make better decisions. This alone has probably saved lives. Another much needed initiative that came out of the tragedy was the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Centre. Its website brings together current avalanche danger bulletins of national and provincial parks in western Canada, and is a valuable resource for a wide range of avalanche safety information.

After a recent ski trip to Mt. Norquay with my 8- and 12-year-old sons, during which which we saw avalanche control blasting in progress above the resort, I've spent quite a bit of time on the CAC's website. One of the documents I found provides guidelines for age-appropriate avalanche safety education. It's quick to read, easy to understand, and in 25 pages breaks down avalanche safety into topics that are appropriate for the maturity of kids from kindergarten to grade 12. For example, it notes that while kids in grade 4 and 5 still listen to adults, they're starting to flex their independence at a time that they don't really understand consequences. As a result, the discussion they recommend for kids at this age is different from what they recommend to tell kids in grades 6 and 7, who are more likely to succumb to peer pressure to duck the rope at a resort and are starting to understand that death isn't just something they see in the movies.

I won't try to summarize the entire document in single blog post. I'm not that good and the subject deserves more attention by parents and other adults who lead kids in the winter. Whether your kids are going to the backcountry or a ski resort, you should read this document and start talking about avalanche safety with them. You can download the entire document by clicking this link:


For more information on avalanche safety resources for kids, read:

Kids Outdoor Skills: Avalanche Safety Video for Teens

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Dog Sledding with Kids: An adventure the whole family can share

Mack with his team
There's something about mushing a team of dogs that makes adults feel like kids and kids feel like adults.

Both of my boys are dog people, so dog sledding has been on our to-do list for quite a while. Sue and I had skijored years ago, but we'd never gone dog sledding. This was a first for all four of us, and it was an amazing experience to share as a family.

We selected Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours in Canmore for our adventure on the third day of a long ski weekend in Banff. After two days on the slopes we were all tired but excited when we showed up a half hour early for our 11 a.m. tour. Unfortunately, avalanche control on the East Side of Rundle had been too successful, and crews were taking longer than expected to clear the Smith-Dorien / Spray Trail of debris. With Snowy Owl's base at the north end of the Spray Lakes temporarily cut off, we were told to come back at noon. Luckily, there were two friendly sled dogs in the office to take the edge off our disappointment. It's hard to be too disappointed when a happy husky is intent on licking your face.
When we came back at noon, everything was a go. A 20-minute drive brought us to the base, where we were greeted by 50 howling hounds. After a short orientation in which we learned that real mushers say "Hike!" not "Mush" to keep the dogs running, we were introduced to our dog teams. Sue, Michael and I would be on one sled, and Mack would be on another with the guide. When I asked who would be driving our sled, I couldn't believe the answer: We would. Excited at the opportunity to drive, I was also more than a little nervous. I'd barely been able to control two huskies when we went skijoring. Granted, they'd been attached to my waist and I was on skinny cross-country skiis, but now there were eight of them. Had the guide said to lean hard into the turns, or not hard? Suddenly, I had visions of falling off the back of the sled and watching the dogs pull Sue and Michael down the trail.
It didn't help that as soon as the dogs were harnessed they started pulling against the tether, yelping in anticipation of dumping me in the snow. Then the guide pulled the tether and we were off. It I was a kid again. Soon I was yelling "Hike!", leaning into the turns, and jumping off and running beside the sled on uphills. I could see myself mushing a team on the Iditarod, days away from the nearest civilization in the wildest wilds of Alaska. Then we were at the halfway point and I was brought back to reality. Rather we were almost at the halfway point. First, we had to negotiate a sharp corner the guide had warned us about. Here, I was 100% certain he said to lean hard into the turn to keep the sled from tipping. The closer we got to the turn the deeper my realization became that I had no idea how hard "hard" was. Before I knew it we were into the turn. The sled became an extension of my Sorels, and I sensed the centrifugal force pulling the sled over to the left. I leaned to the right--hard, but not too hard--and we glided gracefully through the turn. (Okay, it probably didn't look that graceful to the trained eye, but at least the sled didn't tip over. Whether it was my leaning or because the dogs took it easy on me doesn't matter.)

The halfway point was in the middle of Goat Pond, where we tethered the dogs to ice screws set in the frozen surface. After a 10 minute break, I climbed into the sled, while Michael and Sue each stood on one runner at the back. Mack similarly shared the back of his sled with the guide. Then we were off again, and I could just sit back and enjoy the ride. Ahead of us, Mack handled his dog team like a pro. Behind me, I could hear the excitement in Michael's voice as he yelled, "Hike! Hike!" It was one of those moments I think back to often. Pure, unadulterated adventure shared as a family.

All too soon, we were back at the base, drinking hot chocolate and warming ourselves beside a campfire. Then in the car and driving home to Calgary, where I would have to explain to Abby why we smelled like other dogs.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Kids Fitness: Run with the Big Dogs to Keep Your Kids & Pooch in Shape

I'm a dog person. After much pleading, I got my first dog for my tenth birthday, and have had a dog for most of my life ever since. My kids are also dog people. They've never known life without at least one dog sharing their home. When things aren't going great, I know I'll find them with Laya (short for Himalaya), talking things out with the assurance that they won't be judged.

I also know that if I say we're taking Laya to the off-leash park, they'll be up for it regardless of whether they're happy, sad or mad. The freedom a dog feels running off leash is infectious, and there's no better stress reliever I know of that you can do on a moment's notice. As soon as the car door opens and Laya jumps out, the boys are off and running too. They'll chase Laya for as far they can, then just keep running. When they were younger, the main draw for the off leash  was meeting new dogs, but now they spend as much time goofing around at a high rate of speed as they do greeting friendly furry faces. By the time we get back into the car, they've gotten as much exercise--and way more fun--as they would have from a half hour jog.

So when I saw this I thought: What a great idea. James and Erica at Evocative Photography have made a name for themselves photographing dogs. This year, they committed to taking their dog, Jake, out for at least 30 minutes a day. That's 30 minutes of exercise for both the dog and the walker in the great outdoors. It's a great way to bond with your dog, and it's an even better way to bond as a family--and trick your kids into exercising.

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