Thursday, 28 March 2013

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Fullerton Loop is a Good Early Season Hike in Kananaskis' Elbow Valley

Figuring out where to go hiking in the spring or fall can be a challenge, with or without kids. In the Calgary area, the Elbow Valley trails west of Bragg Creek on Highway 66 are usually a good bet. At the eastern edge of the Rockies/western edge of the foothills, these trails are often clear enough of snow to hike as early as April and as late as November.

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

Following the pathway along the Elbow River
Last April we checked out the Fullerton Loop with a group of parents and kids. Starting at the far east end of the parking area at Allen Bill Pond, we turned left and followed the north bank of the Elbow River under the highway. At the sign marking where the Fullerton Loop path leaves the Elbow River path, we turned left again on a well worn path until we reached the Y-intersection of the loop. Here we chose the less steep path to hiker's right and did the loop counterclockwise. From there, the 6.5 km trail is straightforward, winding up through the trees for 200 m before dropping back down.

A break from the trees
This isn't a trail I'd recommend in the summer
when you have much more interesting trails to choose from. Around the halfway point you start to get some nice views of the Elbow Valley, but it's mainly a nice stroll through the forest. Not exactly the "fun" hiking experience I look for when selecting a trail for kids. Luckily, we had enough kids that spontaneous adventure broke out shortly after the first "How much further?" was uttered. But if it's spring or fall and you want to get out to the mountains on an avalanche risk-free trail, Fullerton Loop is fine. If you go with a group of kids who can entertain each other, I'd even say it's great.

Distance: About 6.5 km return
Elevation gain: About 200 meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 1.5 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 Allen Bill Pond day use area on the left.

The view of the Elbow Valley

Monday, 25 March 2013

Calgary Climbing Walls for Kids: Belays and Basketballs at Mount Royal University

It may lack the atmosphere and cred of a standalone climbing center, and it may not be as big in terms of number of walls, but the climbing center at Mount Royal University makes up for this with access to the climbing wall, recreation center gyms, the swimming pool and more at no additional cost.

Like most recreation centers, the climbing wall at Mount Royal is definitely family-friendly. If you aren't a regular climbers and just want to have a couple hours of fun climbing with your kids, but find most climbing centers intimidating, Mount Royal is for you. The Saturday afternoon we were there, we shared the 40-foot walls with a 7-year-old's birthday part and a handful of "serious" (but friendly) climbers who were more than happy to give us advice on which walls were easiest. Mount Royal also offers a number of child/youth climbing courses and other programs, as well as an introductory course for adults that will teach you everything you need to know to belay your kids.

On this Saturday, we chose the climbing center at Mount Royal because our sons had climbed the there at summer camps the year before. Michael, now 8, has even said that he wants to go to Mount Royal when he's older because they a climbing wall. (Note to self: take boys climbing at the University of Calgary to expand their educational horizons.) New climbing walls mean passing new belay tests, so while we were demonstrating our ability to keep our kids and each other from hitting the floor, Michael and Mack got a head start with a little bouldering. Once our test passed, the boys tied themselves in, we checked their knots, they checked our belay set ups, and we spent two hours top roping various routes before Mack and Michael said they'd had enough.

But we weren't done for day. As we were gathering up our stuff, Michael announced he wanted to do more sports. At Mount Royal the drop-in fee includes use of the entire facility, not just the climbing wall. Had we known this, we would have packed a little differently. The only footwear I had were my day hikers, and Mack was wearing his winter boots. Undeterred, we checked out a basketball (no charge!) and we spent an hour in the main gym playing a game called bumps that Mack taught us. Next time we'll bring our swim suits and maybe racket ball rackets. Or a soccer ball and play a little indoor soccer. And running shoes for everyone.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Happy World Water Day from the Canadian Rocky Mountains: What's your favorite mountain water photo?

What do the mountains have to do with the oceans? As Jean-Michel Cousteau pointed out over dinner one evening at the Jean-Michel Cousteau family camp on Catalina Island, many mighty rivers that flow into the ocean begin as drops of melt water on glaciers. So in order to save the oceans, we also have to save the mountains.

Here are my top 5 mountain water photos. What are yours?

Tryst Lake in Kananaskis: On a kids hike we discovered fairy shrimp in a frigid alpine lake.
Heart Creek in Kananaskis
Athabasca Glacier in Banff, Alberta
The natural Lussier Hot Springs in Whiteswan Provincial Park, British Columbia
The Point Backcountry Campsite on Upper Kananaskis Lake

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Raising Outdoor Kids: Teach them to pick up one piece of litter every day

With spring comes many changes in Calgary. The days are longer, the weather is warmer and you can enjoy both by getting outside and having fun after supper. It's also the time of year when the snow  begins its final melt, revealing a winter's worth of litter on the ground underneath.

Imagine how much less litter there would be if everyone picked up just one piece of litter every day. With a population of over a million people, that would translate to 365 million fewer pieces of garbage on the ground. Now extend that across Canada...

Growing up, I learned to do this by watching my father. Whether we were running errands in the city or out for a walk in the woods, he would pick up pretty much every piece of garbage he came across. It's not that he was a rabid environmentalist, either. A conservative with a small C, taking care of your environment and being a good citizen were just the right things to do. (Seems to me Alberta's and Canada's big C Conservatives could learn a thing or too from my dad, but that's a post for a different blog.)

I'm somewhat less diligent in this regard than he was, but hopefully my kids are still learning to pick up garbage by watching me. Just in case they aren't, when they get home from school today I'll have "the talk" with them--and then we'll go outside and put those words into action as we play.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Youth bodsleigh test athlete narrowly averts calamity in demonstration run

Unless you're part of the extreme sport community, you probably aren't aware of the risks athletes take in the development of new sports. On a recent demonstration of one of our newest sports at Lake Louise ski resort, a videographer from the Big Grey Rocks New Sport Development Lab (B5L) caught test athlete Mack brush with disaster when he had a gear malfunction. However, thanks to Mack's training, skill and quick thinking, he walked away from the incident unharmed.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Tubing with Kids at Lake Louise: Spin Yourself Silly at the New Lake Louise Tube Park (with video)

There's something very basic about sliding and spinning down a hill on an inflated rubber tube. It taps into the fun center of your brain regardless of your age. No skill is necessary, the required gear is minimal and anyone with a sense of adventure can do it.

We'd been to the tube park at the Norquay ski hill in Banff and had a blast, so when my 8- and 13-year-old boys had a day off school last week we decided to give the tube park at the Lake Louise ski hill a try.
Walking up was faster than taking the magic carpet
A much larger resort than Norquay, the boys were immediately impressed by Lake Louise's relatively sprawling lodge. The last time I was at Louise I parked at the ski out and snowshoed through the resort to Boulder Pass behind it. Before that, I'd skied the same trail to the historic Skoki Lodge, a backcountry destination that dates back to the 1931. But I haven't been skiing there for years. So I was probably just as impressed by the newer, much larger log complex that now serves as the main lodge. The boys and I all agree that our next ski trip should be to Louise.

After a bit of exploring, we found the ticket office, bought our passes and were off. Upon getting our tubes from the attendant at the base of the tube runs, the first thing we noticed was that the tube run was shorter and not quite as steep as Norquay's. This was confirmed on the run down, which was somewhat slower than what we'd experienced at Norquay. But what the Louise tube park lacked in speed it more than made up for with the noticeable absence of lines. For the first hour we were the only people on tubes. Determined to pack in as many runs as possible, 8-year-old Michael quickly figured out that it was faster to walk up the hill than to take the magic carpet.

What the hill lacked in speed was also made up for by the spins. At Norquay, the attendants only let us go down in ones and twos. At Louise, we went down in chains of three, experimenting with new combinations to see which produced the best spin. By the time the next group of tubers joined us, we'd settled on Michael (the lightest) on one end, me (the heaviest) on the other, and Mack in the middle. This was definitely the optimum configuration, sending us down the track in wide, swooping arcs that bounced us off the sides and accelerated when I was on the outside of the spin.

How many runs we tubed I have no idea, but by the time we left I'd gotten my exercise for the day. Pulling a tube up a hill over and over again is a great workout. I also filled my spin quota. You know you're getting old when the even the thought of one more twirling run makes you queasy. But for the boys, the extreme spinning was at least as good as the higher speeds at Norquay. Walking back to the lodge at the end of the day, Michael announced, "I'll probably get a job here when I'm older. It looks like those guys were having a lot fun spinning us."

For more information on tubing in Banff, check out this post:

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

Two satisfied tubers

Friday, 15 March 2013

Skiing with Kids: Why wait until you're on the hill when you can squeeze in a quick run in the parking lot? (video)

The coaches and athletes at the Big Grey Rocks New Sport Development Lab (B5Lab, or Big Lab as people in the industry call it) have been busy. We're still waiting for word from the IOC and FIBT on the status of bodsleigh for Sochi in 2014, and we're targeting the X Games with extreme parking lot skiing. Watch for it in Aspen in 2014.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Raising Outdoor Kids: Is it worth the risks?

"Security is mostly a 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

I've been writing about kids outdoor safety, but not much about the risks of raising outdoor kids. And make no mistake. There are considerable risks. The recent death of a fellow outdoor kids blogger's two-year-old son, Axel Charrette, brought this home like a punch in the gut. I never met Axel, his mom Jen (Velo Mom), dad Randy or brother Kalden, but news of his death made me think long and deep about the risks to which I expose my sons. I couldn't help but see myself in Jen's and Randy's boots, and wonder what kind of personal hell they're living right now. The second guessing. The unfounded guilt of making the long line of decisions that led up to their son's death, even though in their mind they must know the death of their son wasn't their fault. I can't imagine being in their position...yet I easily could be.

I've always taken safety in the mountains very seriously. However, the more I experience I gain in my chosen activities, the more I realize how dumb some of the risks I've taken were. Having kids has sharpened my focus on safety, both when I'm out on an "adult" adventure and when I'm taking the boys out to the mountains. I don't want to put my kids through the pain of losing a dad through his ultimately selfish, risky pursuits, and I don't want to see them hurt or worse. But I don't know what I don't know, other than that I can be 100% sure that I'm putting my kids in some kind of harms way through my gaps in experience and knowledge.

But I still take Mack and Michael hiking, snowshoeing, white water rafting, canoeing, skiing...One of the reasons I take them to the mountains--where the dangers range from cougars to grizzlies, falls off cliffs to avalanches--is the well documented benefits of exposing kids to nature. The exercise. Improved mental health. Higher academic achievement. Higher self esteem. If these reasons aren't enough, Mack and Michael genuinely seem to have fun on our outdoor adventures. (For more on these benefits, read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.) Then there are the more selfish reasons I take them to the mountains. I enjoy sharing my passion with them. I get to experience everything for the first time again through their eyes. I prefer spending my weekends in the mountains instead of at the wave pool or the science centre or the mall.

Do the rewards justify the risks? Whether we realize it or not, calculating risk versus reward is something all parents do every time we send our kids to school, drive them to soccer, or send them outside to play in the backyard. In my heart I truly believe the rewards of raising outdoor kids outweigh the risks, but I'm not sure I can express why. It's something I feel in my gut and see with my own eyes when they discover a coral fossil in the scree or make a "first ascent" of a house-sized boulder. I've watched their confidence and independence grow on the trail and continue growing when we get home. I've seen their ability to identify risks and mitigate them improve in the mountains, and how that translates to staying safe in their urban environment. I can see and feel that the mountains and the inherent risks of playing in them are contributing to the growth of my boys into well-balanced, caring, passionate men.

But then...I haven't had to live through losing Mack or Michael to the risks I've knowingly and unknowing exposed them to. If I try to deny that possibility, I'll put them at greater risk still.

END NOTE: Jen Charrette has been nominated as one of the Top 25 Outdoorsy Moms for 2013. Show some support by voting for her (you can vote once a day).

Friday, 8 March 2013

Skiing with Kids: Teach them that there's no such thing as "sidecountry"

When I was a kid, there was in-bounds and out-of-bounds. In-bounds was where you were allowed to ski. Out-of-bounds was outside the ropes where you weren't allowed to ski. If you ducked under the ropes you would be immediately lost and freeze to death. Or worse, your lift ticket would be taken away and you'd have to explain things to your parents. It was simple.

Today, kids are faced with something called "sidecountry". It's just beyond the ski area boundry, a magical place where you can experience the thrills of backcountry skiing with none of the dangers. It's risk-free, it's fun and it's extremely tempting. The problem is, as the U.S. National Ski Area Association pointed out in a recent editorial titled "There's No Such Thing As Sidecountry", it doesn't exist.

What is sidecountry, or slackcountry as it's also known? As described above, it's the area outside the ski hill boundaries. All you have to do is duck under the rope, poach some epic pow or tree skiing, duck back under the rope at the bottom and take the chairlift up for another run. That's the theory. The reality is that it's not patrolled by the ski patrol, there's no avalanche control, and you have no idea what you're going to find or whether you'll find a way back to the chairlift. It has exactly the same risks as backcountry skiing, without the recognition of those risks. And a risk you don't recognize is a risk you can't assess and either mitigate or avoid. It's a risk that can kill you.

Despite this, sidecountry is celebrated by ski and snowboard manufacturers, outdoor media and a world wide web's worth of blogs and other social media. For example, one of the cover stories of the February/March issue of Backcountry is "Sidecountry Lies and Why They Keep Killing." Inside the magazine, they devote one page to the NSAA editorial. But keep flipping through the magazine and you find article after article telling you why sidecountry is fun, how to ski sidecountry and so on.

If you're an impressionable young skier, you could be excused for being confused. Out-of-bounds is bad. Sidecountry is good. Throw in some peer pressure, the indestructibility of youth, and a kid whose skyrocketing hormones are screwing with his/her brain (ah, puberty, I remember you well), and you've got all the conditions for tragedy.

So what's a parent to do? Teach your kids that there's no such thing as sidecountry, and the dangers of ducking under the rope. Teach your kids responsible skiing by example. Teach your kids age-appropriate avalanche safety. Have the talk with their ski buddies as well. And make it clear that if they duck under the rope and survive, there will be very real, near fatal, consequences when you find out.

For more information on ski and avalanche safety, read these posts:

Skiing with Kids: Getting Down the Hill Safely Starts on the Chairlift Up
Kids Outdoor Skills: Age-Appropriate Avalanche Safety Education
Kids Outdoor Skills: Avalanche Safety Video for Teens 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis: West Bragg Creek

It seems that life with kids never slows down. It just keeps getting faster. So when we get a few unexpected winter hours that aren't filled with indoor soccer or driving to and from birthday parties, it's good to have activities in your back pocket that you can do at a minute's notice. Snowshoeing in Kananaskis' West Bragg Creek area is perfect.

A half-hour drive from Calgary, West Bragg Creek isn't the most exciting place to snowshoe. The Snowshoe Trail's 5.5 kilometers wind through evergreens in a broad loop with a few small ups and downs, but negligible overall elevation gain. It's also far enough outside of the mountains that it loses snow quickly in warm periods. With all this, it's still a great place to escape from the city. Even if you don't have enough time to do the full loop, you can do part of it or wander off the trail through the trees to add a little adventure.

Distance: 5.5 km loop
Elevation gain: Negligible
Hiking/Exploring Time: 1 to 2 hours
Driving Directions: Heading south on Highway 22 from the Trans-Canada, go straight through the traffic circle. At Bragg Creek, turn right at the four-way stop. You'll come to a bridge. Cross it, turn left onto West Bragg Creek Road on the other side and follow that it until you read the West Bragg Creek day use area in about 9 km.

Click here for a driving map.

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: Canyon Creek
Heli-snowshoeing with Kids in Kananaskis
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