Parenting, Fear and the Great Outdoors

OutdoorBaby.net home page imageI recently was introduced to a wonderful website for parents who love being active outdoors with their children: www.OutdoorBaby.net. This website contains a plethora of resources, tips and information on how to enjoy just about any outdoor activity with little ones, whether it be hiking, fishing, climbing or backpacking. OutdoorBaby invites experts and bloggers to contribute articles on their outdoor recreation experiences with their family, and these articles are sometimes funny, and always useful and inspiring.

Heidi Ahrens, the woman who started the website, is a former public school teacher and educator for Outward Bound. I was excited to learn of her project because I understand the importance of exposing children to both structured and unstructured time in nature (see my blog post about contemplative nature activities for children). It’s good to see there are more and more resources and information for parents who know the importance of outdoor education and activities for their kids and are looking for no-cost or low-cost ways of having fun and doing something healthful with them.

I asked Heidi a few questions about her mission and background:

What is your earliest and best childhood memory of time spent in nature?

Heidi: My parents lived in a variety of ramshackle houses with drafts, outhouses, and snow pilling up to the second story window. My earliest memory is using the outhouse.

My best earliest memories are of going on walks in Fundy Park with my dad and looking at marshland and flowers and playing in the woods around furry trees (the trees probably had a kind of beard like lichen on them).

My best teenaged memories of the outdoors: As a teen I went hiking alone, camping, and visited cabins that were only accessible by rowboats.  My parents and my friends’ parents trusted us and were not fearful.  At sixteen I crossed half of Canada by bicycle with a girlfriend.  We knocked on doors and asked farmers if we could stay on their land.

In your work as both a teacher at a public school and an instructor at Outward Bound, what do you see as the biggest differences in kids who spend a lot of time outside in nature or who have a love of the outdoors, versus those that don’t?

Heidi: I have worked with students from such varied backgrounds, but it is really hard to generalize about children who spend time outdoors and those who did not.  I believe that the students who spend no time outdoors because of economic hardship, social stigma, inaccessibility, or cultural differences often exhibit the same positive adaptability and creativity that kids who spend time outdoors exhibit. The kids that exhibit, in my view, worrisome behavior are those that grow up in a sheltered environment, in suburbs and have parents that are fearful of the world outside their door.

What do you think are the factors that prevent parents from being more active outdoors with their children? What do you usually tell people when they say it’s too much of a hassle to take their kids hiking/biking/walking/exploring with them?

Heidi: Probably the top factors are time, inexperience, fear, and money.

I think that a lot of people think that it is too much of a hassle to take kids exploring in nature.  It takes a lot of work and dedication but it is work that pays off in the end.  It is also a hassle to go shopping with your kids or going to the movies or going to a restaurant, but people do that every day.  The payoff for getting into the outdoors with your kids is that you get these wonderful experiences that you can build a positive, happy relationship on.  You have memories, health, and intellectual curiosity building while hiking with your kids or observing wildlife; this is not true with going to the mall.

I also need to say this.  It becomes easier when you create systems to organize yourself and when you let go of expectations and ideas about performance and go out just to be together.

Your website is filled with practical and user-tested tips for families who are active outdoors and want to include their young children. What gave you the inspiration for this specific model of website?

OutdoorBaby.net was created because I saw a need to use my skills as an educator, a mom, and as an outdoorsperson to help others.  I decided to stay home with my children and I wanted to continue my intellectual curiosity and I wanted to continue to learn.

If money and funding were no object, what kind of outdoor education program would you design for young children in public schools? How about teens?

I have worked very hard at creating projects like training materials for teachers, workshops, that OutdoorBaby.net can build on so that we can reach the largest number of families. Some of these projects are in school trainings and others are community based.  Yes, if we had the money we would be able to build these programs quite quickly since I have the background to produce such materials, but these days it seems like people like to fund research and materials that are based on intellectual development rather than on hands on or rather simply what I would call person building initiatives

So outdoor education programs should be modeled after the idea that we are going to build positive, creative, and inquisitive minds.  I don’t believe the goal should be at first to get children to identify three different kinds of trees.  Children should be guided in realizing the interconnectedness species, adaptability and creativity through experience rather than through lectures or set standards. Our bodies are strong , powerful, intuitive and capable to consciously live in this world.

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If you would like tips and stories on how to get your kids outside in nature and make sure everyone in your family has a safe and fun time, visit OutdoorBaby.net.

Different Ways of Seeing the Land

North Lone Pine and Bald Mountain Trail

North Lone Pine Trail, Red Feather Lakes

Location: Just west of Red Feather Lakes

Directions: From Ft. Collins, take Highway 287 north and turn onto CR 74E (Red Feather Lakes Road) toward Red Feather Lakes for approximately 22 miles. Once you see the sign for Red Feather Lakes village, take your second left onto Deadman Road. About three miles up Deadman Road you will pass a metal gate that may or may not be open (it typically opens late June and remains open as long as the roads are passable). The trailhead will be on your left a mile past the metal gate. If the gate is closed, you can park to the side of the gate and walk up the road the rest of the way to the trailhead, which will add an hour to your hike.

Duration: 2 to 5 hours, depending on if you go all the way to the summit of Bald Mountain and where you are able to park.

Access Notes: Deadman Road may have a few rough patches in late spring, but the road up to the metal gate is generally accessible by passenger cars. The stretch of road after the first metal gate may be closed as late as mid-June depending on the conditions on the pass, and if it is, you can simply park to the side and walk up the mile to the trailhead. It is an uphill walk all the way to Bald Mountain from where you’ll park, so be prepared for a good workout. The trail itself may be wet and muddy in late spring, and you may have to cross a rushing creek one-third of the way up if you plan on summiting Bald Mountain, so it’s good to wear waterproof hiking boots. On weekdays in summer, especially if the gate is locked, you will have the trail to yourself. This is a quiet trail on weekends, too, compared to many Front Range trails like South Mesa in Boulder or White Ranch in Golden, and this is one reason I selected it for a summer hike. There are picnic tables at the trailhead and parking area. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The hike:

Even though you won’t see any fourteeners or rocky, snow-capped peaks surrounding this immediate area, don’t be fooled. The trail starts at an elevation of 9,400 feet and climbs to 10,900 feet at the summit of the mountain, if you decide to go that far. Before you enter the woods, you’ll want to walk over to the picnic tables at the parking lot and look at the distant view of the hills to the east and north of Red Feather Lakes, extending into Wyoming. The landscape gradually softens to a wavy roll where the hills end and the flatter plains of Wyoming and northern Colorado begin. The view of the Mummy Range, which is southeast of Bald Mountain, is blocked at this vantage point.

As you start out, you’ll be walking on a narrow trail in a mixed forest of pine, spruce and aspen, shaded from the sun and without views for the most part. In late spring or early summer, particularly after a period of rain or snow, you’ll walk across tiny channels of water streaming downhill across the trail toward a larger creek that carries all the water down the mountain. You’ll pass an area of uprooted trees, evidence of some past windstorm. Imagine hiking in the middle of such an event! The downed trees are gray and weathered and young trees have sprung up to replace the decay.

There will be large, smooth and lumpy rock formations in the woods, places that offer shade and shelter for various small animals. These are the same types of rock formations you may have seen on the drive up from Ft. Collins, and are also the same as the rocks atop Horsetooth Mountain in Loveland. You can see how the geology of the Front Range foothills is similar from south of Highlands Ranch all the way to the Wyoming border.

You’ll come across a mysterious dilapidated structure about a quarter of a mile up—something that looks like a screened-in porch that has caved in. You’ll also notice evidence of various types of human activity here, from the way the trail has been meticulously constructed to allow water to channel across and away, to the clean, sawed edge of logs that have fallen across the trail. You’ll see the work of humans when you walk on top of the rock supported trail near the stream, and wonder about the former function of a large, rusty pipe that lays abandoned on the side of the trail. You are in the midst of Roosevelt National Forest, at the edge of the Rawah Wilderness, and yet this place has been experienced and worked over by many people in the recent and distant past.

Seeing the Land

When I was a kid, my parents owned a travel trailer with which we used to go on long vacations that involved a lot of interstate highway travel. I used to brag that I’d “seen” more than 35 of the 50 states, but really what all that seeing amounted to was a blur out the back window of the Oldsmobile as I sleepily longed for the end to day’s travels. We never took the scenic route, except when we drove through National Parks like Yellowstone or Zion. We traveled on major freeways and stopped every couple of hours to stretch our legs, get gas or have a meal at Stuckey’s. Although I did see the way the landscape changed from the flat farms of Michigan and Ohio to the rolling green hills of Kentucky to the walls of trees running parallel to I-95 through Georgia, I didn’t get to see much of the nuances of the land in very many places. We stayed in KOA campgrounds that had the same general layout, the way hotel rooms all look the same inside, no matter if you’re in Alaska or if you’re in Miami. My parents weren’t into hiking or exploring. They were into visiting tourist traps, shopping for souvenirs and walking around city centers.

About fifty miles south of this trail is Rocky Mountain National Park, a place that as of 2010 boasts more than 3 million visitors per year. How many of those visitors actually get out of their cars, other than to use the facilities or check out the visitor center? How many of them just go for the dizzying drive up Trail Ridge Road, stop at the summit gift shop, then drive back down to Estes Park for dinner before heading home? Granted, even from the inside of a car, there’s a lot to see in Rocky Mountain Park. Rarely will you drive through without seeing at least a small herd of elk. You’ll enjoy vistas of mountains and tundra that are breathtaking. You’ll see wind-twisted trees, crows and hawks and maybe a pika or two.

A tree growing out of a tree

Seeing the land from a car is one way of seeing. It’s very limited, because you’re driving past at a speed where details are lost. It’s difficult to spot smaller animals and practically impossible to identify individual species of plants when you’re busy watching the road, or gazing passively out the passenger window. What impression would someone have of Denver or Boulder if all they did was drive through it along I-70 or the Boulder Turnpike. Would it be a good impression or a bad one?

When you drove up to the Lone Pine trailhead, you experienced this kind of seeing. This is a very brief snapshot of the land. The details are a blur. You’re probably thinking about how much farther your destination is, how many more turns in the road before you see the sign for the trail. You can’t feel the ground beneath your feet and you can’t hear and smell much of anything except the interior of your car. It’s not a good way to get connected to the land.

When you enter the land, actually get out of the car and walk onto a landscape, you experience it in a more vibrant, naked way. You hear birds, wind, and airplanes overhead. You feel the way the land slopes up, down or sideways. Even a road that seems perfectly flat when you’re in the car is not flat when you’re walking—your effort and breathing tell you so.

Why even bother getting out and walking the land? Because the way you see the land affects how you feel about it. The more you see, the more you experience, and the more interesting it seems. The more value it acquires in your mind and heart. Seeing a mountain from a car for a few minutes isn’t the same as backpacking it over the course of days.

Life is everywhere, even in the rotting crevice of a fallen tree.

By slowing down even more, you can heighten your experience in ways that will stick in your memory for a long time. When you’re seeing something passively, you’re missing out on a lot.

For example, have you ever driven along a road and realized afterward that you couldn’t recall its features because you were so lost in thought? Have you ever hiked a favorite trail and couldn’t recall a single unique feature of your surroundings a day later, because you were preoccupied with a conversation with your hiking partner?

Cultivating a deeper seeing is one way to develop mindfulness and presence, so your experience of a trail is not only more rewarding, it is more memorable.

The activity:

Regardless of where you parked your car, start by stepping up the slope of the picnic area of the trailhead to look at the view. Think about what you were noticing while you were in the car on the way up. How does that compare to what you notice now, as you look out to the distant plains of Wyoming and northeastern Colorado? Consider your impression of the view. Do you think what you’re seeing are places where a lot is happening, that are full of interesting things to see? Why or why not?

Begin hiking the Lone Pine Trail at a pace that’s comfortable to you, even if it’s brisk. Notice what you see while you’re walking. Where do you place your gaze most? Do you notice the sights or the sounds more?

After sitting for at least 10 minutes noticing everything around you, stand up and take a look at the spot where you’re sitting—the tree, the log or rock under you. Look closely at it. What do you notice about it that you didn’t notice while you were sitting on it?

You can keep doing this until you reach the smallest object or life form you’re able to perceive, whether it’s a moss or an insect or a strand of spider web. Describe it.

You can “see” deeper by using other senses. Scrape up a bit of soil with a twig and place it in your palm. Imagine what it smells like before actually smelling it. Does it smell how you imagined? How do you describe the smell?

With your eyes closed, touch the place you were sitting. Does its texture surprise you in any way?

Think back to one of the first questions of this exercise, which was to consider the distant landscape and whether it seemed to you that there was anything of interest going on out there. Has your impression changed?

This deeper perception makes me see how life, great and small, is happening on every square inch of this world. From the tiniest microscopic bacteria in the soil, to grasses, trees and animals, there is no such thing as a place where there’s “not much there.” Life is everywhere, and there’s life and death drama occurring despite what humans are doing or what value we place on the land in our minds.

As you complete your hike, imagine how your experience of Red Feather Lakes would be different if you never got out of your car.

My New Favorite Front Range Hiking Trail (Shhh…Don’t Tell Anyone)

Fowler to Goshawk Trail

Location: About a mile east of the town of Eldorado Springs

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 2.7 miles to Boulder County Road 67, turn left. Go about ½ mile where the road ends and park near the trailhead on the east side where it is allowed.

Duration: Approximately 2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, start along the Fowler Trail and follow signs to the Goshawk Ridge Trail. At the first intersection, veer right (north). Take the Goshawk Ridge Trail for about 2-1/2 miles. Once you cross a bridge, turn left on the Springbrook North trail and return via the Fowler Trail to the trailhead where you parked

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead only has space for about a half dozen cars. If you arrive mid-morning on a weekend or when there’s a lot of use, you will have to park at the South Mesa Trail or Dowdy Draw parking lot and walk up the road to the trailhead, which will add about a mile to your hike. If you park at the Dowdy Draw Trailhead and hike to the Goshawk Ridge Trail from the Dowdy Draw Trail, you’ll add about 4 miles to your hike. I recommend starting at the Fowler trailhead to experience more of the contemplative aspects of this wonderful and less-traveled trail. Dogs are not allowed on the Goshawk Ridge Trail.

The 1.2 mile Goshawk Ridge Trail that forms a loop of the Fowler Trail was constructed in January, 2009, so it’s a relatively new area that has opened up to the public in the Eldorado Springs area. The day I hiked this trail was my first time. I would have to say that the beautiful variations in the landscape and the solitary nature of the walk due to its lack of popularity (not many know about it and there’s not a lot of parking) make this my favorite hiking trail within a half an hour of the Denver/Boulder suburbs.

Looking west to Eldorado Canyon from Fowler Trail.

I arrived at this trail at 8:30 a.m. on a sunny, cool Saturday in late spring. On road up to the trailhead I drove past the South Mesa Trail and Dowdy Draw parking lots, both of which were almost filled with weekend visitors. A mile up the road, at the Fowler trailhead, the parking area was comparatively empty: only about a half dozen cars lined the road outside of the “No Parking” signs.

Someone told me about this special trail a couple of months ago, touting it as incredibly scenic and lovely, and now that I’ve experienced it myself I hesitate to even advertise its location publicly. It feels like a hidden gem in an area that I call the “Disneyland of hiking”: all the popular Boulder trails west of Broadway that can become as crowded as a stroll down Pearl Street on warm weekends. Runners, hikers, families, and dogs making steady progress up and down the foothills between Boulder and northern Jefferson County. Unless you want to drive an hour into the mountains, you’d be hard-pressed to find solitude for your hike on a mild day, let alone on a weekend, this close to town. So finding this trail felt remarkable to me, like a secret that only certain “insiders” were privy to.

Rock cut passage

As you begin the walk on the Fowler Trail toward Goshawk Ridge Trail, you’ll cross a sloped meadow where deer like to graze early in the morning or late in the afternoon. You’ll switchback toward the northwest and come across one of this trail’s unique aspects: a man-made cut through the rock wall that you walk through and beyond which you’ll find yourself standing on a ridge overlooking the small town of Eldorado Springs below. This is just the first of many pleasant or delightful characteristics of the Fowler/Goshawk Trail, most of which I won’t mention in this essay because if this is your first time on this trail, you’ll want to allow yourself to be surprised at each turn.

The Relationship Between Landscape and Mood

The Goshawk Ridge Trail has a variety of landscapes and can evoke many kinds of subtle differences in mood, depending on what time of day you go or the weather. There’s a cozy, wooded canyon with a stream crossing. There are expansive views of Boulder County. There’s the not-too-distant whistle of the cargo or passenger train that snakes its way around the hills directly above and west of the trail. There’s a walk across a green meadow with wildflowers. There is also a walk through dead trees once ravaged by fire, and the quiet fortitude of a wide, flat forest that seems to go on for miles.

Fuzzy purple Pasque flowers were blooming on May 8th along the Goshawk Ridge Trail

I want to express my own feelings in each of these landscapes, but I don’t want to influence your own thoughts and feelings as you travel the trail. I’m sure each of these particular locales and changes in surroundings will affect you in different ways than it affected me. It also depends on the weather on the day you go. It may be foggy or cloudy, cold or muggy.

View of the small town of Eldorado Springs from the Fowler Trail

Whenever you come across an area that evokes a particular feeling in you, stop and note where you are, describing your surroundings and your mood. Do you feel frightened? Apprehensive? Peaceful? Relaxed? Bring a notebook along on your hike and write down your answers.

Even though the Goshawk Ridge Trail has only recently been constructed and open to the public, there is evidence of past human use and habitation. Can you spot evidence of human activity in the area?

How does this make you feel to see that this natural, relatively remote trail was once used in different ways for different purposes by people? How does it define “progress” in your mind?

Tree Games

Trees have a history and mythology of being sacred beings with the capacity for healing. Many people are drawn to trees for various reasons – because the trees seem to have character, because they’re stoic sentinels of the forest, because they offer shelter and comfort. But can a tree communicate with a person through some sort of energetic or psychic capacity? You can try this game to find out.

This activity was inspired by a friend named Geoffrey McMullan, MSc, who lives in Ireland and specializes in wilderness therapy and tracking. He uses nature in his work as an addiction counselor, and has observed incredible results from his patients and clients in how they relate to their addiction or find inner wisdom through their relationship with the wilderness. One of Geoffrey’s nature games involves forming a deeper connection to and communication with a tree, stepping a good distance away from the tree, then, while blindfolded, seeing if you can find your way back to the tree. You use almost all the senses to experience and get to know the tree, and then transcending those senses to feel a connection to a tree that has less to do with logic and analysis and more of a spiritual consciousness that can’t be explained or forced.

child and tree

I think this is a fun activity to try with a few friends or older children (12 years old and up) who already have an appreciation of nature and an openness to try new things.

I have selected the Flatirons Vista Trail as a suggested location for this activity, but any trail with the following aspects will work:

  • Heavily wooded with aspens, pines, or spruce.
  • Not along very steep slopes. Ideally a wooded area that’s as flat as possible.
  • Somewhere you can safely go a little bit off trail without trespassing on private property or disturbing the landscape too much. You’ll want a little privacy and quiet for this activity.
  • Avoid areas with scrub oak, junipers or a lot of pine kill (can be hazardous during windy or wet conditions).

The Flatirons Vista Trail runs through the northern edge of Jefferson County Open Space land, which is a 7,390 acre parcel west of Rocky Flats between 120th Avenue and 80th Avenue. The City of Westminster boasts (in their Feb/March 2010 Issue of Westminster City Views) “No other city in metropolitan Denver has 5 miles of

public land between its western edge and the foothills. Over 43,000 acres of property both within and abutting Westminster preserve this amazing ecosystem.” Indeed, as you’re walking westward toward Eldorado Canyon and the foothills, all you see are rolling hills and trees, and maybe the occasional herd of cows since this land is used for grazing. This is a trail that’s close to Boulder, Broomfield, Westminster, Arvada and Golden, but feels spacious and quiet, at least once you get far enough from Highway 93.

Instructions for Tree Games

Find a spot among the trees where you and your partners in this game can feel comfortable, safe and have some privacy. You may need to walk off the trail far enough so that you can’t be easily heard or hear other hikers pass by, but not too far away that you lose your sense of direction to return back to the trail. On the Flatirons Vista Trail, once you arrive at the second cattle fence where the trees begin to get thicker, you can venture south along a clearing the trees where it appears a few vehicles may have traveled in the past. There are relatively flat areas of trees where you can do this activity.

You’ll need at least one other person and some sort of bandana or blindfold, or if you don’t have anything to use as a blindfold, you can go on the “honor system” and just keep your eyes shut tight when it’s your turn.

The “blind” person is led to a tree while blindfolded and introduced to the tree by the seeing partner.

“Tree, meet Bob. Bob, meet your tree.”

Then the blind person is allowed to spend time getting to know the tree. They can touch the tree, smell the tree, and use all of their senses other than sight to get a feeling from the tree. They should not open their eyes or take off the blindfold at this time.

The seeing partner quietly sits and observes, allowing at least 15 minutes of quiet time for the blind person to get acquainted with their tree. Some questions for the blind person to consider privately may include:

What gender is your tree?

How old is your tree?

What mood is it in?

What is the feeling you’re getting from this tree? Happy, sad, angry, depressed?

Is there anything this tree wants you to know?

The seeing partner should ask these questions all at once at the beginning of the 15 minutes of quiet time, allowing the blind partner to formulate their own questions or responses when they’re ready.

At the end of the 15 minutes, the seeing partner gently suggests that the blind partner let them know when they’re ready to be taken away from their tree. Once the blind partner expresses they’re ready, the seeing partner takes them away from the tree, randomly walking in different directions in order to disorient him or her. The blind partner keeps their eyes closed or the blindfold intact during this phase of the game.

When the seeing partner is satisfied with this disorientation task, they can do one of two things, depending on the landscape:

1. Allow the blind partner to open their eyes or take off their blind fold and find their tree.

2. Ask the blind partner to (while still blind) point to the direction where they believe their tree to be, then guide them in that direction so they don’t trip over rocks and twigs. Occasionally stop and have the blind person reassess the direction they feel they need to go.

With either of these options, the seeing partner should affirm or reject the blind person’s choice of tree or direction. In other words, if the blind person is pointing in the wrong direction to walk, let them know. Or if they select the wrong tree, let them know.

When the blind person finds their tree, they should open their eyes or take off their blindfold and touch or embrace the tree to see if its energy has changed in any way. Does seeing the tree change the feeling of being with the tree? How?

When I played this game with my 12-year-old, both she and I found our tree, although we made a least one wrong assessment of the direction we needed to go to find it at first.  The highlight of this game, surprisingly, wasn’t finding the tree, but feeling it’s energy while we were spending time with it. We both felt a resonance to something older, more rooted in the environment, both literally and figuratively.

Winter Hiking with Children

Bear Canyon Trail
Skye pauses along the Bear Canyon Trail

My daughter’s winter break is winding down and the day after tomorrow she’s going back to school for the last half of sixth grade. It was a beautiful winter day today, sunny and mostly clear, calm, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I took her on a one-hour walk along the Bear Canyon trail, directly south of NCAR in south Boulder.

I started thinking about what kinds of contemplative activities we could do together along this hike that I would recommend later for parents and their kids on similar winter days. The most obvious ideas came first—asking her to tell me what she thought the animals and insects were doing this time of year. She’s 12, so her answers came easily and with a lot more sophistication than I expected. She named a burrowing insect that hibernates in winter, and described what prairie dogs might be doing when it’s cold out and the ground is covered in snow (“mostly hanging out in their deep burrows, coming out occasionally to try to find grass”). We saw birds flittering about, but not as many as there are in the spring and summer. Even though we didn’t hear any insects, she did spy one lone grasshopper warming himself on a large boulder.

Everything is quieter on a winter hike. The snow muffles much of the ambient sound anyway, but the silence is mostly due to the low population of birds and insects this time of year. The sound of the water trickling through the half-frozen creek underscored the quiet and felt soothing, like listening to a fountain.

Up ahead, only minutes after we started on the trail, Skye pointed out the two cone-shaped hills below NCAR and asked if we could climb to the top of the tallest one.

“It’s bigger than it looks. It’s also harder to walk up there than it seems.” I warned.

bear canyon hill
Skye summits the first hill south of NCAR

She didn’t believe me until we were much closer and she realized that the hills were quite steep and quite tall. But she wanted to try, so I stepped back and watched her as she trudged upwards. She made it as far as the first summit, looked around, then beckoned me.

“Come up here, mama!”

No thanks, I said. I’m not in the mood to suck air on that steep walk up. I’ll just stay down here and take photos…

This gave me an idea for hikes with older children such as Skye. They already have an idea of what animals are doing in winter and may find the activity of talking about that a little anticlimactic, but Skye’s desire to scale the hill was interesting. I asked her why she felt she wanted to get to the top, and how she felt when she was there.

She said she wanted to see all the way around, and when she got up there, she felt tall with achievement. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Into the Wild” when Alexander Supertramp scaled the rocky hill above his campsite near the Salton Sea.

animal tracks in snow
Animal tracks are easily seen in snow

When she returned to the trail I asked her to look around and tell me where she would love to explore, if she could. She pointed up at a north-facing slope on the other side of the creek, where animal tracks led into the trees.

“I want to go there, because it looks mysterious. I want to know what’s on the other side of that hill.”

We couldn’t go there because we couldn’t cross the creek, and neither could any other hikers, so we knew that the tracks crossing the slope could only be wild animal tracks—most likely deer or fox tracks, maybe coyote. The tracks were everywhere. That’s one of the features of hiking in snow that’s fun for kids—seeing where animals roam around in the fields and forest when no one is looking.

We were just about ready to turn back when the trail narrowed and was enveloped in shadow. Skye wanted to keep going because she said she loves darkness. I asked her why and to describe the kind of darkness she’s referring to. She said she likes dark woods, small rooms, or going outside after sunset. I kept asking her how it makes her feel and what it reminds her of, and why it soothing to her.

This could be a question you might ask your older child on a hike. Ask them to look around, especially if you’re in a location where you can see far down valley or up at the mountains. Where would they like to explore, assuming there could easily get there or fly up there? Why? How does it make them feel to look at it?

When I’m taking a walk or jogging in the morning and see a dark, misty cloud cover the Front Range mountains I’m drawn to them the same way Skye was drawn to the shadowed hills on the other side of the creek.  I want to be there. I want to explore that mystery, to be in the middle of that gray darkness, to feel what it must feel like to be surrounded by shrouded peaks. There’s something comforting and thrilling about it that compels me to stare at it until I feel it in my bones.

Our walk today was brief. Just enough time to breathe in some fresh air and see what nature is up to this Monday in January. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hiking with my child it’s this: keep it relatively short. Have a reward at the end. Today, it was lunch at Subway.