Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Bear Is Not The Scariest Thing In The Woods

For several years, I have dragged my best buddy, Debbie, into the wilderness while she kicked and screamed and sang patriotic songs to scare off the bears.  Armed with her telescoping hiking stick, a whistle, and a complete repertoire of songs about the good ole' U.S. of A., Debbie reluctantly followed me into remote areas, where her pretty little head never stopped moving as she constantly scanned the woods and wildflowers for bear, coyote, wolves, and all other manner of life-threatening wildlife.

After I got Debbie lost in the wilderness for 11 hours, I promised her that if she would continue to join me each year for our annual camping trip, I would change my obnoxious ways, allow her to stay firmly rooted in her comfort zone, and make the trip "nice".  I was happy enough to save my adventures for another time, instead tailoring the trip to a more civilized method of camping, just because I treasure my time spent with Debbie and want her to treasure the memories of our trips as well.

Last year, I chose to camp at Petoskey State Park, which is the creme of the crop in the Michigan State Park System.  Debbie was excited to wander around Petoskey, visit a French antiques store she knew of, sleep in her cozy bed in the tin can, and sit beside a warm campfire reading a good book.  She was most excited to be camping on the shore of Lake Michigan, where she could wander aimlessly on the beach without getting lost, search for Petoskey stones, and fall asleep to the sound of waves gently lapping on the shore.

Even though Petoskey State Park is surrounded by hardwoods and conifer stands, giving it that rustic feel, I assured Debbie we were in an urban area and would not be accosted by a bear at our campsite. I said, "Trust me", which raised an eyebrow with Debbie, who learned long ago not to trust me in the woods, but she felt comfortable with our surroundings and did not break into a rousing rendition of "God Bless America".  I assured her we had nothing to be concerned about this time.

We should have known the bear in the woods would not be our biggest problem.

We had only been at the campground a short time when we both needed to visit the restroom, and then wanted to walk around the park, checking out other campers and finding trails (for me) and paths to the beach (for Debbie).  As we walked up the sidewalk to the bathroom, a sudden, awful, screeching sound had us stopping in our tracks.  As we turned, a car (and I use the term loosely) laden with conservation bumper stickers announcing the arrival of a proud tree-hugger who was driving an ancient, rusted hatchback slammed to a stop in front of the bathroom.  A man, who appeared quite manic and possibly crazy, jumped out of the car and yelled "Hey!" to us.  Debbie took a step closer to me, (actually, she pretty much hid behind me) while the man launched a verbal assault on us, the campground, Michigan, and the perils of traveling from Maine to Minnesota through states that simply do NOT understand the joy of cross-country journeys.

We've all been in that frustrated frame of mind when things are not going well on a long trip, but Guy from Maine was over the top.  He was downright scary!  His longish grey hair was flying out from his head, spittle was spewing from his mouth, and his raised voice attracted the attention of other campers.  His main beef was having to pay $24 to park overnight and sleep in his car.  I told him there was a State Forest Campground 5 miles up the road, where he could stay in his car for $14, but that only angered him further.  He also was very upset because there was no one at the check-in station.

Enough time had passed listening to Guy from Maine rant and rave that the bathroom was now becoming a serious issue for me.  In an effort to remove Guy from Maine from the direct path between me and the bathroom door, I calmly explained self check-in to him, suggesting he drive through the campground, choose a few sites he liked, and check the list at the station for availability.  He finally got back in his time-warped vehicle and sped off.

Whew!  The guy was weird, and manic, and a little fearsome.  I hustled to the bathroom, and as the rain started to fall, Debbie and I opened our umbrellas and set out to explore the park.  We walked for about 45 minutes, noting the location of other campers, deciding the number of campers made us feel like we weren't all alone, but the distance they all placed between campsites was good for privacy and quiet.  There were several loops in the campground, and everybody had spread out.

As we approached our campsite, Debbie grabbed my arm and stopped.  She pointed, I looked, and crazy Guy from Maine had parked his car directly across from the tin can.  Of all the empty sites in the campground, he chooses to park right on top of us?  Creepy.

We were a little uncomfortable with his presence.  I kept trying to convince Debbie, and myself, that cross-country travel can be stressful, Guy from Maine was just having a bad day, he's probably a really nice guy under normal circumstances.  Neither of us was buying it.  He was just scary.  We stayed close to the tin can, kept our eyes open, and watched his every move.  Guy from Maine sat in his little car for a while, listening to a baseball game on the radio, which we could hear loud and clear.  We saw him get out of his car, disappear, and then make an unexpected appearance right behind us when he came up from the beach.  He complained about the beach, said it wasn't very nice.

Later, without saying a word, Guy from Maine strode right through our campsite to walk on a trail behind us.  Talk about rude!  He made us uneasy all evening, coming and going and pacing and mumbling. We gave up trying to relax by the fire, and went in the tin can.  Three times I left my bed to make sure the door was locked on the tin can.  Three times Debbie said, "The door is locked, right?"  I had my dog, Rooney, and some personal protection items, which I kept right next to the bed.

I don't normally run into this problem.  People who camp and spend their time outdoors are good people.  I have never felt threatened.  Guy from Maine took away my sense of peace, my ability to relax.  He drove me into the camper, which is not how I camp at all.  It was sad.

The next morning, I awoke early to the feel of Rooney staring at my head and drooling.  He needed to go outside.  I dressed, fill my pockets with safety devices like pepper spray, a knife, and an alarm, and cautiously stuck my head out the door.  Guy from Maine was gone.  I wasn't sure whether to be relieved, or more scared wondering if he was really gone.

Debbie and I spent the rest of our trip enjoying the area, walking the beach, reading by the fire, laughing, and then laughing some more.  But each night, as we sat by the fire after the sun went down, if we heard a snap! in the woods, we both jumped.  We were almost hoping it was a bear, and not Guy from Maine coming back with a chainsaw and hatchet.  You can imagine the scenarios that were running through our heads.  I could still feel his presence, smell him lurking in the woods.  It didn't help that I was reading a James Patterson novel.

It was, overall, a great trip.  But the dark shadow of Guy from Maine hung over us the whole time and served to remind us that the bear in the woods is not necessarily the scariest thing we might encounter.  Another lesson learned.  Be aware, be prepared, be safe.  I hope Guy from Maine made it to Minnesota, I hope the rest of his trip was better.  I hope he was just having a bad day on the road and we only saw the worst of him.  I also hope we never run into him again!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I Got Lucky at Tahquamenon Falls

Every year, I venture to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to experience a real Yooper Winter.  All alone, I have hiked, snowshoed, crawled, and pushed my way through 3 feet of snow (or more) in sub-zero temperatures to live outdoors under harsh conditions.  I have driven in blizzards, witnessed a fatal car accident during a white-out, and generally been so scared and cold and miserable,  I question my sanity and motives.

But this year I got lucky.  When Mike Wendland, of Roadtreking: The Group, posted an open call to Roadtrekers for a Winter No Rules Rally at Tahquamenon Falls, I asked if I could join him, even though I don't own a Roadtrek or any kind of Class B Motorhome.  Mike assured me I was welcome.  I packed up my Yukon for a winter weekend of car camping and headed north.

I decided to leave a day early, giving myself time to figure out the whole "living in my car like a homeless person" thing before the others arrived.  I got lucky with clear skies, clear roads, and mild temperatures in the upper 20's, making it to the U.P. in a record 5 hours.  Arriving at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, I set up a small tent, placed a tarp on the floor, and created my own bathroom with the Luggable Loo, a folding table, and a bowl to pour hot water in to wash up.

The Yukon was then converted to a rustic cabin, with an electric extension cord running through the window, an electric heater set on high, and an electric blanket in my sleeping bag.  Everything I needed to survive was in the back of the vehicle, including warm layers of clothing, food, a Jet Boil Stove, jugs of water, a lantern, and a good book, which I never read because I was having too much fun all weekend.

At the suggestion of a Roadtreker from the group, I bought an insulating product called Reflectix.  For $23, I easily cut pieces from the roll to fit every window in my car.  It made all the difference in keeping the car warm with just a small space heater.  However, I didn't plan on spending much time in the car, so I started looking for the fire pit outside.

The staff at Tahquamenon Falls State Park had plowed enough sites for our group, one of the largest groups the park has ever seen winter camping on the same weekend.  Unfortunately, when they plowed my site, they buried the fire pit under 6 feet of snow.  I got lucky again when one of the rangers came by and gave permission for a ground fire.  With 30" of snow on the ground, it was a safe bet I wouldn't burn down the campground.  I dug a path through the snow, dug a hole, and started a roaring bonfire.  My evening was perfect.

The first night in the car was less than perfect.  I folded the backs of the rear seats down and spread a camp pad door-to-door, with a sleeping bag and electric blanket on top.  This left me no headroom, so my first challenge was undressing while lying down.  Once settled in the sleeping bag, I quickly realized that I didn't have enough room to straighten my legs, forcing me to sleep on my side.  Then my other side.  Then the first side again.  I tossed, turned, rolled, and contorted myself all night, never getting comfortable and sleeping little.  With the insulated windows and the space heater, I was too hot.  I turned the space heater off.  Then I opened the sleeping bag, tried to straighten the tangled mass of the electric blanket (while still lying on it), rearranged myself, and tried again.

I was up before daylight, just so I could stretch my legs and move my aching joints.  Opening the door and stepping outside, I was greeted with a winter wonderland.  Snow falling, complete quiet, sun just starting to rise.  I went for a walk, and met the first Roadtreker who had arrived last night, Malu from Canada.  We walked in the snow and got to know each other a bit, then started greeting other Roadtrekers as they pulled in.  Unfortunately, the temperatures were still mild and the falling snow was very wet, soaking my coat and boots.  By lunchtime, I was wet and chilled, and wondering how I would dry my stuff out.  I got lucky when Malu came to my rescue.  She invited me to sit in her warm Roadtrek for a cup of coffee.  I hung my coat just inside the door, put my boots in front of her heater, and sat back for engaging conversation and hot coffee.

Malu had traveled alone from Ontario, Canada.  Her Roadtrek was bought used, and she had made some minor modifications to fit her needs.  The Roadtreks aren't roomy, like a larger Class C Motorhome, but you can stand up straight, her modified bed was wider, she had a kitchen, and even a bathroom!  Because it was winter, all the Roadtrekers had winterized their vehicles, using water from jugs just like me and dumping it in a tub.  They flush their toilets with RV Antifreeze.  I was a little envious.

Malu and I stayed in her Roadtrek until my coat and boots were dry, then Mike Wendland, our
Jennifer and Mike
Photo Credit: Mike Wendland
Captain for the weekend, arrived with his wife, Jennifer, and Tai the dog.  We bundled up and went outside to greet them.  Others were arriving as well.  Everyone stood together, greetings exchanged, when a man walked up to us, not quite dressed for the weather.  It turns out, Darryl and his wife had driven all the way here from Georgia to experience their first winter.  Ever.  In their Roadtrek.  Awesome.

Photo Credit: Roadtreker Jeff Martyka
Dinner at the Upper Falls Brewery brought more new faces, all Roadtrekers who enjoy the freedom of simply unplugging their vehicle and driving off to the restaurant.  A nighttime walk to the falls, then a bonfire back at the campground, where I met my RT neighbor Jeff.  We didn't see much of Jeff, because this necktie salesman was off Fatbiking and snowshoeing and hiking, and even going solo to the falls at night to experiment with his fabulous photography.  At the first bonfire, one of us may or may not have introduced Fireball as a means for keeping warm.  We had a group of 25 hearty winter campers, all ready to play like kids again in the snow.

Sargeant Carolyn 
I got really lucky Saturday morning when I met Jim and Rhonda, who invited me into their Roadtrek for warmth and coffee.  Note to self:  One-cup coffee makers do not work with distilled water.  But once Jim figured out the problem and used regular water, I had a nice, hot cup of coffee with their dog, Cricket, in my lap.  We all got lucky with unseasonable temps in the mid-thirties, and throughout the day, we snowshoed to the lower falls as a group, with Sergeant Carolyn leading the way and not putting up with any foolishness.  Some of us did our own thing later, and I drove out to Whitefish Point, which was 20 degrees colder with a monster wind coming off Lake Superior, while others snowshoed some more, explored the area, or napped in their warm Roadtreks.  One Roadtreker, Jeff, even went exploring on his Fat Tire Bike.

Lake Superior at Whitefish Point
I've never been much of a "group" person, choosing to go it alone and welcoming the solitude.  But Roadtrekers are not your average group.  The No Rules Rally was quickly becoming one of my favorite trips of all time, due to the warmth and grace of the people who embrace exploring, new experiences, and lots of laughter.

There is good reason why they all travel in their Roadtreks.  I was welcomed into many of the Class B Motorhomes, and they are very comfortable.  I would have thought the smaller size of a home on wheels would feel confining, but through ingenious design, the Roadtreks feel spacious, even with 3 people and a dog inside.  There is much more storage space than I have in my Airstream Trailer (and certainly a lot more than inside my car!), with useful space conveniently arranged for ease.  The best part of a Roadtrek, though, is the versatility it offers for travel.  Completely self-contained, a Roadtrek allows it's proud owners the freedom to go anywhere, for long periods of time.  Many of the Roadtrekers modify their homes with solar panels, extra batteries, wider beds, and additional tables, which just adds to the ease of their travels.  They can boondock, which means they can park overnight (often free of charge) with no hookups and still have full functionality.  Because of their compact size, parking is not a problem, small campsites are easy to access, and a Roadtrek can handle the dirt roads that lead to some of the best places in America.

Photo Credit:
The people who own Roadtreks are even better.  Darryl and Taera bought theirs just to provide a place to sleep for their two dogs and cat while the couple stayed in hotels.  Vowing to never sleep in the Roadtrek, Taera didn't need much time to change her ways and embrace a life on the open road.  Hotels are a thing of the past for them now!  There were new Roadtreks and old Roadtreks, extended versions and compact versions.  RTer's use their Roadtreks to visit family without imposing, to go grocery shopping, or to carry artwork to a show.  Peter uses his Roadtrek to raise his son, Grant, with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for being outside.  Others load up their dogs and grandchildren for day trips.  And they travel to see America the way it was meant to be seen, by parking their home and getting outside.

Saturday night, while sitting under a brilliant canopy of stars and feeling the temperature drop rapidly, we enjoyed a final bonfire and shared stories of the weekend.  We were approached by another camper, who wasn't part of the Roadtrek Rally but had pulled a huge Fifth Wheel Travel Trailer with a Toy Hauler in the back into an impossibly small campsite.  He stood there a moment, and during a lull in the conversation, he spoke.

"I've been watching you guys all day.  While I've been trying to get my snowmobile to run and hanging out in the Fifth Wheel, you guys have been outside all day.  I saw you go snowshoeing, and hiking, and you stand outside around the fire.  I'm starting to understand that you guys have got it right, that what you are doing is the way it should be done."

Squirrel House
Photo Credit: Yan Seiner
He had a point.  Snowmobiling is fun, but you miss out on conversation, and the sound of running rivers and waterfalls.  You can't hear the snow falling, or the birds singing.  You don't see the squirrel run across your path and disappear into a hole, the way Yan did.  You miss the animal tracks and the ensuing debate over whether they belong to a Pine Marten or a Coyote.  You spend half your day kicking a machine that won't run, instead of laughing at yourself for snowshoeing on your derrière.

Yeah, I'd say the Roadtrekers got it right that weekend.  At the end of it all, Mike Wendland awarded me with a Roadtrek hat, making me an official honorary member of the Roadtreking Group.  I am both proud and humbled to be considered one of them.  I got lucky at Tahquamenon Falls, meeting such a great group of adventurous people and having a terrific weekend outside full of winter activities, laughter, and new friends.

On Sunday morning, the temperature was -6º F.  My bed stayed warm, but the heat didn't travel to the back of the Yukon, and my water was frozen, my propane heater was frozen, even my toothbrush was frozen.  The tent frame was frozen together, the Luggable Loo was frozen too.  I got lucky with milder weather most of the weekend, because if it had been this cold all weekend, I wouldn't have made it.  As I was using a clicker lighter to thaw the tent poles, I watched all the Roadtrekers unplug their vehicles and drive out, waving happily to me from their warm cabs.  Maybe, some day, if I'm lucky, I will be able to buy a Roadtrek and go anywhere, in any weather, and then just drive off.  For now, I will be content to bask in the warmth of new friends, new experiences, and new goals while I pack up my frozen stuff using fingers I can no longer feel and trudge over to the pit toilet as I longingly stare at the taillights of all the departing Roadtreks.  I can't wait for next year's No Rules Rally!
Photo Credit: Jeff Martyka

If you'd like to see a recap of our good times, check out Mike Wendland's video of the Roadtrek No Rules Winter Rally.  It pretty much says it all.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Best Snow Day Ever?

Today, my daughter had a snow day.  Again.  It's all just part of the cosmic conspiracy to keep me from writing.  However, contrary to what people think of me for hating snow days, it's not an entirely selfish reaction, it's just that I know how the day will go.  While it's true that I won't get any writing done, it's also true that my daughter loves snow days only until 9:00am, when she wakes from a glorious sleep and delights in the fact that she got to sleep in, only to remember that the day ahead will be long and boring.

The roads were pretty bad today, and the wind chills were brutal, so she couldn't call her friends to go sledding, or to come over and build a snowman.  Many of her friends live out in rural areas, and I was not willing to drive the slippery roads to pick them up, and their moms didn't want to bring them here either.  So my little Bean, while refreshed from catching up on her sleep, spent most of the day on the couch, watching mind-numbingly stupid shows on TV.  Bean is far too active a girl to enjoy a full day of TV.

Meanwhile, I shoveled the sidewalks and plowed the driveway.  An hour later, I did it again.  I did laundry, fixed the dryer, and checked emails.  I tried to write, but Bean kept calling out to me from the couch.  She made plans with friends, and would yell, "Mom, can I go to so-and-so's house at noon?"  and I would holler back my permission.  Ten minutes later, the plans would fall through.  Bean made plans with friends all day, but nothing ever came of it.  I gave up trying to write, hovered on the fringes of depression, and took a nap.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to my depression.  I found a way to love snow days, even if only for a moment.

After my nap, I sat down in front of my computer and was scrolling through social media sites when Bean wandered into the kitchen and sat down next to me.  She was complaining about how bored she was, when she suddenly exclaimed, "Mom!  Look at that bird!"

Outside the window, where I keep a bird feeder filled with seeds, was a Blue Jay, one brilliant bird among the many nuthatches and sparrows.  Then Bean shouted and said "Look, there's three more!"
She asked what kind of bird they are, and suddenly I found myself in my element, teaching her about Blue Jays.

Google Images
Bean moved closer to me, and I pointed out the coloring of their feathers.  She asked how to tell the difference between males and females.  Blue Jays do not exhibit differences among males and females by their markings.  Instead, you must observe their behavior.  I told Bean to watch each bird, and tell me what they are doing.  One bird would land, and the other three would follow.  The same bird would call out, imitating a hawk, and the other three would call out too.  When the one bird flew off, the other three followed.

The bird initiating the behaviors is the female, while the males imitate her, trying to impress her.  Mating season starts soon!

Blue Jays are a close-knit family unit.  Mates are monogamous, and males are fairly involved with nest-building and rearing young, though the female has the final say in all matters.  (Maybe that's why Bean is drawn to them!) They are very social birds, and will warn other species of birds of danger.  Blue Jays are also highly intelligent, and can be a bit aggressive at the bird feeder.  Bean was enthralled by them.

Sorry about the quality, pictures taken through
windows are never good!
 Then the best thing of all happened; a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker made an appearance!  It swooped in, ate from the feeder, then flew off to land on the trunk of a nearby tree and started pecking at it.  Bean and I laughed as the Sapsucker backed down the tree trunk, and in that moment, I was so glad she'd had a snow day.  I would have missed this moment with her, sharing what I know and am passionate about and seeing her delight.  I'm not trying to sound cliche here, but it was a beautiful thing.

I don't care about the rest of the day.  I forgot about my frustration at interrupted schedules, I didn't dwell on the fact that I wasn't accomplishing much.  For that moment, Bean wasn't bored, she was at my side, sharing something wondrous.  She wasn't a teenager; she was my girl again.

The next time Bean has a snow day, which will most likely be next week, I might even suggest a snowy walk in the woods.  Who knows?  Maybe we'll see an owl, or a red-tailed hawk, or wild turkey.  I can show her rabbit tracks, deer tracks, and coyote tracks.  It's quite possible we could simply walk silently, and she might begin to understand the serenity I feel in the wintery woods.

Bean, and my other children, are a gift to me.  I have always believed that, even when I don't show it. Today, Bean was my gift, my reminder to slow down, breathe, and take in the moment.  If I can give that gift back to her, teach her to be interested in the natural world and to learn how to really observe what goes on around her, then I was a good mom, at least for a moment today.  The rest of the day?  Eh, maybe not so much, but I think Bean cherished our moment as much as I did.  Then a friend called, and she left.  Her warmth stayed with me.

I hope you had a simple moment of joy today, and every day.  I will remember today as the best snow day ever, at least for a moment.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Kissing Fishes

In May 2014, I began my dream job, educating the public about nature.  As a Nature Guide, I was given a fantastic week of training, then given the freedom to design the programs I would present.  On being shown to my "office"(I use the term loosely, since it also doubled as a maintenance room and employee locker room, though I was told I was lucky to have a work space at all) I spent a day looking through the programs other Nature Guides had presented before me, and panic set in.  I knew nothing!  What was I thinking, believing I could educate the public in the natural sciences?  So I did what I always do in stressful situations, which also happens to be a part of my job requirement; I went alone into the woods.

It was there, exploring the natural areas in which I would be working, that I found my balance again.  I saw a deer with twin fawns, their leaps and bounds awkward while the doe gracefully glided over fallen trees.  I knew she was teaching them by showing them.  I saw a snake (eeeeek!) sunning itself on the boat launch, realizing I would have to get used to seeing snakes, and not hyperventilating.  I saw turtles, birds I could not identify (add "birding" to the list of things I need to learn), and trees natural to the area; red pine, black cherry, cottonwood, hickory, elm, and countless ash trees on the ground, their majestic trunks felled by a tiny invasive bug.  I began to count how many things I did know, things I learned by being in nature, not in a classroom.  An idea began to form about how I would present my programs.

I returned to my office for additional research, and I realized my idea was not original.  There is a wealth of information available about guided nature programs, written by people who feel exactly the same way I do.

As the summer schedule commenced, it quickly became obvious I was on the right track.  I was initially amazed by the amount of science the kids in my groups knew.  Some kids even added facts to my presentation, which delighted me.  As the days continued, the realization hit me that I had learned all the same things in elementary school, many years ago.  I had just forgotten it all until recent years when I started spending more time outdoors.

It is very important in my job to be knowledgeable.  But so many of the kids I interact with are already pretty knowledgable, so I refined my focus to two challenges.  The first is to present them with relevant information that goes a little beyond what they are taught in school.  I was researching a program about owls, knowing these kids would know the basics; owls are raptors, owls can't move their eyes, owls can move their head 270º, owls glide through the air soundlessly, and they are nocturnal.  They eat their prey, then regurgitate the parts they can't digest.  Then I came across an interesting tidbit, checked a few other sources for validation, and made up a story to tell the kids while we walked in the woods at night, calling for owls.

The story is about a family a black crows who torment a sleeping owl all day.  The owl is their predator, so they bully the owl all day, diving through the air and pecking and screeching, disturbing the owl's sleep.  I never knew that crows did this.  Then one day, I was in my own back yard, splitting wood, when a commotion caught my eye.  I looked up, and sure enough, an owl was swooping through the air above me with a flock of crows in hot pursuit, pecking at him while he sought refuge in a hollow tree.  I was enthralled!  Maybe I have seen this before, but I didn't know what exactly I was seeing.  How thrilling it was to watch this phenomenon of nature and truly understand it.

Therein lies my biggest challenge as a Nature Guide.  How do I find a way to help these kids remember what they learn?  We all learned about the animals and the environment, the rocks, the trees.  As we grew older, our interests became narrower, and at some point we forget everything else. I want to be a part of creating a generation of kids who don't forget nature.  The challenge became one of connecting kids with nature, of creating a strong enough connection that they continue to seek time outdoors even as they grow into adults.

For me, seeing the crows chasing the owl created a connection.  This is the kind of thing you can't plan, you can't incorporate it into an educational program.  So I sought the help of experts, like Michael Caduto and Joseph Cornell, and my favorite, Jon Young and his book about Coyote Mentoring.  These people are a few of the pioneers of connecting people with nature, and their books have helped me guide my programs toward a more enriching experience.

I had to learn how to use a child's natural curiosity with whatever was at hand.  On one particularly beautiful Saturday morning, I took a group of kids fishing.  Most were squeamish about baiting the hook, or touching their catch.  Then one young girl caught a nice Bluegill, and before throwing it back, she kissed it.  The other kids squealed, but I threw some enthusiasm into the situation and explained that real fishermen kiss their fish before they throw it back.  I then told a story about an old man who would kiss a small fish, then throw it back in the hope that when the fish got bigger, he would catch it again and eat it.  The kiss was a sign of respect for the nourishment the fish would someday provide.  Pretty soon I had 30 kids begging to kiss a fish.

It was a nice segue into a discussion of food chains, which was unplanned but beneficial.  More importantly, the kids connected to the fish, and understood the role it plays.  They kissed a fish!

My job is awesome.  I learn more from it than I teach, and together with a group of kids, teenagers, even adults, we explore and discover and connect with our natural world.  If those experiences stay with them as they have stayed with me, more people will care about life, balance, and all living things.   In even the smallest of ways, I did a good thing.
Now that winter is firmly upon us and I am not leading groups of people through the woods, I am spending my time researching even more information and finding fun new ways to present programs.  If you are a parent, or an aunt or uncle, grandparent, here's a fun winter fact:  If you see the kids eating snow, fill a glass with the snow and bring it inside to melt.  If there are tiny black dots in the melted snow, tell the kids they've been eating snow fleas, which are a good source of protein!  (Then tell them to stop eating snow!)

Happy winter, happy exploring, and try to get outside today!