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Easiest Birthday Party Ever: A Day at Aquaboggin

My son just turned nine and we celebrated with the easiest birthday party we’ve ever given. We spent the day at Aquaboggan, a water park about 20 minutes from our house in Saco, Maine with a small group of kids. It was great fun for the kids and adults and quite affordable because we only invited a few kids.

Every year my husband and I plan a big birthday party and invite lots of kids in order to be inclusive.  We’ve had Bay Blade parties with multiple stations for “spin offs” where each kid was given a Bay Blade; Harry Potter birthday parties with Quidditch and potions; and water play parties with slip and slides, sprinklers, and a kiddie pool. In addition to lots of kids converging on our yard, their parents come too. The parties are always great fun but also a strain to plan and even though they’re at home, they tend to be expensive. This year we did it differently.

My son invited one cousin (who happened to be in the neighborhood), two friends, and of course his sister got to come.  The final count was five kids and four adults.  The park offers a discounted birthday rate for parties of at least 8 ($15 per person) and the birthday child gets in for free.  They reserve a picnic table under a pavillion for the group and will even keep your cake in the fridge until you’re ready to serve it (of course, you have to remember the cake in order to serve it at the park…). They allow you to bring your own food and drink. We packed a cooler of sandwiches, some cut up watermelon, chips, and lemonade.  The only thing I spent money on after the admission fee was to rent a locker for $5 to keep my camera, phones, and wallets in.  Our neighbor rented a double tube for going down some slides with his son.

Aquabogan top of dome

I love that the park is relatively clean, that it doesn’t feel crowded, that you don’t have to wait in lines for rides, and that you are surrounded by trees. Our favorite part is the dome (for kids only) followed by the wave pool. Although we did try the slides, most of the kids weren’t interested in spending a lot of time on them. The only thing I would improve is to add more trees throughout the park so that there are more shady spots. Most of my family did get a sun burn somewhere on our bodies. We should have reapplied sunscreen but water parks are tricky for keeping sunscreen on.

aquaboggan anica climbing dome

I thought the group size was perfect and I was glad to have four adults so we could divide up and go to different parts of the park throughout the day.

aquaboggan charlie bouncing down dome

Aquaboggan charlie going down dome

aquaboggan covered in water

 

aquaboggan henry climbingAquaboggan picnic tableAquaboggan anica silly faceaquaboggan so fun

A very happy and memorable birthday party for sure. Let’s do it again next year!

 

Everyday Outside Wins Down East Magazine’s “Best of Maine Readers’ Choice Award”

It is with great pride that I share with you that in the July issue of Down East Magazine, Everyday Outside was announced the winner of the Readers’ Choice Award for Best Blog. Readers of Down East (and maybe just a few of my friends ;-) ) voted for me and we won!  This is the fifth year that Down East has been giving these awards but this was the  first year that they threw a party for the award winners. And boy do they know how to throw a party! We celebrated at the Portland Club downtown on June 27 with food and beverages served by Black Tie Company. The food and service were exemplary. I wondered if the mini lobster roll that I was served was made by the winners of “The Best Maine Lobster Roll” because it was so good, but I was told that the event caterers made them.  Maybe next year Black Tie Company will win the best roll–it’s that good! The food was simply amazing and everything that you could possibly want when celebrating in our great state. A raw bar with unlimited oysters, lobster rolls, fried crab rolls, and a dessert table that included miniature whoopie pies that were dipped in chocolate. They were really quite tiny, as far as whoopie pies go, and my goodness were they yummy. I may never eat another chocolate dipped whoopie… so I ate another and another and another.

Upon arrival we were given a name tag, our award, and a goody bag. I posed for a photo with Paul Doiron, the editor-in-cheif of the magazine and I kind of missed my opportunity to talk about my blog.  If I hadn’t been so nervous I would have said, “We should talk. Coffee?”  Even now I don’t really  know what I should have said… How about, “Let’s work together to get more people outside on a more regular basis!” It was kind of cool to have a professional photo taken with the fancy backdrop like those seen at awards shows.  I felt like this was just one of the many details that demonstrate how the event planners thought of everything.  DE_BESTofMAINE-209

The awardees in the room were as diverse as our great state.  The Readers’ Choice for best boat builder was The Hinckley Company; for best print columnist the great Bill Nemitz, who writes for the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram; and best bargain store was Renys–an institution almost as popular as L.L. Bean, the winner of best outdoor store and sporting goods store.  We all mingled about not really knowing who else was in the room.  I found out after the event that Liz Pride, the author of Your LL Bean Boyfriend was an awardee. The editor of Down East whispered to her that he was wearing an L.L. Bean suit…   You can read her account of the evening here.

As a parent and a hard-working momma, I rarely get to indulge in such a special evening with such great food and unlimited drinks.  Thanks Down East for this memorable evening and the recognition. I will certainly hang my award with great pride in my office.

If you were one of the readers who voted for me, I thank you.  I hope I can continue to entertain you with my narratives of simple outings and musings about the benefits of getting outside on a regular basis for years to come. My ultimate goal is to highlight that just stepping out the back door helps fuel a nature connection that can completely transform one’s outlook on life. Happy summer and many wonderful outings to all of you.

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Peaks Island Field Trip–My 40th Birthday Present

On May 30th, I turned 40. We celebrated early, with dancing and a birthday party, with friends and family, and with food and drink the weekend prior.  It was a lovely way to shift decades. But the best possible birthday celebration happened on my actual birthday. I was able to go on a field trip to Peaks Island with my daughter’s class. I couldn’t think of a better way to usher in another decade–a day spent on ferries, messing about with tide pools, humming to periwinkles to bring them out of their shells, building sandcastles, comparing various types of seaweed, eating lunch on a beach while observing seagulls and a pair of soaring osprey, and bringing 18 incredibly cute kindergarteners to an island off the coast of Portland.

peaks island lighthouses

peaks island lobster boat

peaks sign

peaks tide pools

peaks rocks

peaks lobster sign

It is hard to believe that in a few weeks I’ll be done with kindergarten… I’m so grateful that I could shift my work responsibilities around to make it possible to go on this field trip. I’m even more grateful for wonderful teachers who bring the magic of the natural world into the hearts of children who may not otherwise find it.

peaks mrs sherry

peaks anica ferry

I’m so grateful that the first forty years of my life have brought me to where I am today. I know another ten will slip by in an instant.  My son will be graduating from high school and my daughter will be 16 when I turn 50.  I hope to go on as many field trips as they’ll allow in those ten years… these precious days go so quickly.

Is 30 Minutes Enough?

I have been thinking about a simple question for awhile now. In fact, as I successfully completed my 2012 challenge to get outside for at least thirty minutes every day, I wondered if thirty minutes of outdoor time was enough.  The question came with me on my walks and lingered well after I returned home.

I contemplated upping the challenge to go out for at least 60 minutes a day during 2013. Was 30 minutes of my day a tough enough challenge? Would I have more to write about and would it be more interesting to my readers if I went out longer? Is 1/48th of a day a sufficient amount of outdoor time? Most days 30 minutes is pretty easy to accomplish—what would 60 minutes feel like when the wind chill is well below zero or when I had a fever of 102?  Would 1/24 of a day be twice as good? Does the ratio of outdoor time to indoor time even matter? And what does it mean to be enough? What is the core goal here?

The concept reentered my thinking in February after I presented at the Portland Trails 2013 Annual Meeting. I presented what I’m doing here in this Everyday Outside blog and what the 365 Everyday Outside Challenge is. The format only allowed me to share the essence of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

(You can watch the video here.  My introduction starts at 43:22 and my presentation starts with a little nervous laughter at 44:46.)

After the presentation my mother-in-law said, “It seems like such a simple thing to do… I must already go outside for at least 30 minutes. I walk to and from the car a lot.”  Then I could see her remember that the only thing I don’t count towards my outdoor time is walking to and from the car. Before I started the challenge, I too would have thought that I was outside for at least 30 minutes most days, but as I began to keep track of my minutes, I was shocked at how much more I was going outdoors than I had in the past. The goal of not missing more than one day a month pushed me to make a conscious effort, and that made all the difference.

There were many days when I would not have gone for a walk if it wasn’t for the challenge, nights when I was about to crawl into bed after 10:00, having just slipped on my cozy fleece pajamas only to remember that that I hadn’t gone outside. Without the challenge, I wouldn’t have bothered, but with it, I had just enough of a push to get me out of bed and out the back door with my pajamas on. In 2012 I went out that back door in the wee hours like that more times than I could count because I was counting.

After the presentation, my husband thought that my talk made the challenge sound easy, and he knows otherwise. In 2012, when I started this journey to get outside every day, I would absolutely agree, that it isn’t easy. But it is much easier now than it was for the first year. People say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. I gave myself a whole year, and it is now certainly a habit that will last a lifetime. So far in 2013 I’ve missed only one day.

This habit has made me noticeably happier. I’m pretty sure my happiness is directly proportional to how much outdoor time I get. Maybe it is in part because my indoor time is connected to work, responsibilities, cleaning, cooking, laundry, and stuff that I have to do and which I rarely feel on top of. Outdoor time almost always involves stuff I really want to do. Maybe I am happier because I am getting a sufficient amount of vitamin D or more exercise or fresh air. Or is it possible that my increased happiness level is a result of a deep, sustained, everyday connection with the natural world? I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly what is responsible for making me feel happier but I know that my outdoor time has contributed significantly. I also know that the key is at least 30 minutes.  Anything less than 30 minutes would not be enough because most days 30 minutes isn’t sufficient for my nature connection.

In part I’m keeping my challenge to 30 minutes because I really want others to join me, and for the challenge to be an attainable goal that others want to achieve. My dog walking family and friends go outside every day and between 20-40 people have said they’re taking the outdoor challenge this year. So lots of people are getting outside regularly, but I know that most aren’t. Most days I get outside for more than a half-hour, but there are days when it is all I can do to make those thirty precious minutes happen, and those are the days when I need that time the most.  On those days 30 minutes is enough.

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What do you think?  Is thirty minutes of daily outdoor time enough for you?

 

The J24 Team Prepares for the 2013 Sailboat Racing Season

I race sailboats.  It is one of the ways that I take care of myself and is something that I do so that I can be a better mother.  About once a week during the season, I go away for a few hours to work on the boat or to race her and come home feeling like I went on a vacation. This racing season I hope to take you along on my journey.  We mostly race in local regattas and every Wednesday night.  But a world championship is coming up that we’d actually go to if we qualified so there should be some exciting adventures as we strive to improve our skills.

Meet some of my teammates as we take the winter coat off of and spiff up Mr. Hankey!

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Charlotte

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Dr. Andrew Carey (the owner, skipper, and allergist–if you’re wondering where the boat got its name)

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Stephanie

(Toby and Jon weren’t there this day, but you’ll meet them soon!)

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And our fine vessel.

 

 

Bad Dog!

I don’t exactly hate dogs but lately my relationship with them has been strained. I’m allergic to most of them, they drool, and their barks tend to pierce my ears. But what bothers me the most is when they jump up on me unexpectedly, or worse, when they jump on my kids who are scared of them.

When I’m on a trail, most of the other humans I see are ones with their dogs. I don’t know where all the non-dog owners are… maybe inside with their cats and hamsters. Or maybe they got tired of being jumped on by other people’s dogs? Dogs have jumped on me twice recently. Both were leashed. Both times I was scared.  Both dog owners apologized but the apologies didn’t make me feel better. I still felt violated.

Here’s the thing dog owners may not know: when your dog jumps up on me it is unexpected and startling. I am a bit fearful he will bite me. His friendly hello feels like an attack. You know he’s being friendly, but I don’t. You may think I like it, but I really, really don’t. My neighbor and friend has been bitten twice by dogs on leashes while running on trails in Portland and has said he won’t even go to Baxter Woods anymore because he’s had dozens of dogs jump up on him on the trails.

I mentioned this to some of my dog-lover friends and even they agreed that they don’t want other dogs jumping up on them. Perhaps dog owners don’t know how this feels. Maybe they don’t get jumped up on because when they encounter dogs on the trail their own dogs get the attention and spare them the slobber. Maybe their fondness for their canines clouds their empathy. “What’s not to love about Fifi?” they may think. Why wouldn’t they think this? I assume people are going to love my kids because my kids are amazing. These folks undoubtedly feel the same way about their dog. I get it, but I wouldn’t ever let my child jump up on you. Your apology afterwards is essential, but it doesn’t make it OK. It still makes the trail a less desirable place, even for me.

This past winter I was walking on a trail and saw a runner coming toward me with an off-leash dog. I felt my fear begin to rise, but as soon as she saw me, she called her dog to her who promptly came, fastened the leash, and cinched up on it so the dog was just inches from her hand. What a relief. She held the dog in place as I approached, and my fear dissipated. Happily, it turned out to be my friend Moriah and her dog Pearl. As we talked, she asked if I minded if she took the leash off. By then, Pearl was acclimated to my smell, I totally trusted the dog was going to respond to my friend when called, and I didn’t mind one bit. This was superb dog owner etiquette elegantly at work: Moriah proactively kept her dog under control from a good distance and I felt perfectly safe.

I love being in the woods on the trails. My time out there will not be compromised by the potential that your leashed dog may jump on me. But I wonder, when I joked earlier that some people were at home with their hamsters, was there some truth to it… are there other non-dog owners like my neighbor who are too scared of dogs and avoid the trails because of them? My husband reminded me that years ago I coached him through his intense fear of dogs. He had been bit by a dog whose owner said, “He’s friendly.” He’s been chased by unleashed dogs numerous times while riding his bike. I advised him to stay calm, to avoid looking them in the eye, to talk to them like you know them, and to let them smell the back side of your hand. He said he’s now rarely scared of dogs in the woods. This is all well and good, but when I’m exercising, I don’t really want to stop running to apply these proper time-consuming behaviors. In preparation for this blog post I read some advice at a government web page called Dealing with Dogs. I learned that when I approach a dog from the front or the back, dogs might read this as a threat and work to protect their owner. This is probably heightened when I’m running toward them. This certainly seems like something non-dog owners and dog owners alike should be aware of. I guess the solution is two part: owners firmly chomp down on the leash when strangers approach and the non-dog owning trail users can leave a wide berth to dogs on leash.

What do you think?  How can dog owners and non-dog owning folks best share the trails?  To my dog-owning readers, what else can we do to keep from getting jumped up on?  Please leave a comment so all others can learn!

Strolling with Friends

I’m a lucky woman. I have wonderful friends in my personal life and I work with delightful people who I call friends. This past week I traveled to Rhode Island for a brief work trip. My colleague from Delta Education, Knans Griffing, met me there. After a really wonderful day at URI with educators at Gems-Net, we spent the night in Newport, RI. Knans and I went for a long walk along the Cliff Walk and imagined the lives of the people who owned the mansions. Most of these mammoth homes looked vacant and were possibly just summer homes.

newport  cliff walk rocks

The view was spectacular, the mansions were ridiculously large and nothing I’d ever want to live in but fun to look at non-the-less, but the company warmed my heart and made the walk so much more memorable than the cliff walk would ever be alone. We walked for well over an hour, searched the beach for large shells to bring home to my children, and enjoyed the crisp fresh air with the heavenly hint of salt from the Atlantic ocean.

Newport sign

The next morning we woke early to go for a walk through town before I had to leave to work with some educators in CT.  It was chilly and windy but sunny.  Walking with a good friend in a beautiful seaside town was a lovely way to start the day.

Knans gorgeous

Newport ocean wave

Erica on tree with hat

 

Although I love my solo outdoor experiences, time outdoors is almost always more special with the company of friends or family.

Bringing the Outdoors In

I’ve been busy. Very, very busy. So busy, that I worry you may feel like I’ve been neglecting my efforts with this here blog. Although I haven’t been writing much, I have been getting outside almost every day. In fact, for the 2013 Everyday Outside Challenge, I’ve only missed one day of getting outside for at least 30 minutes.   

Here’s the irony, the day I couldn’t get outside I was celebrating environmental education with a bunch of outdoor enthusiasts at Chewonki during the Maine Environmental Education Association annual conference. I was one of the organizers of the event, the first conference I’ve ever helped organize, and every minute of the day was devoted to buttoning down a myriad of details needed to make the day a success. I spent all day thinking about connecting people, young and old, to nature and getting others outside more frequently, but when I finished my work and home responsibilities for the day, at 11pm, there was no juice in the tank for actually walking out the door. Anyway, the good news is I’ve gotten outside for 88 of 89 days this year. Family adventures in sledding, skating and snowman building balanced out my alone time skiing and walking in nature, and all that variety and fun took some of the bite out of the harsh weather we’ve seen this year.  Having gone out in blizzards, nor’easters, extreme cold, and a crap load of snow, spending time outside in the upcoming warm sunshine will be a breeze.

I am ready to say good-bye to winter: I want to go outside without boots and am ready to leave my hats and mittens in the basket in the mud room, ready to hang up my thick winter coat in the closet.  I’m watching as the leaves of the breast cancer awareness tulips poke up through the thawing earth next to our driveway. The purple, white, and yellow crocuses fill me with joy and tender feelings of hope every time I walk past them.  As the first signs of spring, they remind me that the end of winter is in sight.  Even though we may face another big storm, soon we’ll see green on trees and bushes, and our yard will shine with fresh grass.

After the conference, I took my husband up the coast to celebrate his birthday.  A Groupon deal made the Hawthorn Inn up in Camden affordable to stay for two nights in the carriage house. What luxury! The room was even nicer in reality than it looked on the web. Though I generally avoid inns because I prefer to be anonymous and don’t always like having to be nice and friendly with innkeepers, this worked out great. The owner Maryann Shanahan struck the right balance of giving us space and sharing her treasured home with us.

What made our room perfect for me was how one whole wall was filled with sliding glass windows.  Beyond the windows was a deck looking out through bare trees that revealed the winter harbor. Lying in bed gazing out the windows at trees and water took me back to my childhood in rural Nottingham, NH.  Back then I spent countless mornings daydreaming through the windows at the treetops swaying in the breeze outside my bedroom window. I concentrated on them deeply on weekend mornings, hoping their swaying boughs would predict great wind for sailboat races later in the day. It was a dream to wake up next to nature’s allure like that, and I miss it terribly. These days, I have neither the bedroom view nor the leisurely mind state for morning window gazing.

camden harbor

I was so wiped out from planning the conference on top of my full-time job and parenting responsibilities that I didn’t mind the fact that breakfast wasn’t served until 9:00am.  I appreciated the extra sleep and time to just lie in bed and look at the view!  Once in the dining room, we savored a delicious breakfast of fruit salad topped with yogurt and nuts with a second course of a lightly seasoned spinach frittata and roasted potatoes.

Then we were off for a hike up Mount Megunticook, where we found a treacherous mix of slush, ice and mud.  We only slipped and fell a couple times on the way up, but we practically had to crawl back down again.  Well, Hans DID crawl through the steep stretches where the slush was packed solid and grey. Meanwhile, I found myself sliding down the path, pretending I was on skis and that all of this was by design. Skiing down a slushy hill in hiking boots is almost as good as cross country skiing. Despite how much extra energy we had to devote to make our way through the muck, it was still an invigorating hike.  Exhausting, but invigorating.  I can’t wait to take the kids on long hikes like this one, and I think this might be the summer for it: they are getting more and more capable all the time, and they will love working hard to drink in a beautiful vista while snacking on chocolate nut crunch trail mix.

boat house

Throughout the weekend, I couldn’t stop thinking about how critical it is to connect with the beautiful things we see. When I say “connect” here, what I really mean is to be IN the natural world. I was struck by how my connection to the view from the hotel window was dramatically heightened when I stepped out the door onto the balcony. Suddenly, the view became much more three dimensional.  The sound of birds, boats, and water all came into bloom.  Details lost through the window glass were now clear. I could almost touch the trees.  The dark shadows cast on the smooth white snow seemed to jump out at me, and the stream tumbling noisily from the mountain drowned out the traffic that I tried hard to ignore. I was a part of this scene and brought it into my soul. Then, walking down by the harbor which we could plainly see from the porch, I noticed so much more than I could imagine from above. Yes, it is obvious that you will see more when you are closer to something, but what I am talking about is an almost intangible feeling of entering into something. It is the feeling of leaving the indoor world where we control everything and entering a vast, interconnected place that can only truly be experienced from within it.

When I returned inside, I continued to admire the scene out the window, and I could still feel it inside of me. Although there was glass separating us, I brought the outdoors in. If I had only looked out the window at this beautiful scene, I would have missed the depth of the connection. I wouldn’t have felt so warmed by nature’s beauty.  Looking out the window, we gaze at art made by someone we don’t know and will never meet. Going past the window into the scene itself, we join hands with the painter and experience her art directly.

yard at Hawthorn

schooners for winter

I felt this most acutely up on the mountain trail while crossing a stream.  The rushing water is perfectly lovely from a short distance.  Then, getting closer, I felt surrounded by the sound, aware of water’s raw power. Even closer, standing on a stone in the middle of the stream, all the sounds were louder and bolder and the scents tangibly more powerful. I could feel through my feet its power to smooth stones and change the shape of land. I could feel that power in my bones. Was I part of the stream?  I don’t know, but I was certainly more grateful and present to be surrounded by it.

best winter spring

trail

These moments of connecting with nature strengthen me in tangible ways that are difficult to put into words. My regular connection to nature makes me a more fullfilled person. My heart is open and ready to welcome spring and to continue connecting with the trees outside my window.

from top of mountain

signs

tree marking

The Pull of a Trail

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Do you feel it?  Do you feel the pull?  There is something about a well made trail that pulls me along, makes me want to continue to run, walk, or ski over it. Helping me forget about the zillion details and responsibilities that make up my life. That pull calls me back again and again to discover the same beautiful and yet ever changing combination of rocks, wood, soil, leaves, animals, and light. Maybe it is the width of the trail and how it appears to narrow as you look far ahead, maybe it is how it twists and turns, maybe it is the knowledge that some unexpected beauty may exist somewhere ahead of where I am, maybe it is the lure of the unknown, the unseen.  Whatever it is, I feel it.  I feel it in the core of my being.

Treacherous Trails, Swollen Jewell Falls, Unexpected Treasure

I woke up at 3:30 am last night. I tossed and turned for 1.5 hours before dragging my tired tush out of bed. I worked for 1.5 hours and then decided to go outside. I grabbed my camera and drove to one of the Portland Trail entrances to Jewell Falls and hoped to walk all the way to Stroudwater. Upon arrival I learned this was going to be a slow crawl of a walk. The ice was often 4-6 inches thick and along the edges where the ice had melted was 4-6 inches of mud.  There were a few spots of snow along which I could find some secure footing, but for the most part I had to be very, very careful.

The falls were swollen with the recent rain and the snow melt.  jewell falls_horizontal_130313jewell falls_vertical_130313

After taking several minutes to absorb the sounds, smell, and sight of the waterfall I carried on along the trail. I managed to get pretty far down the trail and enjoyed my walk. Just as I turned to head home I heard two incredibly angry crows who indicated to  me that a predator was about.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of big wings and I was pretty sure the crows were pissed that an owl or hawk was near by.  I was leaning towards an owl so I followed the racket until I could see it.  I actually said, “Yes!” in an out-loud whisper in response to making eye contact with this guy.  (Look in the center of the photo below…)owl_jewell falls_130313

I was hoping he’d fly toward me so I could capture an even closer photo, but it was enough to stand and have a starring contest. Certainly made up for a terrible night sleep.

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