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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!

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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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

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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Thrills on a Hill

If you haven’t gone sledding lately, stop reading and head out. Right now!   Zipping down a hill on a plastic board will give you the cheapest thrill to share with your kids next to throwing snowballs. I love to speed down a hill with my arms wrapped around one of my children, the memory of which I will treasure for a lifetime. They are growing so fast that all too soon they’ll be heading to the hill without me.

sled_charlie smile green disk

Sleds are a thrill on a hill but you can also use them on level ground. Children, new walkers, and babies love being pulled in sleds. Who wouldn’t? When my daughter was little, I pulled her to preschool while I cross-country skied. This form of transport was inspired by one of my fondest memories with my father. He pulled me on a sled to the corner store as he skied. The candy bar we shared there was not nearly as sweet as the love I felt being pulled behind my father in the snow-quieted neighborhood. I only remember it happening once, but I am determined to give the experience to my children again and again, with hopes that they will carry the fond memory into their adult lives.

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There are a few things I know to be true about sledding.

Fun is proportional to group size.  You can have races, link arms and try to reach the bottom together, or make one long train. How many ways are there to ride a sled? A big hill packed with sledders is a brainstorming session in snow. The larger the crowd of kids, the wider variety of techniques and games you’ll see. The more the merrier.

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Bigger hills are better. Although little children prefer smaller hills. They can make do at the bottom of a big one, and even piles of snow by the driveway can work.

sled_anica huge smile new sled

You can’t outgrow a sled. Your kids will outgrow any number of skates, skis, and snow pants, but they will never grow out of their sleds, and neither will you. Sleds come in different sizes, but even the smallest sleds work for everyone. But having a sled that holds more than one rider opens up many possibilities.

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Sharing sleds is part of the culture of many hills. Kids we’ve never met before think nothing of asking, “May we please borrow your sled?” People even offer up their sleds unprompted, as one woman did for me with her giant inner tube.  I’m still kicking myself for turning her down.

Bundle up!  Although you’ll certainly work up a sweat trudging back up the hill each time, catching a chill will cut short a great time.  Throw an extra neck warmer in your pocket for when your son face-plants after an absurd stunt and bursts into tears.

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(photo credit to Deirdre Confar)

Pack granola bars. Prevent bonking.

If you’re in the market for a sled, I recommend a new design we’ve been using that is made of a thick slab of flexible foam with handles on the sides. It slides effortlessly over all kinds of snow, can accommodate more than one rider, and its soft foam material absorbs a lot of shock from bumps and chunks of ice. (The material is 4-5 cm thick, compared to 1 cm of our other foam sled.) My son prefers it because in distance races it travels the farthest, my daughter selects it because it is the fastest, and my tush demands the shock absorption.

Some awesome sleds:

A Pull-your-little-one sled

amy priestly-roy

(photo credit Amy Priestley-Roy)

Our New Favorite


A Simple Classic

A great sled is wonderful, but you don’t need one to have a wonderful time.  You can slide downhill over snow on just about anything.  The kids at the Boston public school where I taught years ago used cardboard boxes for heaven’s sake.  And they had a supremely good time.  A friend of mine uses an air mattress!  Whether you use a cafeteria tray or a 6-person toboggan, you’re bound to have a memorable time.

A Precious Winter Beach Walk

Earlier this week I had to drop off a package at UPS. The trip brought me downtown and since I was in Portland I decided to drive a few more minutes to the East End Beach.  It is a small beach, but a lovely one, and one I don’t visit often enough.  It is only three and a half miles from my house–but the journey there is typically mobbed by traffic lights, asphalt, and way too much time in a car.

Let me take you on my winter beach walk.  These photos capture some of the things I love most about Maine.

EEB_vista top of hill

EEB_Portland Trails sign

EEB_snow on rocks

EEB_the sunny water's edgeEEB_rocks, sand, and shellsEEB_take my breath away beachEEB_mostly shellsEEB_rocks and seaweed

My precious Maine–I didn’t know my love for you could continue to grow.

How about you, do you find it possible to love the natural world more deeply as you spend more time somewhere?  Where is your precious spot?  I invite you to share (and love, love, love hearing from you) in the comments section found at the top of this post.

The Blizzard of ’13, Record Snow in Portland

The Blizzard of ’13 brought just shy of 32″ to Portland, ME.  Snow started falling on Friday morning even though the meteorologists said Nemo would hit in the evening. The snow didn’t let up until late the next day. The temperatures were down in the single digits, with a fierce wind driving the wind chill into dangerous territory.

I posted on Facebook that I might not go outside on Saturday until the blizzard blew out of town, which returned some cheerleading and mild grief from my community of on-line friends. Soon after this my daughter turned off the TV and announced, “I’m going out,” Of course, I decided to join her and my son dropped his X-box game to jump into gear.

We bundled up covering every inch of our bodies except for our eyes, and soon we were shoveling our way out of the house. Once we made it off the back porch, my children and the neighbors’ kids abandoned shoveling in favor of fort making. The snow-bank forts were tall and needed some simple carving to make places to sit and hide. We took time from our building to sit in the snow and admire the work of Mother Nature. How heavy it weighed on our old white pine, how thoroughly it blanketed our world in such a thick layer, and how it so quickly fell from the white sky. And when the gusts would kick up and sting passed, we’d duck our heads and turn away from the wind. Some of the neighborhood mommas and I would hug our kids’ faces into our chests as though they were babies again. The kids got their faces protected while unknowingly warming their mothers’ hearts.

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Later, my son came in exhausted from several hours of deep snow adventure and observed, “Taking two steps today is like taking 100 steps during the summer.” To me, it’s much harder, but he’s got the right idea. Each step through all this snow involves both lifting the foot as high as three household stairs and then pushing that very stair down into the floor.

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IMG_1391IMG_1388On both Friday and Saturday skiers outnumbered cars on my street.  When I lived in Boston, I was alone when I’d go skiing on the streets after a big storm.  Here in Portland, I’m just one of the gang, so by late afternoon, I was skiing towards the cemetery with a friend from around the block. We hopped on a wooded trail near the Brentwood Garden and found the snow packed down nicely by snowshoes. We tried to break our own trail at a couple points, but found it incredibly challenging. It’s a tough slog through that much fresh snow, so thanks snowshoe-ers! When we reached the bottom of the first hill behind the garden, we turned right into a strand of white pines. The breeze was still strong enough to clank these massive giants against each other, and we could easily imagine a branch – or even a whole tree – falling on us so we got out of the woods and skied through the cemetery.  Making trail on these unplowed roads was tougher than in the woods, but once a trail was cut, the conditions were fabulous.

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Our city is recovering rapidly from this massive storm. The kids are at school and it is time to get back to work. To all my New England readers, I hope that you were safe and warm during the storm and that you were able to get outside to enjoy the massive power of Mother Nature.  She left me in awe. Again.

Pond Hockey!

Last weekend I played pond hockey on Stroadwater River until way past when my body said I should stop. I haven’t played like that for a long time and I had forgotten how much fun and all consuming the game can be. The puck, and the skaters, only rested during the short moments when the puck was off in a snowbank and had to be retrieved.

I completely lost myself in the action and getting lost in anything is something I treasure.  In addition to the joys of skating and hitting things with sticks through a pair of boots separated into goal posts, instant camaraderie buoyed our spirits.  It was like being a kid again. And, just like when I was a kid, I forgot many of the players’ names–but that didn’t matter. Our time together was all about playing and cheering on great moves for both teammates and opponents. Most of the players were kids and the adults were all fabulous at supporting them as they learned how to play. For me, this was a huge part of the joy of the day.

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The afternoon tournament began when my friend Laura, who lives up a steep bank from the river, posted an open invite on Facebook. When I read it, I dropped what I was doing, garnered support from my dear husband, tried to convince my children to join me (they declined), grabbed my skates and went. I was undeterred by the fact that my last pond hockey game was back in my twenties or that the majority of my current day skating involves gentle looping about with my young kids.

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The game kept changing as the teams kept shifting personnel, with the younger ones frequently ducking out to join other skaters on the ice outside the game or to drink hot chocolate, and the older ones taking breaks to socialize or tend to their families elsewhere. It was incredible how lopsided the teams often were, and the most dramatic match-up pitted a trio of grown women against seven boys. The fun just didn’t stop. We played hard.

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The ice was in great condition. There were a few big cracks which were easy to blame when I ended up on my rear end a few times. Cracks happen, despite the tremendous effort Laura and friends put in the night before to get the ice ready. They shoveled and even brought some hot water down to the ice to smooth out some rough spots.

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I am already looking forward to the next ad-hoc game, which will hopefully be soon. I hereby volunteer for prepping the ice the next time. It takes a community to keep our our frozen waterways ready for skating, and I need to be part of it and frankly, it is part of the fun. The efforts of Laura, her family and friends this weekend sure made for a great rink, a memorable afternoon, and deepened my longing to play again soon.skating 3

Super Dad Lets Mom Ski Alone

Pineland 1Pineland 2Allow me to take a minute to give my husband huge props.  He’s always helpful and supportive buy lately he’s just taken it up a few notches on the super husband scale.  He’s been editing most of my blog posts and helping me on the technical side of things.  He bought me a new camera for Christmas that I really, really love.  He also found the perfect bag for me to carry the camera in on various types of outings and bought all the things I’d need to use this fine machine right away.

He’s also supporting me to find content to write about… getting outside.  This past three day weekend he watched both kids so that I could ski at Pineland for the first time this year and then two days later was totally supportive when I asked to go play pond hockey–alone again!  Now for my parent friends out there–you know how special a little alone time can be but to have two trips alone within three days…  Sigh, so deeply appreciated.

Thanks Hans Indigo Spencer for so lovingly supporting me and this here blog thing we’ve got going on.  I adore you.

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