Wednesday, October 31, 2018

the rough beauty of badland national park

The Badlands. The name evokes images of austere terrain and unforgiving weather conditions. And in many ways it is. When we decided to visit it this year, this was the one national park I was most looking forward to see, and it did not disappoint. Of the national parks we visited, this was my favorite. Yes, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are breathtakingly stunning with their alpine beauty. But the Badlands offered such a striking contrast of arid beauty interspersed with prairie simplicity. It was two extremes coming together to offer quite a scenery, even on a cloudy day. And when it comes to vegetation, at the Badlands, mother nature proved she always finds a way. In between the rocks, grass grew and flowers provided unexpected pops of colors that just brought a smile.

The Buffalo Gap National Grasslands kind of extends to the limits of other towns, which allows for beautiful views of abandoned homesteads in South Dakota.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

nature photography ~ with my head in the clouds

"You are always looking up" is a phrase that I am very familiar with. Since I was a child, I have had a love for the sky-- the sun, the moon, the stars... but above all-- clouds. When I was 6 my father gave me this little book of clouds and it showed all the cloud formations: cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus... all these names and shapes, only served to fuel my love with the sky. Now that I live in farm country in Minnesota, I have open expanses of wide open space which allows me to have a front and center view of mother nature being the ultimate Queen of Extra. 

The Midwest has some stunning sunsets and it is one of my favorite aspects of living here. Yesterday, the sky was amazing! I have come to learn that clouds in the sky on a sunny equal amazing sunsets. The first photo was yesterday and the second one was a few months ago-- just so you see the crazy cotton candy colors the sky can take. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

tips for hiking with kids in the fall

When I married my husband three years ago I became an instant full time stepmom of three. I went from being a single woman who had a varied agenda of outdoor activities to a “mom” of kids that for the most part enjoy staying indoors. In every sense, becoming a stepmom was quite an adjustment. Still is. But for me one of the biggest ones was having to share my “me” outdoor time to a “we”. I was so used to doing things on my own that I was jealous of my time. But once I got over that, I was able to convince one of my stepsons (12 yrs old) to come hike with me since he was the most outdoorsy. The others wanted no part in this. Then the youngest stepson decided he wanted to give it a try. Let’s just say he slept really good that night. Why am I telling you this? Because these few experiences immediately provided some lessons learned about hiking with kids—out topic today. What did I learn?
Expectation Management. Key to an enjoyable hike with kids is adjusting your expectations as to what you want accomplished. Kids will get tired quicker than an adult, so let them set the pace and make a reasonable number of stops. Go into this thinking as an introductory period; kids will not want to go hiking with you again, if you have a draconian attitude about it. Do not focus on "reaching the summit" but rather focus a destination. Is there an opening with great views? A river where they can swim or play under supervision? For kids it is about making it fun. Adjust your expectations to ensuring they have fun.
Planning and Equipment. Kids love feeling like grown ups and you can help making them feel as such by involving them in the planning of the hike. Talk to them about the trails, what is available for them to see. They like to feel involved, especially if it is a family trip. Kids also love shiny equipment (at least my stepsons do) so maybe it is time to graduate them to new equipment like a camel-back instead of a water bottle-- these were a hit in our house.
Be prepared. From a bag to store extra layers (see my post on this topic-- it also applies to kids), to plenty of fluids and snacks, be prepared. One thing that surprised me about kids is how much they can eat especially in outing. They become snack-eating machines. Focus on snacks that provide energy and hydration-- granola bars, fruits, electrolyte gummies, etc. If the kids are old enough, make sure they carry their own layers, snacks and water since you never know what can happen. Which brings me to my next point.
Safety. Safety is paramount in any situation but especially in outdoor activities like hiking. Kids can get distracted by a myriad of things and in a worst case scenario, they can get separated from the group. It is important to:
  • Talk to them about what to do if we get separated and they need to find me. I always make the boys carry a whistle and a flashlight just in case, when we hike. Whether you put them in their bar, reservoir pocket or attach them to their clothing, just make sure they carry them.
  • Make sure to use sunscreen. Even in fall and winter, sunburns can happen.
  • Make sure you point out features that stand out. Terrain association is a great skill to learn and can help the kiddos identified where they are if they get lost.
  • No "horse-playing". Kids love to horse play, and hiking is definitely not the time to do it. Kids can trip and fall, or worse. Imparting a sense of being careful while still having fun will ensure a great hike.
Teaching Moments. My favorite thing about hiking with kids is the teachable moments when I can impart my love for nature and the outdoors. It is during those times that the lessons about the importance of conservation can be made more clear while surrounded by nature. Other topics you can address:
  • Map reading. Just like terrain association is important, so is map reading. This is quickly becoming a lost art and it should not. Knowing how to read a map is a key survival skill whether in the wilderness or an urban terrain. You can start with a trail map and let the kids be the guides (of course, assist as needed). Also, give them a compass. Never underestimate the power of this little gadget. it will provide, not only a teaching moment, but lots of fun. Nothing says "explorer" quite like a compass.
  • Leave No Trace Behind.
  • Identifying plants and critters you come across, and conversely teaching about what plants and critters not to touch and leave alone.
  • Respecting nature and not defacing bluffs or other features.
  • Teach about the names of mountains, peaks, rivers, etc. If you know the stories behind the names, a quick history lesson may be called for. The outdoors is a great classroom. Make use of it!
But above all have fun! This is a unique and great opportunity to bond with the kids and get them outside. It is also a great opportunity for them see the world from a different perspective. As adults it is important to ensure kids grow up as well-rounded individuals, and introducing them to the outdoors, is a great way to help them. And if we are lucky, they will take one look and fall in love with it. And the world would be a better place for it! Happy trails!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Day Hikes: Eagle Bluff Nature Center

This weekend, after one and half weeks of rain, the sun decided to come out and play! And it was the perfect fall day to go for a day hike. For a while now I have been wanting to go to one of our most popular hiking areas, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro, MN. Founded in 1978, Eagle Bluff is a private, non-profit residential environmental learning center providing accredited environmental education programs & outdoor adventures in the scenic bluff country.

This wonderful center started as a place where kids could come to be closer to nature, and it has grown into a year-around residence where kids can come to learn about nature and leadership. The facilities are amazing—from dormitories to obstacle courses like high ropes—they have everything they need to learn but also have fun while doing it.

So, with much anticipation, I headed to pay this center a visit. First, I have to say that while I love the trails, the center is not user friendly. Some of buildings that should’ve been opened, like the Discovery Center or the Visitor Center, were indeed open but no staff was on site. I spent the first 45 minutes looking around, going in and out of desolate buildings, and finally I found a map. Unless you have a map, the trails (especially the trails heads) are poorly marked and they were hard to find. There was another couple that arrived at the same time, so we split looking for signs of life. Finally we all decided to just stay go hiking separately on the trails we did find after 45 minutes.

But after all of this… it was worth it. The autumn colors were beautiful, the air was crisp and the sun was shining enough to break a sweat. The highlighted trails on the map below, shows the ones I walked. To be honest, it was more wandering from trail to trail-- again, they were so confusing at first.
Thankfully, the frustration of this trails layout quickly subsided as I found myself surrounded by the beautiful fall foliage. Really, my photos do not do it justice. I was able to find the overlook offering beautiful vistas of the Root River, and then hiked down to the River Monitoring station by the river's shore. Along the way, I passed one of the rope courses, the staff residential cabin which is like #cabingoals.

Then, I tuned back and went via the southern highlighted trail on the map which was very steep and had my calves on fire.  As I approached the end of the trail, imagine my surprise when I found a trailhead sign.  For the record, this trail sign is not easily visible from where the actual trail starts-- it is about 300 feet and behind a building.  Annoying much? But in all, not a bad hike.  Not sure I will be back though.  But who knows? Anybody else feels disappointed when disappointed by a trail system?

Friday, October 12, 2018

Must See Natural Sights: Yellowstone Thermal Pools

There are many sights that are a must see in the world-- from Everest to the Eiffel Tower, and more. But I am partial to sights that are the result of the awesome power of nature.  And the ones I am sharing today are definitely in any must see sights list, especially for nature lovers: the thermal pools or hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.

It is estimated that Yellowstone is home to approximately 10,000 hot thermal features, which includes not only geysers but also hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. These features are the result of precipitation falling, seeping through the rock, becoming super heated, then thanks to the uber impressive natural plumbing system of Yellowstone, it comes back up to the surface.  Yes, I am oversimplifying but you get the idea.

When we began our trip I told my husband that if we saw anything on Yellowstone, it had to be the thermal pools especially the Grand Prismatic Pool with its surreal colors, located in the Midway Geyser Basin. We missed a lot of Yellowstone, as we stayed in the half east part of the park and mostly in the areas where you can visit with vehicles since my three stepkids were with us.  The pools are around the Firehole River (which you have to cross via a bridge) and as you go past Excelsior Geyser, the colors turn to oranges and yellows.

On the day we went, it happened to be one of the colder summer days at Yellowstone, which cause extreme steam to form when the cool air and the hot air from the pools collided.  It was also crazy windy and it was actually kind of scary because not the entire boardwalk had rails to hold on to.  But what the wind did was give us breaks to glimpse at the beautiful colors.

The vibrant colors found in the hot springs of Yellowstone basins are due to "thermophiles", microorganisms that thrive in hot temperatures. And when they group together around the basins, they show as a riot of colors. In a way, you can tell different microorganisms cannot survive cooler temperatures by the changes in colors.

After spending some time taking it all in, we continued walking the circle made by the boardwalk and walked by Opal Pool, and I have to say that I really loved this one because it reminded me of seaglass.  This island girl's heart just recognizes that color anywhere.  I really like how this photo captures the ripples from the wind and vibration in the water. 

This was such a cool sight to experience, and I cannot wait to go back next year!  


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Importance of the National Park American Experience

When people ask me why I love hiking and the mountains, being a beach girl from the Caribbean, I always tell them “because we did not have national parks”.  Growing up in Puerto Rico, I lived closer to the beach than the mountains in the distance.  The concept of National Parks was something so “American” to me.  Yellowstone to me was home to Yogi Bear.  The Grand Tetons—a mountain range in the imagination.  One I would never experience… or so I thought.  The Badlands—a part of the US that seemed indomitable, like out of a sci-fi movie.  But all of them, beautiful.

It was not until this summer that I finally visited these iconic landmarks. And as I stood in these national parks seeing only but a fraction of the protected lands, I thought of the countless of people in the US who have never or will never have a chance to experience this.  Due to finances, time, or distance, many people cannot visit the national parks and monuments, and this is truly heartbreaking because there is so much that you get from a visit to the National Parks:

The world is your classroom.  For kids, a visit will open a world of knowledge about our natural resources, history, conservancy, and even civics.  Even as an adult, this was such an amazing experience.  Can you imagine for a kid who grows in the inner city who has never seen the exuberance of the natural world? I bet it would be mind blowing for them.  Thankfully there are programs like Open Outdoors for Kids, an initiative by the National Parks Foundation that brings kids closer to their national parks through various activities that capitalize on a kids’ curiosity and wonder.  And I for one love it.  these days kids are so disconnected.  They do not like to go outdoors, as we used to and they really do not understand the importance of our cultural heritage. 

A Sense of Urgency.  At a time when it seems that the current administration is determined to put profit before our natural resources, I felt a sense of urgency and alarm—that our natural patrimony will decrease as government continues to take aim especially at the monuments. Whether it is by contacting your representatives to supporting various conservancy organizations like the National Parks Conservation Association and National Parks Foundation, we have ways of letting our government where you stand.  Collectively, as a country, we must ensure our voices are heard on this matter. Which brings me to my next item. 

Conservancy.  Conservancy is so much more than a bunch of “crunchy” people trying to cause problems.  This view of conservationists is due in part to how little we truly explain about conservation efforts without getting emotional. Make no mistake, this is a very emotional topic to many of us, but if we are going to create a culture where conservation is a central part of the discussion, we need to start talking about it in practical terms.  Furthermore, we need to get the younger generations more involved so they grow up with a clear view of what these efforts accomplish, how to distinguish the scams, how to talk articulately about conservation and more.

National Pride.  Unfortunately, these days the words “national pride” have come to be associated with racism and supremacy.  But the true meaning I see behind these words is loving your country and what it has to offer.  As I stood looking at the magnificence of these parks and monuments, I felt a surge of pride and love. 

I remember standing on the shore of Lake Jackson and, smiling at my husband, quietly singing:

This land is your land, this land is my land; From the California to the New York island. From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me”

Enjoy it! Yes, go out and enjoy these natural marvels as much as you can.  If you are able, do not make these visits a once in a lifetime event.  Go out, share your images with others and inspire them to go out and surround themselves with nature! The national parks and services get funding from the government but also depend on income from visits.  We are so blessed to have these amazingly varied public lands, so let’s support them and share them!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

hello fall! easy tips for day hikes in minnesota

Fall is here! And with it, I officially welcome the most wonderful time of the year in Minnesota! This beautiful state is known for one thing... well, two-- the Vikings and the brutal winters. And that is so unfair because this state has so much to offer aside from a football team that cannot win an NFL championship (Go Packs Go!) or winter weather so brutal that you feel like you are in an episode from Game of Thrones. Believe me, I am not making it up when I describe a Minnesota fall season as spectacular.

While summer in the state is beautiful, fall is when I really love to venture out. The humidity is gone, the temperatures cool down, but most importantly-- the bugs are gone. I can handle bugs but here in Minnesota the bugs are insane, especially the biting gnats.  So when they go away or die from the cooler temperatures, it is on! Whether hiking. trekking or camping, the choices are endless.  All it takes is a bit of planning. Today I am sharing with you a few tips to have a wonderful fall season hike.  While this will focus on a day hike, the basics still apply to longer ones.

Dress in layers.  This is a concept that I learned in the Army and has served me well since then.  The weather in the fall can be quite unpredictable. You have to be prepared for the chance of weather changes, and clothing is vital. Before I continue I have to clarify something. will notice that I stick with certain brands for clothing. It is not because I am getting paid by them or I'm a poser-- it is simply that I have found that they fit. As a 6'1" curvy female, it is hard to find clothes that fit me. But when I do, I am a loyal customer. With this in mind, a hiking outfit for me will look something like this:
  • Pants- I love my Columbia ‘Anytime’ Outdoor pants. They’re comfy, dry quickly, and are long enough for me. And if it gets hot, I can roll them up. 
  • Moisture wicking tank top or short sleeves under a button down shirt.
  • Button down shirt made with moisture wicking material (because it makes no sense to have moisture wicking base layer if the top is not). I love the Columbia PFG Bahama™ Long Sleeve Shirt. It has handy pockets and venting (heck yes!).
  • Ultralight socks are perfect for the fall when the conditions can be a little warm. I really love the Darn Tough socks because they are the only socks I do not get blisters with.
  • My boots—now, I have hiking boots but have found that I still love to wear my combat boots. And when I go hiking and I love my Oakley Light Assault Boots. I got these babies three years ago before I retired and they are still going. The only bad part is that they are not waterproof. 
What I Pack.  For day hikes I go for my Cotopaxi Luzon Pack. It is lightweights and has more than enough room to pack all that you need. In it I pack:
  • Extra pair of socks for longer hike _ including a medium weight sock in case it gets colder.
  • Lightweight mittens and hat
  • Lightweight jacket that insulates and also protects from the wind.
  • Columbia vest (if forecasted to get cooler)
  • Fuel for long hikes especially if it is going to be cold. Your body will burn calories trying to stay warm.
  • Naked Bee Lip Balm
  • Moisturizer
  • Bottle of water - never leave home without it.
  • Sun powered cell phone charger 
Safety.  It is necessary to talk about safety when it comes to outdoor activities especially if you are going by yourself and I am all about protection. Make sure you have a fully charged cell phone and also turn on the location feature. If anything happens, it would be easier to track. Also, I bring my personal weapon (of course make sure you have a concealed carry permit first) but if this is not your thing, bring some pepper spray. The point is-- think about safety when you go out. 

Happy hiking!