Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pacific Crest Trail

Being a fan of hiking and the national trails scene, I knew I couldn't skip trekking some of the Pacific Crest Trail as we headed west. Luckily for me, the trail meandered through Mount Rainier National Park, just  a scenic hour-long drive from where we stayed.
Back in the Badger State, we are frequent visitors to the Ice Age Trail. With diversity in the landscapes offered and route difficulties, each trip offers up a new adventure. When we visited the Great Smokies, we made sure to hit up the Appalachian Trail. The segment we traveled was pretty rocky and treacherous, but quite memorable. Now that we knew we were within sixty minutes of the Pacific Crest Trail, there was no turning back, though our hike did not go as planned.
Trail signage is always an issue. I must admit that the area of trail near my hometown is well-taken care of by a group of volunteers known as the Blazin' Babes, so I am probably a bit of a signage snob. My wife and I like to compare the signage of different trails and parks we visit, and honestly, it can get frustrating at times. This was definitely one of those times. Luckily, just off the parking area, there was a small sign labeled PCNST, for Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. From my research, we would start on the PCNST, embark off on a scenic loop trail known as Naches Peak, before returning to the PCNST to complete the journey. Through poor signage, inattentiveness, or a combination of both, it didn't take long before we found ourselves a bit lost. Not terribly lost, but lost nonetheless. The once wide trail had become quite narrow and unmarked. The path was most certainly trailblazed by previous adventurers as it was by no means the easy to moderate trek  promised by the trail information sheet a ranger and provided us.
Getting lost can bring out anger, annoyed feelings, and tension. However, the "Positive Peter" nickname once coined to me was able to squeeze some much needed lemonade out of a seemingly sour lemon. I kept a smile on my face, remembering that sometimes getting lost just provides an opportunity to find yourself.
We found a few other things as well, including another pair of mountain goats. We enjoyed watching them from afar and checking their progress throughout our unintended excursion. I also found a stunning yellow flower all alone in a field of rocks and roots.
Eventually, we decided to retrace our steps and see if we could find where we originally aimed to explore. It wasn't long before we found our initial error and regained the path to the promised land, or at least the PCNST.
I am sure glad we did. While the Naches Peak loop was very uphill and our already tiring legs had hiked a bit more than we had planned for, the sea of green and magnificent mountain views eased the aches and pains coursing through my legs.

Eventually, the endless climb came to a flattening out and we were greeted by a number of other hikers and a sign. We had made it back to the Pacific Crest Trail. Though connected to the previous trail, this trail felt different. The air was fresher. The rocks were prettier. And oddly enough, the terrain was ridiculously easier. It felt flat. It felt more open. It felt more comfortable.
We took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the area on this hazy and cloudy afternoon. Though the original route was altered by factors in and out of our control, the end result made all the missteps that much more worth it. I enjoyed my short stay on The PCNST. I'll be back again.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Mount Rainier - Paradise Inn

The road to Mount Rainier provided many spectacular views. The snow-capped peak of Mount Rainier reminded visitors of the chilly temperatures and snow-packed glaciers that go along with being in the high elevation. Even on a relatively pleasant autumn day, climbing up the side of a mountain increased the heart rate, but because of the physical exertion and the breathtaking beauty.
Winter is coming. The frosty mornings and constant haze were sure signs. So too were the actual signs reminding park visitors that tire chains were required once the calendar hit November 1st. Though we arrived before this time, we noticed that the park was gearing up as many roads and are restaurants and lodging options were closed for the season. The restaurant and lodging option known as Paradise Inn was already closed, but the interconnected trails adjacent to it were wide open.  It was time to hike!
Before we even hit the trailhead, we saw a number of beautiful birds, many of which didn't stay long enough to identify or photograph. We did get quite close to a grouse of some kind and snapped a Steller's Jay searching for a snack.

The trail system around Paradise Inn was labyrinth-like. With many trails combining at times, intersections rampant throughout, and crisscrossing a regularity, these trails all did have a few things in common. They were paved and they were a slow, uphill battle. What goes up must come down, but there's nothing like taking winding paths to agonizingly ascend a mountain. Though you're continually climbing, you rarely seem to get any higher.

Along the way, we encountered a variety of fellow hikers. Solo hikers. Young couples. Apparent campers. Families. The mountains bring everyone out. One gentlemen from Utah who we encountered was very excited to share his knowledge of the geology of the area and was kind enough to point our Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens in the distance.
A John Muir quote at the start and eventual finish of our adventure said it all. This is "the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings." Now I by no means have the same bank of experiences as Mr. Muir had, but in this case, I'll take his word for it. It was a long day of hiking and while it tired the body, it rejuvenated the soul.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Timberwolf Trail - Week 9 - 2015-16 Edition

The drizzly conditions couldn't stop the amazing outdoor adventures of forest kindergarten. A wise friend once told me, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation." With boots, raincoats, hats, and a positive attitude, these students were definitely prepared. As we headed out on the trail, we noticed a large group of turkeys . The birds kept coming because as we got on the trail, we saw (and heard) the cackle of about a dozen crows perching in a nearby tree. We saw a few sandhill cranes fly overhead and saw a pair of red-tailed hawks fly back and forth from tree to tree. The kids weren't surprised to see birds. We've seen hawks, turkeys, turkey vultures, and smaller birds plenty of times before. But the sheer number of birds on this trip got us thinking.
Crows and one of the hawks
As what is commonplace in nature, I was thrown a curveball. I decided to take a slight digression from my original lesson plans and ride this teachable moment as far as it would take me. We continued our hike and gathered at our old oak tree classroom. Then, it was question time. I asked kids why they saw so many birds. Some said the birds were stopping to rest. Some said the birds were lost. Another said the birds were hungry. Bingo.  I continued with asking what birds eat.  Berries and bugs were the main responses. From there, it took some time, but more questioning led to students figuring out that the rainwater was forcing underground animals like worms and mice to surface. Then, the light bulbs went on. Birds eat worms and mice. More water in their underground homes = more times they need to surface = more chances to be caught. I loved how the excited the faces got once the ornithological mystery was solved!
I swear I asked them to look miserable. :)
Turkeys through the trees
More turkeys by our favorite fallen tree\
From the trail, it was a short trip to the nearby school garden. Earlier in the year, we had discussed plants and focused on the role of roots. We talked about how good plants needed roots and how important it was to remove roots while weeding. Now that our growing season is completed, it was time to get the garden ready for its winter rest. We connected this garden rest concept to the idea of hibernating and tree dormancy.

The kids loved finding the slugs, worms, and grasshoppers that filled the garden beds and surrounding grasses. They also made it a competition to pull out the longest root or have the largest dirt clump attached to the root.

Natural play turned into a big group of tag and earthworm inspection, though some kids were willing to pose for pictures.
Matching ladybugs
Superheroes to the rescue!

Earlier in the week, we read an entertaining autumn story called The Biggest Leaf Pile, by Steve Metzger. It inspired an idea. Since we had been investigating, counting, and sorting leaves, I figured a good way to end our study of leaves was by re-enacting this story. For those of you unfamiliar with this story (spoiler alert), the main part is when a bear jumps into a large leaf pile, sending leaves flying. With our fall festival this Friday, I knew that if we wanted to recreate this story for our guests, we would need leaves. Lots of leaves. When I presented the idea to the students (and promised thy could all act out the role of the bear), they were happy to oblige in the collecting process. Our pile is growing and growing.

Our forest kindergarten program takes a break for recess, but that doesn't mean the natural learning and explorations stopped. I had recess duty this day and I noticed many of my friends saving earthworms from the concrete and taking them to the grass. A moment of pride came over me when they mentioned that they were doing it because the "ground needed the worms" and "worms are important."  Much more satisfying than the usual squeals of yuck and gross that permeate the playground on soggy days.

That afternoon, we continued our leaf collection and used natural items to practice addition number stories. Not only did the kids use acorns, rocks, dirt clumps, and leaves to represent numbers, they used sticks to make the mathematical symbols + and =. 
I love bare trees.
That afternoon, an arborist came to the school and taught the nature club I lead all about the trees on the land. Red Oak. White Oak, Hickory. Ash. Maple. Black Locust and more. He showed us how to identify the type of tree based on bark and leaves, the age of the tree based on scar lines, and the health of the trees based on some visual clues. He did estimate the age of one beautiful oak just next to one of the trail entrances at possibly 150 years old. Wow!

Nature is the ultimate teacher. Every day is a new lesson and a new experience. The learning and growing never stops.

I hope my kids can leave forest kindergarten with that message ingrained in their brains.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Comet Falls - Mount Rainier National Park

The warning signs were provided in the Mount Rainier National Park paperwork. Avalanche. Volcanic activity. Bears. Cougars. Rock slides. Tree hazards. I especially like the advice of "fighting aggressively and aiming for the eyes" when learning how to fight off an attacking cougar. Though reading the park map and scouting out our hike was serious business, my wife and I couldn't help but chuckle at the thought of all of these issues combining to wreak havoc on our nature time. We also reminded ourselves that we didn't have to be faster than the bear, just faster than someone else.
Final inspection of the hiking options for the day plus a little insight from a park ranger led us to Comet Falls. We were certainly not disappointed, though our quadriceps and ankles might tell you differently. The park ranger did mention parts of the trail were moderate to strenuous. Next time I take a trip to the mountains, remind me that moderate on a mountain trail is different than moderate on a Wisconsin trail.
My wife and I began our trek on the rocky terrain, avoiding a rainbow of rocks and spiderwebs of thick, gnarly roots on our gradual and meandering ascent to the falls. As my wife mentioned, "climbing is worse than walking." Still, besides the exhausting exercise, our hearts were pounding because of the amazing views and a few unexpected treats
Now your definition of treats and my definition of treats may differ. You may think chocolate or adult beverage. My wife and I think animal encounter. Well, at least when we are hiking. Don't worry, it wasn't the predatory kind. As we approached a few other stalled hikers, we noticed why they were taking a break. Across from the ridge was a sole mountain goat. He seemed quite content on his ledge, which this picture gives little justice. One slip and bye bye goat. Did I mention those hikers were also from the Badger state? This is our second trip to a national park in the mountains. Both times our first hike took us to a waterfall. Both times we met fellow Wisconsinites on the hike. 
Before we left for the hike, we were given a tip from the ranger. She mentioned that on the Comet Falls trail, there was a misleading sign that led to many missing out on a wonderful waterfall. There was a sign that read Comet Falls with an arrow and the words 200 feet. Interestingly enough, the arrow pointed right to a log bridge. On that log bridge, I snapped the first picture below. Nice waterfall, right? It was a nice waterfall, but it wasn't Comet Falls. Not even close! The ranger noted that many people interpret this sign as pointing to the falls when in fact it points to the bridge, which is supposed to take you across to the connecting trail. The trail that takes you to Comet Falls. When she said it was misleading, she wasn't joking. We crossed the bridge and noticed the trail seemed to vanish. It seemed most people took those falls as THE Comet Falls and turned around from there. Luckily, I was listening. As my wife and I used our trail eyes to find the real falls, we were blown away by the much more magnificent view shown in the second picture below. The ranger stated these falls fell nearly 360 feet from the ledge above.
Fake Comet Falls
The REAL Deal
The trip to Comet Falls was an amazing and at times painful introduction to Mount Rainier National Park. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Timberwolf Trail - Week 8 - 2015-16 Edition

We kicked off our forest kindergarten day by going to a place we hadn't been before. Before trekking on our usual trail, we stopped by the back tree line and looked at the deciduous forest behind us. Using an amazing book, The Gift of the Tree, by Alvin Tresselt, we learned about the life of a tree and how even the most powerful and towering oak tree can eventually come down. That being said, even though it wasn't the skyscraping tree it once was, it still served an important and crucial role in the life of a healthy forest.  Of course, we couldn't just talk about fallen trees in the forest. We needed to explore them! Before we headed among the trees, we of course had to grab a pile of newly fallen leaves and throw them up in the air. We didn't want to wast such an amazing autumn day!
The trek was a bit more treacherous than our usual pathway. Risk is important and we all took our time and were careful as we explored this new area. We saw and inspected fallen limbs, took a closer look at stumps, and even found some giant puffball mushrooms.

After meandering through the woods, we headed back to the trail and stopped between two oak trees. We were very familiar with one to the trees as it served as our main outdoor learning area. Still, the other would be the focus of our next lesson. Though merely 100 feet or less away from our oak classroom, this other tree was often overlooked. After inspecting it, we found that it was missing its top and that the top had fallen, the top was caught among lower branches, and it was now full of dead branches and leaves. I asked the students what might have caused this part of the tree to fall. After brainstorming and deciding against beavers, lightning, and lumberjacks,we came to the conclusion that this tree may have been damaged by wind. The kids were amazed that though part of this tree was no longer alive, much of the rest of the tree was still loaded with acorns and deep green leaves.
After our oak tree inspection, we headed to the classroom oak and worked on collecting nature items for our exquisite nature vests made from paper bags from local grocery stores. After trial and error with tape, glue, and rubber cement, we were able to start adding nature to our vest in the form of acorns, stick, leaves, feather, and even a walnut or two. I can't wait to see what else we can add to these amazingly creative collections.

During natural play, we were able to use our long paper roll telescopes to see the land from a new perspective.

We moved on from natural play time to go inspect a very large fallen tree. Based on what we had discussed in our readings and our science chats, it was exciting to see what the students could point out about the tree. It is hard to remember all that they discussed but by while trying to ask the right questions, we made some very important discoveries. The students figured out bugs and fungus were primarily helping turn this once sturdy tree into soft, dusty pieces. We found grass growing out of the tree and eventually came to the conclusion that because the tree was slanted and this is where the tree formed a bowl shape this is where rainwater and dirt must have collected, making it easy for something to grow.

Upon further inspection, we noticed holes in the tree mainly at the base. The kids guessed this is where the chipmunks lived. When I asked why, they brainstormed and came up with some reasons why this would be a good animal habitat. They mentioned that the chipmunk could store food there and that the chipmunk could hide from other animals and protect itself from the rain and weather.

In the afternoon, not only did we mention a number of woolly bears, something that has become a daily occurrence, but we worked on the tricky teens. Connected with an activity I previously taught indoors using unifix cubes to connect and create teen numbers, I decided to use nature to teach this time around. With sticks representing ten and acorns being ones, we worked on place value and teen number creation before calling it a day.
I am so blessed and honored to be able to take these kids outside and learn from them. Trust me, they are teaching me more than I could ever teach them.