Winter fun

I spent the weekend with some friends in a little cabin in the woods and our kids. We snowshoed around the property, looking at pine cones and checking out the local birds. We saw lots of deer tracks and the places where they bedded down, but none in person.

We were using rented MSR snowshoes that we picked up from University of Calgary Outdoor Cente. I’m a big fan of their gear rental service – it’s a great way to get in to the outdoors without spending a lot of money. For families without a stockpile of camping gear like I have, it’s a great opportunity to try something new and to try before you buy.20140209_101534

I also had the chance to try something new. A friend brought along a snow saw and we spent hours cutting snow blocks that the kids used to make an incredibly cool fort. The walls were at least four feet tall and the kids had fun running in and out, even making the occasional snowball to throw mout. Mostly, they perfected the fort. Next time, we will build a campfire in front to reflect heat so that I can enjoy sitting and reading while the kids played. I’m told that the best snow for cutting blocks is from drifted snow – they’re the most solid.

Nothing like a well built snow fort!

One word of caution – keep a close eye on the kids. Children have been buried over the years in snow forts, sometimes with tragic results. We never dig quinzees for them to play in. It’s just a bit too risky.

Very few things better than playing in the snow for a few days in the winter. We’re looking forward to our next time out!

Getting ready for spring camping

Last summer, we spent a few more nights camping than we had in previous years. We discovered a few problems with our setup that I’d like to correct this year.

The first was with our tent. We’ve been using a Woods many person tent that I’ve had for more than a few years. It’s okay, but lacks a full fly and, when we encountered rain this year, proved to be quite leaky. Not a great setup. So, we’re in the market for a new tent. I’ve pretty much decided on the Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6. It has great reviews and the ability to create an extra room for our son to play in quietly while we sleep in in the morning (or we can zip him in there while we read at night – creating the opportunity for his to sleep). I would love any suggestions on other options – we need a full fly, space for stretching out and quality. I used to work as a canoe guide and am still an outdoor professional, so buying poor gear isn’t an option.

Speaking of poor gear, we’ve had a few air mattresses over the years and they all seem to leak – leaving us on the ground or with a poor waterbed like experience. I have some back issues and a decent night’s sleep is imperative, so we’re also in the market for a better base camp experience. Suggestions are welcome! Ideally, I would love something where I’m more than a few inches off the ground and that is at least as wide as a double bed.

Finally, hauling the gear is becoming an issue. We bought a wagon this fall that has a better gear hauling ability, but I’m also scouring craigslist for a set of yakima racks and either a roof box or basket to help get stuff to the campsite. Eventually, I’d like to get some sort of trailer, but that will be for another year – I’m struggling with picking up a used utility trailer or looking at something like a soft top tent trailer (I really like what livinlite has done with their Quicksilver. For right now, though, we’ll be sticking with what we can fit in to our vehicle.

Camping season is coming soon, in only a few short months I hope to be using this new gear that I will have bought. So exciting!


My family spent a good deal of our spring vacation (yes, I wrote this a while back and am only getting around to posting it, sorry) on Vancouver Island and every day we visited a beach.

Beaches are magical places.. You can roll back rocks, you can build forts out of driftwood and you can explore tide pools at low tide.  So much ocean nature is evident when the tide goes out.

Our friend Paul, a biology teacher, taught us that you should only flip back rocks the are smaller than the size of your head. That way you don’t hurt what’s underneath.  He showed us pisaster starfish (they’re purple), baby eels and crabs.  It was amazing!  My son keeps telling people that he’s seen an eel (and, six months later, he’s still doing it!).

He also loved getting his feet stuck in the mud on Parksville beach, wiggling in the soft mud up to his ankles and playing with a kite that our friend Tim was flying.

I think that thing that made this so special is that we did these activities together.  As the Child and Nature alliance has been saying over the past year “if you want kids to get in to nature, take them outside.”  Kids learn by example and, if you show them that you like being outside with them, so will they!

Not a day goes by when my son won’t ask me to take him outside.  We’ve tried to make the indoors boring and the outdoors exciting.  We can have fun in the backyard, in the forest, in the local park and, sometimes, even on a beach!  Nature is everywhere and, together, we make it fun.

A video for you to check out

Last week was the Children and Nature network’s Grassroots Gathering.  One of the keynotes was Claire Warden.  Here is a link to her talk – it’s great!

Slowing down

When I was in my early 20s I spent a couple of summer helping young people experience the wonder of nature by canoe.  We would spend 10 days travelling by our own power, at a slow pace, covering only fifty of one hundred miles.  We really explored and disconnected from the world.

I got to thinking about that because, as I wrote this, I was travelling on a plane flying over the area when I used to paddle.  It’s amazing that, over a decade later, I can still make out the lakes and the rivers that I explored those summers during the late 90s.  Artery lake stands out as a cross on the Bloodvein River, Aikens lake, with it’s crater at the source of the Gammon.  I couldn’t make out Scout lake or “Bing’s Death Swamp” but I know they’re down there.

During those summers, we didn’t have cell phones or email at the base camp.  Landline telephone service was limited, so we wrote a lot of paper letters.  Life was very slow.  I got excited to even see another person and would spend time getting to know the little details of their lives over the past week on the trail and crossing paths with another canoe trip was amazing.

With that kind of slow life, you really connected with the people around you.  You created a tight knit community.  You learned about each other and enjoyed each other’s company.  You could do that because you slowed down and paid attention to the little things in life.

We used to occasionally see planes overhead.  We even had radios to contact them if there was an emergency.  I used to really resent seeing them – they represented the outside world.  I couldn’t imagine that one day I would be flying on one of them, looking down at the landscape that had become a part of me in the past.

If we are to connect more people with nature we need to slow down and remember that we need to create community. We need to know our neighbours.  We need to trust each other.  If we’re able to do that we will be able to spend time going for walks in the woods.  We’ll be able to let our kids play with each other and we’ll be able to let them explore without our intervention.

We need to have the courage to know on our neighbours doors, to say hello and to sit in the park.  We also have to have the courage to slow down and take the time to really get to know each other.


There is a certain power of spending time in natural light. Seasonal affective disorder is well documented and is thought be caused in part by a lack of natural light during the winter months.

It’s not a terrible stretch to think that our moods could improve if we just spent a bit of time during each day outdoors in the natural light. I know it certainly works for me. If I spend just a few minutes outdoors in the sunshine, it will put me in a better mood and I will feel noticeably more alert.

Beyond that, we now know that the blue light of sunshine has a particular effect on eye health and may be one of the reasons why we are seeing more nearsighted children. The indoors may be hurting our children’s eyes.

I’m not going to say that, for kids with depression and genetic eye damage that the outdoors will cure them but we don’t want to cause damage by keeping kids indoors.

Remember that something as simple as a walk at lunchtime will get you out and you will have the added benefit of getting a bit of exercise, something we can all use.

So get out and enjoy the sunshine and let’s see all of our moods improve just a little bit.


I was in a conversation yesterday when someone asked me a tough question. If I could do one thing to get more teenagers into our outdoor based program, what would it be? That’s a very tough question because there isn’t one single silver bullet. Teenagers have a very good lie detector built in and want to get what you tell them they’re going to get. They want adventure. They crave risk. These are the things that have moved humans, as a species, forward. The risk part literally saved humanity during the ice age, when some teenagers said to their parents, see you later old guys, we’re getting on the ice floe to look for new adventures elsewhere. Those are all important things, but they weren’t what I settled on – I settled on trust and doing things with their friends.

Teenagers want to be trusted and they want to do things with their friends. More importantly, they can be trusted to do things with their friends. If we want to get more teenagers through the doors, we need to create opportunities for them to do these things.

The organization that I work for has a provision for older youth (11 – 14 year olds) to camp without adult supervision. I did that when I was that age. We set up duty rosters, we bought and cooked our own food and we learned from our mistakes (at age 14, I had a love of Cajun seasoning, my friends didn’t). Most importantly, we didn’t get in to trouble.

When I was 16, I joined the older program and, although all the camps we wanted to go to required an adult advisor to be present, we didn’t have one available most of the time. We would recruit an adult from one of the other groups to take responsibility for us and we would camp without adult supervision. We camped this way for thirty or fourth days out of each year, in all seasons. We never got in to trouble and most people thought that one of us was a young looking adult, but they could never quite figure out which one of us it was. We never got into trouble and our group grew from six the first year to thirty in the next.

These sort of opportunities seem to have disappeared in the 21st century. We think that our world is too dangerous (it isn’t) and that our teenagers can’t be trusted to do the right thing (they can) to allow this sort of thing to happen. We need to recreate opportunities that allow teenagers to learn how to do things without adult supervision, be trusted to do so for extended periods of time and know that they will do the right thing. Those sorts of experiences made me the man that I am today. People trusted me to do the right thing. We can trust today’s teenagers to do the same and, if we allow them to do so, we will build the next generation of community leaders and nature lovers.

Beach Fun

There is nothing so natural than kids and the beach!  We took my son up to the ocean for the first time in a few years (we do live in a landlocked province, so it’s not entirely our fault), and he immediately started playing in the mud,looking for shells and visiting with other kids.  I heard them yelling to each other about what they’d found in tide pools and about the fun of having mud between their toes!

He learned about getting stuck in the mud, about tides and about beach creatures – fish, birds and an abundance of sea life.  I defy anyone to tell me that wasn’t education!

He ran and ran and ran, threw handfuls of mud, got his boots and the rest of him all wet and cried when it was time to go home.  He went right to sleep when it was bedtime, actually asked for bedtime!

A perfect afternoon!


On the importance of dads

When I was about ten, my dad and I went for a walk in the woods nearby what we called “the old cottage.”  The old cottage was built by my great grandfather out of stone at Cedar Point, on Georgian Bay and Dad was doing what all fathers do, helping me experience a little bit of his childhood.  We were exploring a little bit and looking for the remains of two square log cabins that were rotting in the wood, no doubt from the earliest days of logging in the area.  We found the cabins, one had full walls and no roof and the other was just a few logs on the ground.

It amazes me to this day that those cabins, which must have been far beyond the reaches of civilization when they were built – there were no roads to them – were still standing just a few hours north of Toronto in the eighties.  They had lastest at least sixty years, and probably longer, as lonely shells in the woods.  I haven’t gone back to look for them in the past twenty five years, but I suspect that parts of them are still back there, quietly returning to the earth.

It also amazes me a little bit that I can still picture that day perfectly.  It was sunny and the sunlight filtered down to the forest floor a little bit through the canopy of trees.  It must have rained the night before or there was heavy dew because I got wet in the undergrowth.  There was a bit of a trail, but it was overgrown and dad showed me how to hold branches so that they didn’t hit the person behind you on the trail, something that I do to this day.

I hadn’t yet joined Scouts at this point in my life, so these were new lessons to me and they made an impression, so much so that I think of them often.

There are a few reasons why this day sticks in my memory so much and why it’s so important to spend time outdoors with your kids if you want them to spend time outdoors with theirs:

1) There are few times in a child’s life when their brain is learning so much as when they are tweens or teens.  Their brains are growing and forming pathways almost as quickly as when they are babies.  If you want to make an impression, make it on a ten or twelve year old.  They may be sullen little brats, but it will shape their lives forever.

2) Time spent with parents when you’re a kid is really important.  I’m sure I remember this day so well because I was with my dad.  I’ve tried a whole bunch of times to recreate the magic of that adventure with friends, and it’s never the same but I’ve had similar experiences with my son. Parent – child time is important.

3) We were on an adventure.  My dad and I have done lots of cool things together: he taught me to paddle a canoe, how to set up a tent and how to rebuild a sports car but the adventures we went on stick out in my mind.  I have more memories of heading out in our little boat to camp on another island and walks through the woods than of just about any other thing that I have done with my dad (and we’ve done lots of cool things).  Adventure is special.

4) We were doing something new and unique – we were finding a cabin.  We were explorers and we were adventurers.  In those days, before I was a teenager and knew everything, my dad was the coolest and this sort of thing was so cool!

Parents have an amazingly strong connection with their kids.  Even teenagers admire their parents.  This is an amazing thing and something that we need to take advantage of while we still can.

Childhood is special.

We need to enjoy it with our kids.

It only comes once.

Thanks Dad!

The Value of Recess

Tag! You’re it!

Ahh recess . . . that wonderful time when, as children, we had a chance to run around the playground, exploring nature, tasting dirt and maybe getting to use the great big playground structure in the yard.  I remember some of the adventures that my friends and I went on as kids – we were the Hardy Boys, the Scooby Gang and sometimes ourselves, off to solve some kind of great mystery.

Recess is a great way for schools to encourage unstructured free time – that time when kids learn on their own without the help of adults.  Research has shown that this sort of time is critical to the full development of a child and allows them to learn practically anything, given the right environment.

Recess is special as well, because it encourages child based physical activity.  That’s one reason why the American Association of Pediatrics just released a statement saying that all work and no play is bad for kids. Kids who learn how to play will play without an adult organizing them.  They don’t need a soccer coach to line them up and tell them the rules, they will make them up as they go along and, when the rules stop making sense, they will change them.  In the span of a few minutes they will roll down hills, they will taste grass and they will have authentic childhood experiences in an active way.  We might say that this is them getting exercise, and it certainly is, but it’s the most important type of exercise – the kind that they get without even realizing it.  That goes on to set lifelong trends – going for a walk in the evening or skating in the park.

So, when I see stories about recess being cancelled, I get really annoyed.  This is something that is needed for the whole development of a child and should always be a part of a child’s education.