The Big Epic

Connecting with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Month: July 2018

Junior Ranger Challenge

Hop in the car and head to the nearest National Park. Sounds like a good vacation outing to me. But far too often, this simple activity is met by complaining from the back seats: “Do we HAVE to…?” “This will be BOring…” Turn down the whines and help your kids look forward to what they can “Explore, Learn and Protect!” by getting involved in the Junior Ranger program at more than 400 National Park sites.

Our family discovered this fabulous hands-on challenge when we wandered the western USA in an RV nine years ago. Daughter completed the information scavenger hunt, earned her first badge and was sworn in as a Junior Ranger at Arches National Park when she was just seven years old. (As a paparazzi extraordinaire, I must confess that somehow I have no photos of this momentous occasion. In my defense, I had no idea that this would be more than a one-time entertainment.)

nps, hiking, southwest USA

The quest for ever more badges has continued. Wherever we go, we look for National Park sites along the way for daughter to add to her collection. She started adding the replica badges to a lanyard. Then we bought her a vest to show off her collection. Eventually, she had so many badges that she made a wall hanging to display all of them. This past weekend, she earned badge #100 at the Statue of Liberty! Woohoo! Way to Go, Andowen!

earn badges, nps

nps, statue of liberty, collection

Originally this program was targeted to children ages 7-13 years old. There has been enough interest that anyone of any age is now allowed to become a Junior Ranger at each location. Let’s walk through the process together:

  • Pick Your Park to Visit—Whenever we drive somewhere, I check the list of parks at nps.gov to see where we could stop along the way.
    nps, travel itinerary
  • Go to the Desk at the Visitor Center and ask for a Junior Ranger Book—Complete the required number of activities. It is perfectly acceptable for family members to help. (In the process, we often learn more than our daughter does!) Because we consider these activities to be part of our homeschooling curriculum, we insist that the entire book must be finished, in the car if not at the park itself. (You can read more HERE about how we include travel activities as part of school.)
    family, homeschoolingearn badges, nps
  • Many Different Activities Help Complete the Booklet—Watch the park movie. Take a tour. Explore the plants and animals outdoors. Write poetry or draw pictures. Go on an information scavenger hunt in the museum. Interview a Ranger.
    National Park Service, Visitor Centernps, explore naturenps, displays, scavenger hunt
  • Take the Booklet Back to a Ranger—At minimum, he will check to see you have fulfilled the requirements. Sometimes, she will discuss what you have written or explore what you have learned. A few of the rangers have taken time to encourage our daughter to imagine how she might get involved with the National Park Service as a career. Junior Ranger, Ft Davis, npsJunior Ranger, nps, valley forge
  • Raise Your Right Hand and Be Sworn in as a Junior Ranger—promising to continue to explore National Parks, do one’s best to protect the parks, and share what is learned with family and friends. Then shake hands with the ranger and accept your new badge. nps, raise your right hand, biscayne bay
  • Add the Badge to Your Collection—In our family, that means adding a few pages to yet another scrapbook as well as pinning the latest badge or patch to the custom wall hanging. nps, junior ranger, collection

BONUS: Here are links to my daughter’s favorite National Park Sites that we have visited (so far).

Read more about Chaco Culture National Historic Site (in New Mexico) HERE. Andowen has many happy memories of this park since we lived near it for three years and visited often. nps, junior ranger

Read more about Craters of the Moon National Monument (in Idaho) HERE. This was one of the most desolate yet fascinating sites we have seen. nps, junior ranger

Read more about Kenai Fjords National Park (in Alaska) HERE. Andowen enjoyed tasting a bit of ice from Exit Glacier. And she was completely WOWED by seeing orcas and a whale fluke on the boat tour! nps, junior ranger, awe, excitement, whale watch

We would love to hear from you—what is YOUR favorite National Park to visit?

10 Things to Do for a Great Vacation

When you go on your next adventure, avoid the” woulda, coulda, shoulda” regrets of missed opportunities. Plan ahead to make sure you soak up all the best sounds, sights and activities. If you are like me, take this list along with you so you don’t get too busy and forget these little details that will turn your next trip into a great vacation.

ACTIVITIES:

1 – Say “YES” to unexpected opportunity: Be flexible enough to make a quick change of plans when you find something fun, intriguing, or exciting to do. Make sure you have some extra money in your budget to fund a few extras. On one family trip, we shared the cost of renting jet-skis for an afternoon. On a day in Paris, daughter Andowen and I took a bike taxi ride. Both are memories we still cherish!

unexpected fun, explore, great vacation activities

2 – Talk to a local: Strike up a conversation with a local shopkeeper or another mom at the playground. Folks are often quite proud to be asked for advice. You might find the perfect romantic restaurant or family-friendly café. There is probably a hidden gem of a park or waterfall or swimming hole nearby. (Time in Nature *is* important, ya know… HA!) On our current road trip, I stopped to get a haircut. The barber and his next customer animatedly urged us to explore a nearby nature preserve. We are still talking about the giant eagle nests topping the line of power poles and the great heron spearing his fishy lunch in the marsh.

3 – Find a local market or shop to explore: Avoid chains and big-box stores. It’s far more fun to discover little treasures and one-of-a-kind things at a local emporium. Even better is a store with sky-high prices—an opportunity to window-shop. You can ooh and aah without being tempted to buy anything. Take time to chat with the owner or store-clerk, if possible. They often have interesting stories to tell—about the merchandise, about the local area, or about their own life story. Little details like this can turn a ho-hum trip into a great vacation!

shop local, gift store

4 – Try something outside your comfort zone: Why in the world would I suggest you be uncomfortable (or even terrified) on your next vacation? Because when we are stretched, we learn more about ourselves. So try that zip-line or take a jeep tour. Taste the local food. Hike the mountain above town. Figure out what types of adventures you enjoy and which things you never want to do again!

THINGS:

5 – Find/Buy a meaningful memento: Sure, that stuffed animal is adorable. And that T-shirt has a hilarious saying. But do you really have a place for that quirky candle-holder or colorful poster? Is there empty space in your cupboard for yet one more mug or wine glass? Consider starting a collection of something small instead. Going on a hunt for the perfect spoon or earrings or magnet can become an enjoyable tradition. And each time you glance at your collection back home, you will be reminded of the wonderful adventures you have had.

frig magnets, great vacation mementos

6 – Snap the photos you have missed: Sometimes I remember to make a list of specific photos I don’t want to forget. I know myself—without a reminder, I will take far too many photos of beautiful scenery and architectural details, and far too few pictures of people and quiet moments. Because of my list, on this current trip I have taken more photos of the friends we have visited, the shops we have wandered, and the made-up adventures of the Tiny-Mes (our Lego travelling companions). Snap a quick picture of the sign at a yummy café or a quirky shop. Capture the treasures you find to remember details of your great vacation when you get back home.

7 – Send a postcard to someone special: Grandma would love to hear from you (and so would Mom…trust me!) Share the fun with the person who cheers you on in your adventures. Find a historic photo to send to your favorite history geek. (okay, okay…so I keep these for myself…) Tip: tacky-tourist stores or museum gift shops are often the best places to purchase postcards. Unfortunately, postcards are becoming harder to find!

snail mail, paper ephemera, great vacation memories

MEMORIES:

8 – Savor: Take time to soak in the atmosphere of the place you are visiting. We best remember things associated with strong emotion: excitement is an easy memory trigger. But noticing with our senses also makes deep connections. Notice the changing light on the buildings. Breathe deeply in a garden or near the spices in an open market. (But you might want to use shallow breathing to lessen the stench of an open meat market!) Pay attention to the background noise around you: music, conversations, footsteps, car horns. Feel the warm sunshine or cool wind on your skin. It might seem like you don’t have time to waste on such things. Actually, you are wasting your time if you don’t savor the uniqueness of your great vacation location!

Ocean spray, big waves, Maine coast

9 – Remember your motivation & objectives for this adventure: Why did you take this vacation? Perhaps it was to rest and recharge from a chaotic daily schedule. Maybe it was to add some excitement to your life. You might have wanted to get away from people…or meet new people and hear new stories. As you remind yourself of the purpose(s) for your trip, is there anything you still need to do to fulfill your own expectations?

10 – Take time to reflect: Consider the things you have most enjoyed about this vacation. Make sure you keep these things in mind for your next trip. Ponder the things that frustrated you. How can you lessen those challenges next time? On our first backpacking trip (You can read about it HERE) daughter and I started a daily practice to write down “our three good things.” We allow ourselves to record just one “bad” thing from each day. This helps us notice the things we enjoy, even on hard days. And it makes an excellent reference when planning future trips. We can choose to include more of the things that make our hearts sing!

memories, 3 good things, great vacation

Most of us take a trip at least once a year. What things can YOU add to this list to help others turn an annual tradition into a great vacation? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below…

Travel Buddy for the Tiny-Mes

We are traveling again—this time on a road trip to the Northeast USA. Our Lego Tiny-Mes have, of course, joined us. Here’s the next installment in THEIR adventures. They have a new travel buddy. (If you haven’t yet met our Tiny-Mes, read their introduction HERE.)

While we were busy packing, Tiny-A and Tiny-S insisted we had to stop for a few minutes and meet their new friend. They introduced us to Tiny-Dox (or TD)—an adorable little dachshund. Like most “doxies,” TD is ALWAYS curious. Although he dearly loves his people, he was apparently a bit bored and was looking for new places to explore. They proposed he join us as their special travel buddy.

Doxie, Travel Buddy

We had no interest in taking responsibility for a pet while traveling. After all, we leave our own dog at home. But the Tiny-Mes insisted they would keep a close eye on TD. They pointed out he is well trained and quite obedient…at least MOST of the time! We have apparently become softies because we said, “Okay, Let’s GO!”

Packed Car, Let's Go!

 Our itinerary for this trip includes stops at a number of National Parks and National Historic Sites for Andowen to collect more Jr. Ranger Badges. Tiny-A and Tiny-S enjoyed learning more about the fight for Women’s Rights. “We would have joined the men and women marching for equality for women,” declared the Tiny-Mes.

NPS, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass

 Poor Tiny-Dox. He was awfully bored inside the museum. The movie was too loud. There were no critters to hunt. There were no comfy chairs for dozing. We reminded TD that we couldn’t leave until Andowen earned her badge. “Quick,” he woofed! “I’ll help you finish your workbook. Let’s get out of here!”

NPS, Tiny-Dachshund, workbook

Tiny-Dox much preferred our day-trips to the Atlantic Ocean and the Coast of Maine. The Tiny-Mes pose for a photo on the rocky shores below the Pemaquid Lighthouse. But where is TD going?

Pemaquid Light, Rocky Shore

“Woof,” bellowed Tiny-Dox from a mini-cave in the rocks. “Look what I found! It smells deliciously strong and salty…”

Tiny Dachshund, Doxies, Seashell

All that walking in the fresh salt air made everyone hungry. We headed to town, looking for tasty seafood. The Brass Compass Café in Rockland smelled perfect! We could hardly wait for the food to arrive at our table. The plates were mounded with wonderful food: fish and chips, a haddock club sandwich, “chowdah,” and crispy onion straws. YUM!

Brass Compass Cafe, Fried Food, Yummy

Ohhhh, Tiny-Dox! What in the world are you doing? … “Woof!”

Tiny Dachshund, Doxies, Seafood Stew

We have spent the past few days with friends in Maine. But we will be camping for most of the nights on this road trip. We all agree that the free camping in a city park beside the Erie Canal was the best (so far). Andowen and I each know our part of the “dance” of putting up our little tent. The Tiny-Mes stayed out of our way, trying to prevent TD from exploring.  Once the tent was set up, Tiny-A and Tiny-S decided to hang out at the little camp.

Macedon Canal Park, Tenting

Tiny-Dox promised to behave if we let him join us on our walk along the canal. Seems like he makes a good travel buddy, after all. He was shocked at how large the gates were for the lock. Even TD was careful not to go over the edge! That would be a long fall…

Tiny-Mes, Lock 30, Macedon Canal Park

As the sun began to set, we headed back to our little orange tent. Time to get ready for bed. But TD wandered off with the Tiny-Mes running to catch him. His powerful nose was teasing him with new smells. He quickly bounded into a hole at the base of a tree. “Come back, Tiny-Dox! The fairies don’t like visitors!”

Tiny Dachshund, Doxies

Tiny-Dox is a good little fella, but far too curious. It’s hard work for the Tiny-Mes to keep their travel buddy out of trouble… Finally, all three Tinies returned to the tent. TD immediately burrowed deep into the sleeping bag. Dachshunds love to find hidey-holes, especially for sleeping. Hmmm…I wonder what mischief Tiny-Dox will get into later in our trip?

To Be Continued…

(Get  more information about the Women’s Rights National Historic Site in Seneca Falls, NY,  HERE. Find more information about the Pemaquid Lighthouse HERE and about the Brass Compass Café in Rockland Maine HERE.)

City Mouse — Country Mouse

Do you know the classic story of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse? Each visited the other but hated what they found there.  They were afraid of the unknowns and stressed by the different sights and sounds when away from their home settings. Humans tend to be the same.

Are you a City Mouse? Perhaps you love the hustle and bustle of the Big City. There is always something going on—even late into the night. Everything is larger here—more people, more buildings, more cars, more noise. (I might like living in the middle of everything in a city…but I know I hate the suburbs, where everyone spends as many hours in their cars as if they lived in the country but without the laid-back lifestyle!)

City Mouse, Urban Gray

City Mouse, Transit, City Nights

Are you a Country Mouse? Perhaps you enjoy the peace of rural living. The only traffic jams are getting stuck behind slow farm equipment during planting and harvesting seasons. Fewer people mean each one is acknowledged, at least by “throwing up a hand” to wave as you drive past. A slower pace and a more direct connection with nature allow the Country Mouse to watch the seasons change and notice weather patterns. Yes, you really CAN smell the rain moving toward you across the fields!

Kokosing River, Country Mouse, Bridge

Seasons Change, Country Mouse

For humans, I suspect that cities are even more jarring places than they are for a little Country Mouse. As I’ve mentioned before (HERE and HERE), humans need regular time in Nature. This is harder to find in a Big City. Studies have shown that even the colors we look at affect our moods:

“Our eyes weren’t designed to look at cityscapes… Studies on the effect of colours on emotions have shown that we find the blues and greens of nature the most restful. They make us less anxious and reduce our stress. The greys of an urban scene, however, have been shown to make us unhappier and more aggressive.” (p 172, Forest-Bathing by Dr. Qing Li)

Are you wondering who I am? I enjoyed many years of being a Country Mouse. And I enjoy visiting the Big City occasionally—knowing I will soon be back to my rural life. But I have a confession to make: I love my Small-Town living best of all. Seems to me, I get the best of both worlds—slower pace, few traffic jams, close to parks and nature but also walkable to many shops, plus more activities available than I have time to attend! And, with plenty of porches that people actually use, there is always someone to chat with on a summer evening.

Summer Living, Small Town

I’m a Small-Town Mouse…Which one are YOU?!

Work Hard to AVOID Nature Connection!

Seems like everyone these days is urging us to get outside, disconnect from our electronics, and connect with the non-human world. But what if we LIKE our indoor, multi-media, virtual world? Here are 5 ways to avoid the risk of nature connection. (On the other hand, if you want to access the enjoyment and the health benefits of time in nature, just do the opposite of these suggestions!)

satire, ways to connect with nature, nature therapy, disconnect, nature connection

(Learn more ways to connect with nature HERE. Read about how nature connection helps my daughter manager her anxiety HERE. Consider ways to be an advocate for others HERE. )

10 Things to Do Before Leaving on an Adventure

Vacation is about to start and we get weary just looking at all the things we still need to cross off our get-out-of-town To-Do lists. We have to arrange for all of our mundane chores to be covered by someone else while we are gone: feed the dog, water the plants, change the kitty’s litter box, and mow the lawn. Don’t forget to call the bank so they won’t freeze our accounts when we use our cards in new locations. Whew! If you are like me, you can’t imagine adding yet MORE things to that pesky list! But stick with me…taking time to do these 10 simple things will make your adventure much more enjoyable!

  1. Give Yourself SPACE to be Spontaneous – Take another look at your itinerary. Delete a few things (or at least change them to “penciled in,” only-a-possibility status). This allows you to take advantage of unexpected opportunities or wander through a store that looks interesting. Who knows? You might be lucky like we were on our Epic Road Trip. I found my long-lost Scandinavian ancestor in one town. Andowen found a dragon to ride in another store-yard!

serendipity, vacation finds

  1. Plan for DELAYS – Leave extra time in your first day and your last day of the trip. This way if there is a traffic jam on the way to the airport, or flights are delayed, or bus drivers are on strike, you have time to make an alternate plan. It helps to avoid planning activities back-to-back for the same reasons. (Besides…you need time to sit back, relax, and just do nothing occasionally…that gives more energy for finding adventure!)
  2. Don’t Leave Your HOBBIES Behind – Bring a few art supplies (warning: not the entire craft room!) or a favorite card game. Do an internet search to see how you can access your favorite activities at your destination. Perhaps there is a game café, or a model rocket club, or a quilt store to explore. Your fitness club or zoo memberships might be reciprocal. Beyond enjoying an afternoon doing your favorite things, this is also a great way to meet local folks with similar interests to your own.

art supplies, drawing, crafts

  1. Make LISTS (and lists of lists…and a master list of lists…oh wait! Nevermind…that’s my own obsession speaking…HA!) – It helps to have your itinerary written out and a packing list so you don’t forget necessities. (Plus, a packing list helps ensure you bring home all the items you left with.) The fewer things you are trying to keep track of in your brain, the more you can relax and actually enjoy the adventure!
  2. Choose Your RESCUER! – It is always wise to leave your expected itinerary with someone back home. This way, when an alligator swallows your cell phone (so you no longer respond to texts) or you quit posting photos on fb because you have been captured by a Yeti, someone will know where to start looking for you! Oh wait! Hopefully, you have a marvelous time on your adventure with the only unexpected events being happy ones. (But leave that itinerary with someone…just in case!)

trip planning, schedule

  1. LIGHTEN Your Load – The less you have to schlepp around with you, the happier you will be. Trust me on this one! Set out all the things you think you might need on your trip…then put half of it back in the cupboards. (Unless you are a travel guru who has already mastered safe travel with the least amount of “stuff”–in which case, I would love to have you write a guest post to share your packing wisdom.)
  2. You Can (probably) BUY IT There – This is a corollary to the previous suggestion. Unless you are going to Outer Mongolia or Antarctica, there will most likely be a way to purchase any items you forget to bring. My husband assures me this also applies to food—there WILL be grocery stores at our destination. (I’m not yet convinced this is always true—thus we travel with bags of extra food, just in case. Unless I’m backpacking…then I’ve mastered the quick resupply in towns near the trail.)
  3. Switch to Your Holiday WALLET – There is no reason to carry the zillion and one things you usually have in your purse or even in your wallet. Grab your medical insurance card, your ID, and a credit card and stuff it into a Ziploc baggie along with some cash. (Or separate these items into a few different bags and hide them in seperate dark recesses of your bags.) You won’t need your library card, your local coffee shop punch-card, or your craft store discount card. Really!

ziploc bag

  1. DETOX the Frig – For years after we were married, I was grumpy with my husband when he insisted we had to sweep the floors, clean the toilets, and empty the trash before we could leave on a trip. But it is certainly enjoyable to walk back into a clean, fresh-smelling house when we get home from a long trip! (Shhh! Don’t tell him I admitted he is right…)
  2. Make a Final LIBRARY Run – Perhaps you don’t have a pile of books to return. Maybe you don’t “need” a few rom-com fluff books for the beach. But there are audio books to be loaded on your phone and ebooks to be added to your kindle. I’ve been told library accounts are free. Now if I could just get organized enough to avoid the fines!

library books, reading list

Make sure your tickets and ID are in hand and there is gas in the car. Lock the doors behind you. And ENJOY your adventure!

(Read about my Wandering Spirit HERE. See my tips for planning your own adventure HERE.)

Find the History…

So you can’t get time off work for the next few months. Or you’ve already used up all your vacation days for the year. What in the world can you do in your boring corner of the world? Try going on a History SCAVENGER HUNT!

Some places are obvious: the restored train depot beside the tracks, the fancy mansions hiding behind wrought iron fences. The factory ruins turned into event center at the local park.

Historic Station, Train Tracks

gothic style, wrought iron fence

Ariel Park, renovation, factory re-used

GATHER INFORMATION: Find the stories that go with the obviously old buildings in town. But also look for hidden treasure! Do a quick internet search for the history of your town. Stop by your local tourist information center to ask about maps of local landmarks or walking tours. Talk to the old-timers in your neighborhood. They often have stories to tell about long-ago businesses or events in your area. Even the gift shop or local book store might have clues—found in the books and post cards they sell.

GO FOR A WALK: The best way to discover local history is to walk. At the slower pace, you will notice cornerstones, dates on buildings, and signs describing historic events. (We found out that the county office building used to be the local hospital. Even some of the old-timers didn’t know that tidbit of information!) Talk to folks as you pass by. Workers explained the reason for the swampy low spot near one house—it used to be flooded and frozen in the winter to harvest ice blocks to be stored and used year round. Another family proudly told us about the blocked off passageway in their basement—possibly remnants of a stop to help protect runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Mercy Hospital

Historic Block Ice Field

escape tunnel, underground railroad, local history

WANDER THE SIDE STREETS: Pay close attention to what might be around the next corner! There will most certainly be hidden gardens and quirky architectural details. But you never know what other treasures you might discover. We found a colony of gnome-homes in our little town. But that’s another story for another day…

Meditation vs. Forest Therapy: What’s the Difference?

When I describe the practice of Forest Therapy, many folks assume it is merely doing meditation in an outdoors location. There are actually three different practices which look very similar to each other. Traditional Meditation, Forest Meditation, and Forest Therapy all have the goal of balancing life, resetting priorities, and bringing inner calm. However, the actual practices are different. Let me explain…

Meditation focuses the mind inwards; Forest Therapy focuses the senses outwards to Nature…

In Traditional Meditation, we are taught to withdraw our senses and focus inward. We work to find peace inside of self. As part of the process, we need to resist multiple thoughts, coming back over and over to an inward focus.

Sitting Pose, Meditation

Forest Meditation is a blend of traditional meditation with the health benefits of being outdoors. In this practice, we are taught to open our senses to our surroundings as we observe the world around us. We connect with nature in order to make outside peace become part of our inner being. With this practice, we allow our thoughts to just “go with the flow.”

Meditation, Standing Pose, Outdoors

If meditation works well for you, that’s great! Personally, no matter how many times I have tried to meditate, I end up either agitated or bored. My mind usually jumps from thought to thought to thought. Plus, emotion plays a big role in how I perceive the world and interact with it. Doing meditation outside is a help, but it is still difficult for me to find calm when I’m focused on the hard work of clearing my mind.

Forest Therapy is a perfect fit for me! In this practice, our goal is to reawaken the senses as we immerse ourselves in the forest. Noticing what we are feeling in the outer world (physically) and inside ourselves (emotionally/spiritually) is a much more intuitive practice for me. Often with the help of a guide, we learn how to allow a focus on nature to clear the mind and lessen negative emotions. In addition to reducing stress and bringing peace, Forest Therapy is a gentle way to rejuvenate energy and add strength to inner healing.

I am excited to find a calming practice that fits well with my personality and passions. Traditional meditation feels like a difficult task to master. But Forest Therapy simply brings new dimensions to spending time in nature, an activity I always enjoy. I am intrigued to explore this practice in my personal life. And I’m excited to help others learn this method of connecting with nature. I have been accepted into the 6 month training program to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide. My cohort begins our mentoring program with a week-long intensive in September. (You can read more about this HERE )

I invite you to join me in exploring Forest Therapy practices. If you make a donation to my Go-Fund-Me Campaign, one of the rewards for donors is a week of daily emails giving mini-invitations to try on one’s own. (Find more info about rewards HERE and donate HERE). Late this fall and through the winter, after I complete my initial training camp, I will need local “guinea pigs” to take on practice Forest Therapy explorations. And by this time next year, I will be offering 7 week sessions to help stressed-out folks experience Nature’s healing via guided Forest Therapy walks.

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