Cold Weather Getaways – Dogsledding

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Whether you have palm trees or evergreens outside your window, consider that not all getaways must be to warmer climates. Consider this dog sledding trip we did last winter that ran in the December/January issue of Family Fun Magazine.

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While I made this trip on assignment, I’d venture to say it is my favorite travel experience to date. The founder of Wintergreen kennels, polar expedition leader, entrepreneur, husband and father of three, Paul Schurke is considered one of the best, if not the best in the business (so said every one of his peers while researching my article). Paul ensured our safety and comfort every step of the way, and his family’s hospitality and warmth were a terrific incidental benefit. This was a family-friendly experience, from bundling then-two-year-old Aaron inside a sleeping bag while he rode in the front compartment of a sled to offering our oldest son the chance to drive a team solo.

Here’s a video clip hosted at the web site of the outfitter we were lucky enough to work with, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. (Watch carefully for shots of the family’s home they designed and built themselves–aka the model for our dream house). If this isn’t enough to tempt you to explore fun in the snow, check out their photo gallery.

You really have to love or at least not loathe the cold, and bringing proper winter clothing is highly recommended (synthetic fabric long underwear, sturdy gloves, cold-proof winter boots, snow pants, windproof, warm coat, hat–I suggest ski masks for kids to avoid windburn). The Schurkes will either loan or sell gear you may not have from either their lodge or their retail gear store in downtown Ely.

Our family is definitely planning to repeat this trip for longer than our previous half-day adventure. The boys keep asking when we’ll return, and we may even head up for another long weekend this winter, budget permitting. I also have plans to attend this photography workshop, possibly next year.

What’s your dream cold-weather getaway? Have you done it already or is it in the planning stages? Share your ideas, thoughts and questions in the comments section.

 

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Quaking Bogs and Boy-Eating Plants

At the trailhead.

As I mentioned in my previous post lamenting our lack of snackage, the boys and I did a brief but fun hike at Volo Bog State Natural Area in Ingleside, Illinois (about 45 miles northwest of Chicago) last weekend.

Carved by the glaciers that ambled through here a few thousand seasons ago, we learned that Volo Bog is more technically a fen. The boys and I agreed that bog is more fun to say, so we’re content with current nomenclature.

 

The open water portion of Volo Bog.
The open water portion of Volo Bog.

There are two main trails at Volo Bog; the shorter 1/4-mile interpretive trail and a 2.75-mile hiking/cross-country skiing trail. Given the unseasonably warm weather and resulting potential for muck (not to mention my single mom status for the weekend–no way was I carrying our sturdy 3-year-old for that last mile!), we opted for the interpretive trail with a brochure keyed to numbered posts along the way.

At the trailhead.
At the trailhead.
Rightfully confused but determined moss jostles for its share of the sunlight.
Rightfully confused but determined moss jostles for its share of the sunlight.

While my middle child traditionally serves as the dictator keeper of the map, all we had was the handout, so he quickly lost interest. I gave him the job of seeking out the numbered posts instead.

Nolan earns his keep by spotting guideposts
Nolan earns his keep by spotting guideposts

The boys set out along the wooden boardwalk trails that literally sit on top of the water, quaking and tilting with each bounding, boot-clad step we took. I’d purposely waited to take this hike until Aaron was a little older, and at three and a half, I’m glad I waited. I don’t know how deep those waters are along the interpretive trail, but I wasn’t planning on finding out, either. Of course, the three of them jockeyed for the lead throughout the hike and I had to hiss and squawk at times to keep someone from going into the drink. There are hand rails for some portions of this hike, but some of them are seriously shaky and at points, nonexistent, so parents of very young children will want to keep their kids within snatching distance.

Aaaand they’re OFF!
Aaaand they’re OFF!
One of the hinges that keeps hikers bog-water-free
One of the hinges that keeps hikers bog-water-free

At each numbered guidepost, they stood and listened to about 3/4 of what I read from the information listed on the guided tour handout. There was a too much information for a three- and five-year-old (who accuses me of “blah blah blah” if I go on too long), but older kids will probably stay put for longer. The terrain changed often enough and, coupled with the factoids we picked up, like our discovery of a carnivorous plant (take it from me, boys LOVE the idea of carnivorous plants) and a deciduous evergreen tree (the tamarack pine, which sheds its needles each fall), this short hike packed a lot of punch.

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Exactly how wrong is it to tease your kids that carnivorous plants can chase them?

In the thick of it
In the thick of it

The bobbing and weaving of the trail itself adds an element of danger and adventure to the hike, something the boys enjoyed but that I’m sure contributed to the completely white head of hair I’m sure to have one day. What’s even better is that Volo Bog changes greatly with the seasons, so there’s often something new to see with each visit.

There are also usually guided tours along the trail we took, except for the one day we actually showed up on time, ready to be guided. The Visitor Center is kid-friendly and packed with exhibits that encourage touching, and questions are always welcome. Just be sure to be polite or the coyote greeter will escort you off the premises.

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We’re waiting for the next big snowfall for a return visit to see if those meat-eating plants will be poking up out of the snow.

 

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Making Meaningful Holidays

Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois

I meant to write more than just thoughts on teacher gifts for the holiday season, but an evil flu-like virus hit our home for over a week along with a last-minute assignment, so blogging time & motivation were scarce.

Here are some post-Christmas thoughts to ponder as you stare down those bits of gift wrap that seem to multiply each time you think you’ve retrieved the last of ‘em from the floor (or is that just me?)

Note: I’m covering secular Christmas celebrations because that’s what I know best, but please share your favorite winter seasonal traditions in the comments section.

Ditch Perfection

Tell perfection to take her perky backside somewhere else, because she’s not welcome at your place any longer. Look, I get it: we all fall prey to perfectionism because we care. We care about our family, friends, and community members, and we care about crafting celebrations that hold meaning for us. But the thing is, none of it has to be perfect. I get caught up in this, too, especially when I’m making photography- or food-related gifts. I think it’s easy to confuse what we give or how we otherwise present ourselves with who we are.

In the photo above, we were trying for that perfectly posed holiday photo, but as you can see, that didn’t quite work out. Our youngest son was fussing, so after we’d decided to call it quits, my husband decided to playfully flip him upside down and I happened to hit the shutter release as he did. The resulting photo not only felt more real to us, but it netted several phone calls and positive comments because it made the recipients laugh.

The truth is, nobody’s going to remember that you forgot to vacuum the living room carpet or that your mini pumpkin loaves weren’t expertly wrapped. What people remember about the holidays is time spent with friends and loved ones. People aren’t perfect, so stop expecting your holiday presentation to be perfect, too.

Make Meaningful Traditions

It’s not the Bears-themed magnet you grabbed from the shelf at Walgreens (or, if you’re my dad, perfume or a cat calendar) that people will remember of Christmases past. What makes a meaningful tradition? Hint: if� you’re feeling stressed and/or simply going through the motions, you’re probably doing it wrong.

This year, my parents switched from a heavy, Italian-style Christmas Eve dinner fit to feed a subdivision to lighter appetizers served earlier in the day, and we all enjoyed it–and felt better afterward. My favorite part of this year’s visit was listening to my parents laughing about their different versions of a story about my Chicago-raised mom supposedly craving farm fresh eggs, which led to a drive in the country where they found their first dog, a collie shepherd named Sloopy. She vehemently denies ever wanting farm fresh eggs, but my dad swears it’s true and their arguing and laughing over it is funny every time it comes up.

I fully realize that watching your parents argue might not make for holiday entertainment in every household. The definition of “meaningful” will vary from family to family, but to me the key is it should be simple, fun, affordable, and make everyone feel good. Notice I don’t mention “perfect” or “ideal” or “obligatory” anywhere in there.

Some of our traditions include:

Kicking off the season on the day after Thanksgiving with the Lighting of the Square, one of my very favorite days of the year.

Watching as many of our favorite movies and specials, including: A Christmas Story, Elf, The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Polar Express, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman as we can.

Buying at least one new holiday CD each year.

Baking together. This is the year I’ve decided to say good bye to cutout cookies; the taste payoff simply doesn’t match the effort required, even though I found my best recipes yet this year. This year’s mini pumpkin loaves turned out great, but the kids ate all of them, since our last day of school was a snow day and we couldn’t deliver them to our teachers!

Christmas Eve noshing at my parents’ house. Yum.

Putting cookies and carrots out for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve, then reading A Night Before Christmas.

The annual New Year’s Day open house party at my friend’s home.

This year, we added sledding and snowboarding to our Christmas Day traditions! That’s my six-year-old heading down our driveway, one of my favorite Christmas Day moments.

People First, Then Money, Then Things

Financial expert Suze Orman’s advice rings truest during the holidays. And while I think having a cadre of crazy relatives who drive people to drink makes great fiction writing fodder, my family makes me feel blessed, because I actually enjoy spending the holidays with them.

Take my kid brother Stephen, who gave me two photos of him in holiday frames, one labeled “then” circa 1973 and one labeled “now” from the 80s (love the imperfection!), along with a handmade card with a family photo from our childhood on the cover. He didn’t even tell my mom he was making these gifts, and they were my favorites because of the planning and thought that went into them.

Give Back

Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois
Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois

Taking time to volunteer at or donate to charitable organizations is a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays while also teaching our kids the importance of thinking beyond those Christmas lists. Of course we should all pitch in year-round and I’m sure most, if not all of you already do, but I think it’s important to give to others during a time of year that can be very lonely and difficult for so many. Consider starting with local charities; they often need warm bodies and cash more than larger organizations.

Don’t Do Debt

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When I was growing up, even during hard times, my dad wasn’t happy unless there was a mound of gifts piled all around the Christmas tree. I know where this comes from; one Christmas during his humble rural childhood, all he got was a shirt and some oranges. So when he had kids of his own, he made sure the house was overflowing with gifts and food.

Just this year, I looked under our tree and fretted that it wasn’t enough, only to hear the boys declare this “the best Christmas ever!” the next day. I still struggle with my urge to overspend and I try not to mistake price tags for emotional connection. One of the smartest financial moves my husband and I have made (and believe me, not all of our choices have been brilliant), is not using credit cards for Christmas purchases. We set a budget and work with it. Do I feel bad that I can’t give more elaborate gifts? Sure. But when January rolls around and our budget looks healthy, with bills the same size they were last month, I get over it.

Share your holiday traditions and thoughts on how to make holidays meaningful in the comments section.

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The Gift of Saying “Thank You”

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My family is fortunate to have a small-town school district with a forward-thinking superintendent and caring, professional educators and support staff. Our district’s budget is not only consistently in the black, but is known statewide as one of the finest in terms of accommodating children on the autism spectrum (including one of our boys). And while there are many families hovering near the poverty line in our little town, I’ve seen administrators and staff members take their own personal time and money to ensure that their students have boots in winter or can attend a field trip with the rest of the class.

My kids are getting a fine education and I am deeply grateful for this. During the holidays, I express that gratitude with handwritten notes or cards telling the teachers how much our family values their hard work and dedication to our kids.

In recent years I’ve noticed a trend toward giving gift cards, cash, or extravagant holiday gifts to offset what teachers spend on their classrooms throughout the year. However, many parents I know donate time, classroom and party supplies, and support fundraisers throughout the year, and many teachers earn decent (though seldom extravagant) salaries with great benefits and pensions. Some districts have even banned parents from giving gifts to teachers to prevent undue influence and/or to spare families on tight budgets from feeling bad for not being able to contribute.

Truthfully, our family would love nothing more than to shower everyone in our world with gift cards from our awesome indie book store or some handmade loveliness from the talented peeps on Etsy.com. But for various reasons, including our family’s annual cash-only holiday budget, we don’t.

Instead, we say thank you.

This year, my plan is to bake some mini pumpkin loaves and make photo cards with personal notes to my kids’ teachers and some other staffers.

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Wait! Come back!

Don’t panic about the handmade gift ideas; this is not about being the parent who can out-Martha all the others, just as it’s not about being the parent who can spread the most gift cards around. Holiday giving shouldn’t be about running yourself ragged, stretching your family’s budget, or worse–going into debt in order to keep up with those spendy Joneses. The bottom line: don’t make obligatory or competitive gifting part your holiday grab bag. If you have the means to shower everyone with gift cards, great. But if you don’t, know that it’s possible to honor the spirit of this season with a heartfelt thanks.

I mentioned the “to gift or not to gift” issue to my friend, Kelly, who teaches third grade. She wrote:

I know that a note of appreciation for the job they are doing and the impact they are having on your kid means SO much more than ANY gift. I have a drawer filled with notes I have saved. When I am having a rough day in the class … nothing is better than pulling one of them out and reminding myself why I do what I do. I have no idea what gift was given to me by what family last year. Don’t spend your money… take the time and write a note!

What do you think? Share your thoughts and ideas for meaningful ways to give thanks to our educators and others in our communities.

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The Simplicity of Snow

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It’s cold and snowy here in Northern Illinois, and my kids and I couldn’t be happier. Well, everyone but the youngest, who’s on day two of an ear-infection-induced fever (he’s on antibiotics, just has stubborn ears, rather like the rest of him).110669070_a48537f62d

Snow means hours of outdoor play for my kids, and often for me too (when my pasty behind isn’t stuck in my office chair goofing around on Twitter rushing toward a deadline or blogging about fun things to do here). Even though it’s bitterly cold outside, my kids don’t care, partly because they have decent snow gear (snow pants, parkas, hats, mittens, and boots) and partly because a healthy snowfall transforms our property into one giant white sandbox (sans any visible signs of the neighbors’ cats poop).

We’re fortunate to have a slightly hilly driveway. Well, “fortunate” in the “kids’ play” sense, not in the “try driving a minivan up that icy hill in February” sense. So when it snows, the boys grab their saucer sleds (yes, they still make ‘em!) and start wearing grooves into the driveway. We also have a toboggan-style sled so all three can glide down together, shrieking with part healthy fear and part unadulterated joy.

Snow forts are a rare treat when enough good packing snow falls to create one. Last winter the boys made an igloo that ended up more like a turret, but they loved it anyway. I didn’t have one of those plastic igloo brick makers, but a metal loaf pan made a great substitute in a pinch.

Snow angels are another fun way to enjoy a snowy day; we like drawing funny faces on ours.

For younger kids who might be more tentative or have sensory issues, let them bring some snow inside or onto an enclosed porch. Here’s what I did for my then-three-year-old last winter:

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He was content just sitting on our front porch like this, which felt safer for him than laying down in the snow or being pelted with brotherly snowballs. Another great thing about snow is that it’s usually pretty clean so I can let my kids play with my wire whisk and ice cream scoop without worrying too much about them.

Of course, everybody loves a good, old-fashioned snowball fight. (Except the first kid to get nailed in the face by one).

Since we have a long back yard, my oldest boy will drag a sled all around to make trails the boys can follow. Today, my four-year-old formulated big plans before heading outside. “I want to wide in da sled,” he said. “Jackson will pull me.” Yeah, those youngest kids know how to work it, don’t they?

Of course there’s always winter hiking, ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, not to mention downhill skiing, snowboarding and even dogsledding! But what I’m talking about now are things kids and families can do right outside their back doors.

Outdoor winter fun is limited to your imagination – it’s always amazing to see what my kids come up with, too; yesterday they molded Star Wars spaceships out of snow.

After Christmas, I’ll write about our experiences with Snowboarding 101, since it looks like Santa will be placing two beginner-level (read: plastic) snowboards under the tree (the four-year-old will get a cool new sled so he doesn’t feel left out).110669069_8373ba1460

For those of you in colder regions, how do you and your kids enjoy the snow? What do you warm weather readers do for winter fun that’s different from summertime?

Share your favorite wintry things to do in the comments section.

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Staycations – All You Ever Wanted?

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Sure, the term “staycation” is kind of annoying, but I’m going to argue in favor of the idea of a “stay-at-home-vacation,” if not its shorthand term-du-jour. Call it something else if you’d like, but there are benefits to “traveling” close to home during these tough economic times.

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Create your own getaway by exploring your own back yard

For one – this should get your attention – if you play it right, you’ll save money. While I realize it’s just as easy to drop a ton of cash in your own back yard, right now people are holding on to that cash–which is probably a wise move. If you think about it, money spent on air fare or car rentals could easily fund a fabulous local getaway. Send half of that money to your savings account or use it to pay off debt, and you get to enjoy yourself while also benefiting your family’s bottom line. (Maybe we should call it a “smartcation” instead).

Second, local independent businesses need our support now more than ever. After all, nobody is bailing them out; they must swim within a far lower-risk business model or sink, as many are doing.

Third, not shelling out money to an all-inclusive resort (something my family isn’t really into anyway) removes the creativity and spontaneity from travel. While it’s perfectly fine to do so in some instances–or all the time, if it’s your thing–we like to think of ourselves as explorers in our family and we love customizing our vacations. Finding new things in our area becomes a unique challenge, not something that makes us feel deprived.

Fourth, Traveling close to home – whether in your own neighborhood, town, or in nearby major cities – requires you to think like tourists and view well-traveled destinations and attractions in a new light. Taking a staycation is a great opportunity introduce your kids to museums, parks, and restaurants you might otherwise take for granted. Contact your area’s convention and visitors bureau to see what they suggest; you might find a few untapped surprises in your midst.

Next month, my husband and I were going to spend a long weekend at a swanky spa resort, but after we did the math, we realized that we could vacation at home (with a mandate to not work or do anything but necessary chores) without the kids and go exploring for less than half the cost. I’ll write more about what we decide to do when we’re done planning our staycation.

Are you traveling more or less this year, and is the economy affecting how you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments section. And if you hate the word “staycation,” suggest a better word and if I like it, I’ll adopt it here from now on!

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You Can Also Bring the Family . . .

To vote! I brought my two younger boys this morning (where our neighbors at the polling place spoiled the boys with bakery doughnuts so I could concentrate) and my husband is off with our oldest son this evening.

We really wanted to stress the importance of voting and it’s led to many interesting conversations about how government works. It’s also been interesting hearing what the kids have absorbed already – I got a Hillary Clinton question this morning from one of the boys. Of course, my kindergartener has already felt the sting of his first election loss. It seems his peers felt Clifford the Big Red Dog would make a better leader than his choice, Duck for President. He still proudly wore his “I voted” sticker and understood that it still mattered that he voted.
I read today that while many are talking about this being an historic election, we should keep in mind that every election is historic. Brilliant thought, that.

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Photo Friday: Halloween in Woodstock, Illinois

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For the Photo Friday shindig over at Delicious Baby.com.

Every year on Halloween, the boys and I head over with friends to the Woodstock Square, located a few blocks from our home. There’s a Halloween costume contest and all the merchants on the Square hand out candy to trick or treaters. Also, as pictured here, there’s often great ghoulish fun at our Opera House on the Square. It’s a great time, though every year as our town’s population increases, it seems to get a little more crowded and chaotic. My guys are so excited about this year; I’m really savoring their enthusiasm about Halloween while I can, because I know soon enough they’ll outgrow it.

At night, we get tons of trick or treaters at our house. My oldest is going to hide on our enclosed front porch dressed as a ghost to scare visitors. My favorite part of the night is making kids who show up without costumes do tricks for their treats. It’s all good-natured, and I end up giving kids who do a treat extra candy.

What’s your favorite part about Halloween? What are your kids going to be? And, most important, how early is too early to start dipping into the candy stash?

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Take an Autumn Hike

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Not everyone has a distinct change of seasons like us lucky Midwesterners. But if you live in a region on our side of the globe where the leaves change color as the days grow shorter, don’t miss an opportunity to take in some fresh air, sunshine, and eye candy with an autumn hike.

What’s different about hiking in fall vs. other seasons? I’d say the gear you need is about the same as spring, with perhaps a lower chance of getting rained on. Taking my decidedly Midwestern bias into account, here are some tips for how to prepare for your next autumn hike:

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–Bring Water (& maybe also snacks). Even with the temps dipping, you should bring water along while hiking (unless you’re taking a short stroll or walk as opposed to a longer, more challenging hike). Why? As I’ve written before, dehydration is a serious concern on the trail for both kids and grown-ups alike. In hot weather, it leaves you vulnerable to heat stroke, and in cooler temps, hypothermia. One of my rules for hiking is “hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” and in this case, why open the door to a more serious health risk when carrying water is a simple preventative measure? If you’ll be hiking for a long(ish) period of time, bring a snack or even pack a picnic in your backpacks–just be sure to pack out all of your trash (check the area where you’re hiking for rules & regulations; in ecologically sensitive areas, that apple core might do more harm than good). We love Nature Valley Granola Bars, mini bagels, and apples for hiking snacks–all keep well. They even make individual packs of peanut butter that add a little protein to your trailside snackage.

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–Dress in Layers. Don’t roll your eyes! I know every guide to hiking mentions this, but some things bear repeating. Spring and fall pretty much require that we dress in layers on the trail to keep from overheating or developing hypothermia. I remember hiking a forest preserve trail near my parents’ suburban Chicago home in September; we wore shorts and t-shirts and left our jackets in the car. The hike started out in the sunny 70s and dropped into the windy 40s by the time we were done an hour later. Had we brought even windbreakers, we wouldn’t have suffered as much as we did; thankfully the hike was short and we didn’t develop hypothermia.

What exactly does “dress in layers” mean? This is a tricky time of year, where neither shorts nor long underwear really fit the bill. Here’s a basic guide to dressing in layers from REI.com’s Expert Advice section. For autumn, you’ll probably want warmer layers like a fleece vest, and a windbreaker of some sort because this time of year can get gusty. I always pack rain ponchos for the family, too.

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–Exercise Your Leave No Trace Ethic. Kids watch everything we do, and if we wander off-trail (potentially trampling delicate foliage) or casually discard that granola bar wrapper, we’re giving our kids tacit approval to do the same. The expression, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is a good one; just be sure those footprints remain on trail.

Really, these tips are simply good common sense prep for just about any hike, with some additional mind paid to quick shifts in weather and temps. So what are you waiting for? Pack up the kids and head out for some fresh air and sunshine! Don’t forget to come back and share stories and photos of your latest fall hiking adventures–post links in the comments section.

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