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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Affordable Outdoor Winter Gear for Kids

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2145992995_682e89e2edOutdoor retailer Campmor.com runs regular “hot deals” on outdoor/camping gear (click on “Hot Deals” at the top of their web site and you’ll see a handy menu on the left broken out by category. You can also subscribe to their “Trailmail” newsletter that features the latest Hot Deals offered on the web site).

I’ve had my eye on their $7.97 long underwear separates for kids. Trying to outfit a family of five isn’t cheap, and while we do have cotton long underwear, I’ve wanted to get the boys some made of fabric that wicks moisture from their hard working little bodies. If you have no idea what I’m talking about (what is this “wicking” of which you speak? I’m just a cavemom . . .), here’s a great, simple explanation about why layering using non-cotton fabrics is the smart way to go, folded into a handy piece about winter play with kids in general.

So I went ahead and ordered some Duofold midweight long underwear for the two younger boys (ages 3 and 5 but very close in size) and expedition weight long johns for my 8-year-old. I’d have ordered everything the same but it wasn’t available, and since the oldest boy is outdoors for the longest periods, I’m okay with that. I’ll write about their performance after we’ve had a chance to test them. I threw in some hiking socks on sale when bought as a three-fer (sometimes having to buy in bulk comes in handy!).

Our next purchase: snowshoes! I’m already finding that shopping for these is more complicated than it might seem on the surface but will report back with what we learn after more research/shopping.

We’d priced cross-country ski gear for the family and it’s just too cost prohibitive compared to how frequently we’d use the gear (assuming the boys would enjoy it at all–of course we’d do test runs before purchasing, however).

After a day gazing at gear at REI, Dan ultimately confessed that he used to X-C ski years ago and simply didn’t enjoy it as much as he did hiking, so why not keep it simple? This is a price difference of maybe $300-400 for snowshoes for a family of five vs. about $2K for skis, bindings, boots, and poles. We’re going to try renting X-C skis on occasion to see how the boys like it, but I can really see us getting more mileage–figuratively and on the trail–from the snowshoes.

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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 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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Cold Weather Bicycling

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With temperatures dropping, I’m finding my weekly bike rides are getting a bit more challenging, but only slightly so, simply because I have to guess at how to dress depending upon the weather. To give you an idea of how tricky this can be, it was in the low ’70s here in northern Illinois on Halloween and for a few days afterward, then suddenly it dipped below freezing at the end of the next week, when I looked out my office window to see wet snow falling straight downward. I went for a ride one day last week wearing long underwear as one of my layers and felt – and probably looked – a lot like The Heat Miser as I rode.

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When I lived in Chicago in the ’90s, I used to ride my Specialized hybrid mountain bike from my North Side apartment to downtown and back every weekday, even in January. Often I’d be the only one riding along the lakefront, watching as waves crashed along the icy shoreline.

I love gear as much as the next outdoorsy nerd, but in this case, I just keep things simple using layering. If it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, I wear lightweight long underwear under whatever winter weight leggings or sweats happen to be clean at the time (who, me, procrastinate on laundry?), a fleece sweatshirt topped off with a thin windbreaker. When it’s really cold, I wear a thin winter hat under my helmet, a neck gaiter to warm the air without having to fuss with a scarf, and windproof gloves. I bring water no matter the temp, since bicycling works up a sweat no matter what the thermometer says.

The only two things so far that will keep me indoors are rain (no fenders on my hybrid mountain bike) and ice. I’m considering trying a ride in the snow, but after breaking my leg slipping on my own icy driveway a few years ago, I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to moving swiftly over the snow.

Do I bring the family bicycling? Not in cold weather. My nine-year-old might be hardy enough for a cold weather ride or two, but I know my younger kids would never enjoy it, even bundled in our Burley bike trailer with the plastic windshield. If I do take the oldest boy riding, I’ll have him share his thoughts on it, good, bad, and ugly (gotta love kid honesty). I think knowing your limits and your kids’ preferences is key here, and I think as my younger boys grow older, they might actually dig riding with their crazy mom on cold November days.

To read more on prepping for cold weather cycling, check out IceBike and the Winter Bicycling section of Bicycling Life. Don’t fear the 1990s web design; there’s some great info in there. Finally, for a quick but entertaining read, check out this essay by writer Ethan Gilsdorf, who cycles around Boston year-round.

Do you engage in any off-season activities like cold weather bicycling? Why? If not, what’s holding you back? What’s your favorite cold weather outdoor activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions – leave a comment and tell me what works for you.

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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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Seasonal Traditions

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I have a confession: I grew up hating fall, because in true Calvin & Hobbes form, it meant the return to school (yuck!). Also, it got dark too early and that meant less time playing outdoors, and I was an outdoorsy kind of kid. It wasn’t until I became an adult and had watched enough seasons come and go that I learned to appreciate autumn. I feel really lucky to live somewhere with four distinct seasons; there’s something to love about each one (though I could do without our summer humidity and mosquitoes!).

The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.
The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.

Since becoming a mom, I’ve grown to appreciate seasonal shifts even more, since we’ve built family traditions around them, from trips to sledding hills to spring hikes to maple syrup festivals to visits to the local pumpkin patch in search of Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins and to take our annual “kids squinting into the harsh autumn sun” photo.

Here’s one of our early attempts, taken in 2002, when my middle son was just a tiny longshoreman:

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Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look
Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look

Things settled down a bit after the arrival of our third son, which coincided nicely with the arrival of our only frame-worthy pumpkin patch photo so far.

That’s the great thing about family photos; you never know what you’re going to get, and often the silly or accidental results make the best memories.

Some years, the weather doesn’t cooperate:

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Or maybe your kid stubbornly prefers pumpkins of a different shade:

I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!
I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!

Or perhaps there’s slim pickins in your neck of the woods:

That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy
That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy

No matter what the weather or your kids’ temperaments bring, there’s always something fun or funny to capture as your family heads out to enjoy seasonal fun. In fact, this year I ordered school photos of my offbeat middle child making a purposefully silly face. Why? Because every time he looked at the proof, he’d giggle to himself for minutes at a time. How could I not order a print that would fill the house with that much laughter?

Speaking of laughter, here’s this year’s outtake from the pumpkin patch photo session:

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And here are the two I’d consider “framers,” despite a certain recalcitrant middle son’s tendency to snarl when I press the shutter release

I can never decide which to choose–the one that makes me smile, or laugh. What do you think? I think they’re all framers.

Do you have a hard time capturing those “perfect” family memories? How does your family enjoy celebrating autumn? Share your thoughts, opinions, and links to photos in the comments section.

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