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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Hiking Snacks

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I’m continually on the look-out for decent hiking snacks. My requirements are fairly humble: they must be portable, fairly indestructible, and reasonably neat when eaten. I always think I’m going to try PB&J or turkey/cheese/light ranch dressing wraps, but never get around it because I fear the onslaught of goop when eaten.

Anyway, last weekend the boys and I did a really fun, short hike over a quaking bog at the Volo Bog State Natural Area here in Northern Illinois. Because I procrastinated all morning, sipping coffee and reading magazines in my PJ’s, I didn’t think about snack planning. Before I knew it, we were out the door totally snackless and racing to the start time of our guided hike (which was canceled–note to self: call ahead even if the web site says EVERY weekend at 11 and 1).

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I’ll write more about our hike in a subsequent post, but wanted to share (confess?) what we did after hiking. We went for lunch at a fast food joint. Now it was better in quality than McDonald’s, but it was still fast food. I’m not a french fry hater, or even a “parents who choose fast food” judger, but I do not enjoy eating fried foods after savoring a healthy dose of nature. Plus, I don’t want to grow the expectation for the kids that after hiking, we eat cheeseburgers and chocolate custard.

A tiny bit of planning would’ve saved me the time and expense (better-than-McD’s fast food is also pretty spendy–$25 spendy for four people, in fact). In a pinch, I always have Nature Valley Granola bars on hand, and with three boys, I buy apples by the bag. We usually have raisins or Craisins on hand, and bringing some peanut butter to go with the apples would’ve gone over really well. Just a few minutes to either gather these essentials or stop at a store en route and toss ‘em in a day pack or tote bag. Next time, I’ll do better.

Please share your ideas for tote-able food. What do you like to eat during and after a hike, or any time while on the go with your kids?

 

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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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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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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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Photo Friday: Exploring Our “Back Yard”

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Today’s Photo Friday image was taken almost three years ago during a long weekend trip to Chicago. We live a little over an hour northwest of the city in a quiet rural county, and while we take a couple of day trips there each year, we really enjoy spending a long weekend in the city whenever possible. (In those instances, Priceline is our friend; we’ve snagged 4-star rooms for as little as $40/night–though keep in mind when booking a room that parking downtown usually runs into the mid-30s per night).

On this weekend trip during “spring” break (note the winter coats–leave it to our cold-hardy family would spend spring break exploring a Midwestern city!), we took the kids to several popular Chicago attractions, including: The Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, and Pizzeria Uno* (where we learned we’d been remiss in raising our kids to enjoy Chicago Style pizza, because the deep dish, buttery crust combo did not appeal to them at all!). Their favorite thing about The Art Institute? The elevators! And their favorite part about the entire trip? A train ride on the El from the Loop to Lincoln Park and back for under $10.

That’s the cool–albeit sometimes frustrating–thing about traveling with kids: what wows you (Uno’s pizza!) won’t necessarily register with them (”Mommy! What’s wrong with dis pizza?”), and they find complete joy in things most grown-ups take for granted. When I was a miserable law student riding the El every day to school and work and back, I’ll admit I enjoyed those train rides but everyone commuting looked so miserable and blah. When I was pregnant with Jackson and working for a nonprofit organization downtown, I used to ride up in the front car like this to keep my nausea at bay. But to my kids? That elevated train ride was magical and exhilarating.

I love how reciprocal the parenting relationship can be; while my husband and I encourage them to explore and appreciate the world around them, but they teach us to remember to experience the simplest of things with joy unfettered by expectations.

Thanks to Deb Dubrow at Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday each week.

*Insider Tip: To fully appreciate the Chicago style pizza served up at Uno’s, skip the chains in other cities and even in the Chicago suburbs. There’s no substitute for eating at the original restaurant on Ohio Street, or its sister site a block away at Wabash & Ontario, Pizzeria Due.

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Virtual Getaways–Affordable Family Fun

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Here’s a travel money-saver you might appreciate: virtual travel. Let’s say you’re researching an article and feeling generally sorry for yourself because your family has no big travel plans in their immediate future (ahem). Why not take an eTour or even an eHike of Glacier National Park, courtesy of the National Park Service web site? Yeah, I know it’s not the same thing as being there, but 1) it beats a sharp stick in the eye and 2) there are far lamer things you could be watching, on or offline.

So far, it looks like Glacier is the only park with what they’ve dubbed eTours and eHikes, though I found a few video podcasts while procrastinating searching around the various park web sites. An eHike or eTour is a great family activity; many of the slides on the eHike I took today featured clickable sound clips with wild bird calls and other sounds of the forest. There are video clips showing rangers explaining natural phenomena (have kids look for the Smoky Bear icons) and other videos showing waterfalls and other points of interest on the hike.

There are also free podcasts about Glacier National Park (available for download via iTunes and other MP3/MP4 formats), and many other parks, like Katmai and Grand Canyon, also offer them (search nps.gov for “podcast” to download tales about your favorite parks). I’m thinking about bringing a handful along on my next walk around our city park.

Again, eHiking is no substitute for the real thing, but they’re fun teaching tools for kids and their parents, and I think they’re a great idea. I hope more parks decide to get in on this.

What do you think? Have you come across any fun sites featuring virtual tours? Share your thoughts, links, and ideas in the comments section.

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Photo Friday

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Debbie at Delicious Baby recently started a Photo Fridays meme featuring travel photos. Since I have no shortage of those, I’m excited to jump into the pool each week.

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In honor of postseason baseball, which is a big hit around our casa, here’s an image from this summer’s road trip to Kansas City. Here’s our middle son enjoying cotton candy at a KC T-Bones minor league game. This was the first time he really started to get how the game works; he’s very numbers-minded so I showed him the scoreboard and we worked on deciphering how many balls, strikes, and outs there were for each inning. If I had to pick a favorite family travel moment from this summer, this would be near the top.

To join the fun and post your own travel photos while also discovering some great new family travel blogs, visit the Photo Fridays page at Delicious Baby for the how-to. (But don’t be a moron like me and link to your photo on the instructions page; post the link to your photo at the Photo Friday post for October 3rd, here).

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