Volume 12, Issue 40 ~ September 30-October 6 2004
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Take a Hike
Treat yourself and your family this fall to a walk in any of Chesapeake Country’s many lovely places.
by Vivian I. Zumstein

See the praying mantis?” 13-year-old Derek wants to know.

I peer hard where Derek points. Sure enough, a praying mantis is camouflaged in a patch of grass on the gravel path. My other children crouch for a closer look. Seven-year-old Tommy bends his blonde head over the insect, studying it.

It’s a funny-looking creature: huge, bright-green bulging eyes; thick, powerful forelimbs that appear held in prayer but are actually designed to grasp prey; a long, narrow body that blends in well with flower stems, leaves and grass. After freezing in place for a few moments, the praying mantis resumes its odd swinging gait across the path. Tommy rocks back and forth on his heels, imitating the insect’s rhythmic movements.

We’re at Fort Washington, enjoying a family outing. It is a rare summer day that is not too hot or sticky, allowing us to venture on a walk, something we all enjoy. In addition to the praying mantis, my daughter, Emily, age nine, has counted seven different kinds of butterflies dancing on the breeze. We have seen osprey overhead and have wandered across a flower-strewn field of grass.

But most summer days around the Bay do not inspire walks. The oppressive heat and humidity entice us to the pool instead. Fall: Now that’s the time to go outdoors.

Fall Freedom
A fall walk brings a sense of freedom to cave-dwellers who have cloistered themselves in air-conditioning all summer. Drops in temperature, humidity and the biting-bug population collaborate to make it delightful outside, helping us get reacquainted with nature.

The forest becomes a special place in the fall, transformed by autumn colors. It’s not just all the vivid reds, oranges and yellows; the leaves, an amorphous mass of green all spring and summer, suddenly become individuals. Nature paints them all a bit differently so they stand out from their neighbors.

Maples, the supermodels of the fall fashion show, display the full autumnal palette. A single maple leaf can be shot though with gold, scarlet, rust and still display a portion of striking green. Like snowflakes, no two are alike.

The forest also sounds different in fall. Dry leaves still on trees rattle as the breeze passes through; those now fallen crackle under a hiker’s tread. Canada geese in their V-formation honk as they pass overhead.

Walking brings you close to it all. It’s also wonderful exercise.

Fun and Fit
“Walking is an easy way to get cardiovascular exercise,” says Teresa diStefano Seifert of Owings, a professor of physical education at Prince George’s Community College. “Almost anyone can do it. It requires no special skills or equipment, and it puts very little stress on joints.”

Anyone means any age.

“Walking is an especially good family activity,” Seifert says. “Young and old can do it together. If you have an infant, you can put it in a stroller and still go. Also, instilling the importance of exercise at an early age is very important. Habits children learn young will carry over into adulthood.”

Today’s kids need exercise more than ever. Over the past four decades the problem of childhood obesity has exploded. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2000 that 15 percent of American children between six and 19 were overweight. That’s almost nine million children and growing. Only four percent of children were overweight in 1960; the national percentage more than doubled between 1980 and 2000. Leading culprits are fast food and television.

Many health organizations urge schools to offer one hour of physical education every day for all grade levels to help combat obesity. But parents know that most schools fall well short of that mark, so it’s up to them to make up the difference. Taking the kids on a walk is a great start.

You don’t need to explain all the benefits of walking to children; this lesson is best taught by making a walk fun.

Children are lightning-fast learners and naturally curious about their environment. Learning to recognize the different leaves and trees or taking note of local butterflies or birds gives them — and parents — a satisfying afternoon adventure.

Where to go? Parks abound throughout Bay Country, charging nominal entrance fees if any, and they are seldom crowded.

Get Ready
Couch potatoes spoon fed on a diet of televised sound bites may resist when invited on a hike. Walking may seem dull and, worse, like exercise.

“None of us spend much time outdoors any more,” says Tania Gale, a naturalist at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary. “Some kids whine about walking from the center here to the pond, which is only an eighth of a mile away. ‘It’s too hot.’ ‘There are too many bugs!’ they complain.”

So it may take a little encouragement and support to get the family walking.

"Treat a walk like you treat a long car ride with the kids,” advises Gale, who has led several youth hiking groups. “Plan ahead so the kids stay comfortable.”

Staying comfortable means making sure all walkers have good footwear, bringing plenty of water and treats for the trail and letting the kids set the pace. Including friends also extends a kid’s comfort zone. With a friend, even a resistant hiker is less likely to get bored and less inclined to whine in front of a peer.

A good hike starts at the walkers’ feet.

“You don’t have to buy expensive boots for our area, but those water shoes or flip flops your kid wore all summer just aren’t right for a long walk,” says Gale. “Kids need good socks too, not cheap tube socks. A child with a blister will let you know about it.”

Treats are the next step to comfort on the trail.

“Keep the kids comfortable by making sure they don’t get hungry or thirsty,” Gale recommends. “Carry plenty of water, and pack treats.”

Treat time, or energy breaks, not only keep the kids from getting hungry; they turn the walk into a special event. You can also use the lure of a treat to set short-term goals. When we get to the next stream, you might say, we’ll have an energy break.

Hikes with a goal draw even reluctant walkers into the quest. Adults can enjoy a ramble along a trail through a forest just for being there. Children prefer a destination they can use as a marker of their success. Even better is an activity on the hike, for example, fossil hunting at Calvert Cliffs State Park or observing migratory birds at Patuxent River Park or Jug Bay Natural Area.

The short legs and limited attention span of your youngest child should be the limiting factor of your outing. Plan to stop well before this child gets tired or cranky. If you aren’t sure how long your young walkers will endure, select parks that have a variety of interconnecting trails. Loop back at the first sign of impending grumpiness. Also, anticipate that you will have to provide the occasional piggyback ride to allow your youngest ones a break. The world looks different and wonderful from Daddy’s shoulders.

Savor the Moment
When you take the kids hiking, let them set the pace. This is not the time for a rigorous aerobic workout. Let the kids lead, and enjoy their discovery of things you might overlook at your faster adult pace. View a walk with the kids or grandkids as a well-deserved break from the frantic rush of adulthood and a moment to revisit the wonders of the childhood.

While on the trail with kids, make your mantra life is a journey, not a destination.

My two youngest children and a friend discovered spring peepers in the leaf litter along the trail during a hike at the Patuxent River Park and Jug Bay Natural Area. They dashed left and right catching the tiny frogs, cradling them in their cupped hands and peering at them through cracked fingers. For me, the novelty wore off quickly, and I was tempted to say, Okay, you’ve caught enough frogs. Let’s get going. But I refrained. Instead, I reminded myself to enjoy the moment and recall the time in my very distant past when I had the leisure to spend an afternoon hunting frogs.

Discoveries of this sort keep kids happy on the trail.
“I get the boys to look for wildlife,” says Seifert, who’s also been a Cub Scout leader for five years. “We can usually find a turtle, frog or bird along the trail. Then they don’t think about walking; they think about finding things.”

When nature pales or fails, the experts pull out their bag of tricks.

“If wildlife is scarce,” Seifert says, “I have them sing camp songs as we walk. It distracts them.”

Ranger Gale agrees that you’ve got to be resourceful to lead a good walk.

“You need to keep kids busy so that they are looking outward rather than inward,” she says. “Some parks have junior-ranger books to help guide the kids. Sometimes I fall back on familiar games like I Spy, Telephone or 20 Questions to get kids through a rough section.”

The Bag of Tricks
One beautiful, crisp fall day I was hiking with Derek (then five) in the Catoctin Mountains. With us was another family with two young children. We’d already hiked to Wolf Rock to climb the interesting rock formations. The hike was neither long nor strenuous for adults, but the combination of an uphill slog and some rough sections of trail made it a stretch for little legs.

When we returned to the car, we still had about an hour of glorious sunlight left. Unwilling to let go of the day, the adults tacked on a very short hike to Cunningham Falls. The trail was only a half-mile long and almost level. We felt the children were up to it.

The whining commenced even before we left the parking lot. The kids were ready for pizza, not more walking. We had betrayed them.

“We’re tired!” “Who cares about some stupid falls?” “I’m hungry!” “It’s too late!” they kvetched.

The adults tried cajoling, then threatening, but to no avail. In their griping groove, the kids lagged.

That’s when my friend, Alan, leaped into action.

“Bet I can beat you all to the next blaze,” he challenged and streaked down the empty trail to slap the blue blaze on a tree some 10 yards away.

“No fair! You had a head start,” the kids protested, their eyes already looking for another blaze.

“I can beat you to the next one too,” Alan taunted. Three transformed kids dashed off with him, Alan just edging them out to slap the blaze first.

“We almost beat you. Look! There’s the next one,” shouted his daughter on the run. Alan let the kids win this time. “Beat you! Beat you!” they chorused before running toward another blaze, competing against each other, not even noticing when Alan dropped out of the race.

Tapping Imagination
Sometimes the kids will invent their own games. These, of course, are best.

Four years ago, my youngest son, Tommy (then three), was flagging on a walk. My oldest son, Christian (then 11) ran ahead and hid under a low bridge. When Tommy reached the middle of the bridge, Christian boomed out in his best wicked troll voice, “Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?!”

Tommy, eyes wide and fists clenched, froze. Then, instead of following the storyline and identifying himself as the littlest Billygoats Gruff, he uttered a panicked squeak and thundered off the bridge. He was at least 10 strides away before he stopped, cocked his head to one side and ventured a cautious peek to see if there really was a troll under there.

The spirit of the game captured all the kids, who were soon taking turns playing the nasty troll at subsequent bridges. No one was ever surprised again by a voice from under a bridge. Every child, even Tommy, walked eagerly, looking for the next bridge.

Children with vivid imaginations will love looking for gnome holes in the woods. Girls are especially easy to engage. Any hole in the wilderness can qualify. You point out a hole under some tree roots or a wide fissure in the rocks, then spin a yarn about the gnome who lives there.

Describe the gnome. He wears a scarlet tunic over bright blue pants with a yellow patch on the seat. He ripped his pants climbing a tree to raid eggs from a bird’s nest. The patch makes him grumpy because he wants to impress the girl gnome who lives down the trail. Encourage your children to find her house and contribute to the story you’ve started.

The game has an added benefit when you pause to take in a view. Children don’t appreciate a view; they’ll want to get moving again long before parents have had their fill. To occupy them while you sit, have the kids build summer cottages for the gnomes.

Tell the kids to gather sticks, pinecones or fallen leaves. Show them how to use the roots of a tree or the base of a rock to support their structures. Remind them to stay where they can see you. With some luck, the kids will spend at least 15 minutes on construction while you soak up the scenery.

Time’s a-Flying
Treat yourself and your family to a walk this fall in any one of the many lovely places Bay Country has to offer. Grasp the moment outside in the golden autumn sunshine. Kick through piles of dry leaves with your kids to teach them the difference between a maple and a sweet gum leaf.

The splendor of autumn is fleeting. All too soon, preparations for Christmas and the cold nip of winter will have us hunkered down indoors once again.

Planning Tips
  • Keep driving distances short
  • Invite friends for the kids
  • Wear good shoes and socks
  • Bring lots of water
  • Pack treats for the trail
  • Take hikes with a goal
  • Keep hikes short enough for the youngest child to manage
  • Let the children set the pace
  • Ignore some of the whining
  • Plan a special treat for the end of the hike

Boredom-Busting Trail Games
  • Old favorites: I Spy; 20 Questions; Telephone
  • Sing silly songs
  • Blaze races: If there is plenty of space so that you don’t irritate other hikers and if the trail is in good condition, this is a great game for re-energizing kids. Be prepared to increase your own pace to keep up.
  • Three Billygoats Gruff
  • Pooh sticks: invented by Winnie-the-Pooh. Drop sticks over the upstream side of a bridge; run to the other side to see whose stick reappears first.
  • Gnome holes
  • Skip rocks on a river or a pond
  • Count numbers of different butterflies, leaves, birds or animals you see on the trail. Kids can compete against each other or the family can work together as a team.

About the Author
Vivian Zumstein is a retired Navy commander and the mother of four. Haling from the Puget Sound area of Washington State, she has lived for 12 years in Calvert County, where she coaches soccer, volunteers in the local schools and communes with nature.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.