Category Archives: Outdoor Lore

Kids activities: Nature’s Soundscape

I was recently hiking a rugged mountain trail when I realized that a man was approaching from behind me. I realized this when he was still over half a mile away, since the individual in question had obviously taken the advice to use his “outdoor voice” far too literally. I prefer to think that he was not completely inconsiderate, but instead a person who had never had the chance to get more ‘in tune’ with nature and see himself (and his voice) as part of her natural soundscape.

Much as the bright lights of the city obscure the flickering glow of stars, so too our modern sounds drown into oblivion the delicious lilt of nature’s own subtler soundtrack… Double paned windows, while keeping us warm, isolate us from the sounds of nature. Leaf blowers, cars, jets and other engines of their ilk confound our ears and not so subtly assault our souls. So we compensate, by becoming ever louder ourselves, and listening ever less to our surroundings.

The dance of sound through the wilderness tells a story millions of years old- the insistent mating calls of songbirds, the yip-yowling midnight rave of a coyote pack, a rolling wave of wind sweeping through the pines… Each of these sounds has a context, a ‘backstory’ that, long ago, we used to know how to read….

Luckily these stories haven’t been lost! Listening to nature is a skill that can be regained. Here’s some play centered suggestions to help get you (and any little ones you have in your life) back ‘in tune’ with your natural soundtrack:

1. Take a Bird (Sound)bath… Ever have trouble telling the difference between a raven and a crow? Listen to their individual calls and there’ll be no doubt!

Do a little research and find out who the common local birds are. The local ranger station usually can point you to some good birding resources. Recordings of bird calls are generally available on Internet birding sites (or even in your smartphone App Store).  Choose several for you (and any little tagalongs) to identify. Then take a walk and have at it!

2. Silence is a Soundscape. Vegetation softens sound- millions of little pine needles disperse sound waves in a jumble of directions, softening the edges of close sounds and deadening them over a distance. Hard, flatter surfaces like rock will reflect the sound back more uniformly, keeping it crisper and more intact. (Anybody ever heard rock climbers on Half Dome yelling to each other – all the way in the valley below?!) Knowing this, ask your little hiking tribe what is the quietest space(s) they think you can find on the trail? What would be the loudest?

3. All sounds have their place. Record the sound of your feet on the trail in different (unique) spots for segments of 10-20 seconds. Play them back: walking on gravel has a distinctly different sound than sandy soil, rock or pine duff… Who in your little tribe can guess where you were at for each recording?

4. Can you be as quiet as a deer?  There are a lot of ways to train children that their “outdoor voices” (and movements) shouldn’t necessarily be loud ones. One fun game:  Using a decibel meter (available at music stores or for free on your smartphone App Store) try moving through the terrain and measuring the sounds you make.

Who in your group can talk the most quietly and still be understood? Who can move the most quietly?  How fast or slow do you have to move? Are you louder in hard soled boots, soft shoes or even barefoot?

This exercise helps kids (and adults) truly get why choosing each step carefully is a natural part of a wild animal’s life! Turn it into a game and reward points for the quietest traverse of a particular terrain.

So next time you’re outdoors stop for a moment to sit on a rock and stretch your ears out to hear… Nature’s soundscape is a richly textured story, if only you care to listen.

Kids Activities: Yucca Uses: making soap!

Want to have some fun with your kids making soap out in nature? Here’s how to make cleansing suds from yucca spines. 

Yucca roots and spines both contain the compound saponin, which has detergent properties. It will not only suds up and help to clean your skin and hair, but anything else you decide could be a just a little bit fresher! 

Roots vs Spines? 

The roots contain more saponin, and thus more sudsing potential, but harvesting your soap that way means death for the plant you take it from. I prefer to harvest some of the green spines- it may be more work for me, but means less damage to the plant. 

Soaping up in the field: 

1. Cut spine(s) from the plant, being careful to move slowly and avoid their sharp edges! OUCH! (Careful! Don’t get cut by your soap source!)

2. Pound and scrape the spines between 2 smooth surfaced rocks to break open the surface of the spine and separate the fibers. 

3. Once the fibers are adequately separated and no sharp edges or points remain, the yucca is ready to suds up. 

4. Add water and rub it between your hands. The first suds will be green as the spines give up their chlorophyll, then gradually turn clear/white as you continue rubbing and adding water. 

There you go: all clean!

Soaping up at home:

1. Gather up your spines as before

2. Use a knife or sharp rock to scrape off green waxy skin of the spine and save it to the side. 

3. Put your scrapings into a sealable container with water and shake vigorously for a few minutes to combine the saponins with the water. 

4. Pour the mix through a filter or mesh to separate out the scrapings. 

5. Store in the container of your choice- tip: hand soap pumps can work great! 

6. Enjoy your natural suds for anything from shampoo to dishwashing detergent. 

SAFETY NOTE: always test the first time of any topical plant use with a small patch of non-vital skin to make sure you’re not one of those with the rare but serious reaction!

 

 

5 ways to Keep Your Family Safe on High Country Winter Hikes

As we finally enjoy the snow we so rightly deserve it’s a good time to remember a few practical tips to keep us safe in this all beautiful white stuff!

Hopefully you’ve already figured out that taking a winter hike in the high country takes a bit more planning than a summer day hike, especially if you have little ones in tow. You already know to bring the right gear and check your weather forecasts – so I won’t belabor those points. (Not sure? Check past articles.) 

Here’s a couple tips about the worst winter offenders to help keep you and your little loved ones safe: 

1. Melt/Freeze. Teach your little ones the relationship between snow and ice and how to recognize changes that can signal danger. Just because you crossed that slope in the bright midday sun does not mean that it will be traversable in the late afternoon. The day(sun)/night(shade) melt/freeze cycle can turn friendly white powder into something slick and deadly in a matter of hours. As soon as that snow exits direct sun, watch out!  That also goes for crossing from open to tree covered trail- any area of shade is a potential skating rink in the right conditions!

Pause early in your hike to have your little ones test the tactile difference between shaded snow and sun illuminated slush to help drive the point home.

2. Stay awake and aware. “A little bit of ice” is nothing to scoff at – it becomes especially dangerous on the steep slopes of the high country, where an ice chute can turn you into a human pinball, and not in a good way.

Being alarmist about this (or any) risk can intimidate kids about winter hiking- instead of attempting to scare, I prefer to teach awareness and involve them actively in the process of taking care of our little hiking “tribe”: “This can be dangerous, so I’d like to ask you to help me look out for it as a team”. Involving them in the responsibility of taking care of the group does a lot to develop skills that they can use in later solo adventures.

3. Choose your trails wisely! Don’t assume that lovely summer hikes are going to be just as much of a pleasure in the winter… Some trails are seasonal for a reason! Just because you have hiked it a thousand times (in the summer) does not mean it is a safe trail in the winter! Consider level of exposure to the sun, recent weather conditions and elevation (amongst many other things) in making your choice of trail! 

4. Turn back if you encounter conditions beyond your experience. And keep a close tab on the energy levels, enthusiasm, gear and overall condition of any little ones in tow.

It’s not worth it to push it- most of the time you will probably squeak by, but don’t let that make you get cavalier- when the time comes, the cost can be far too high.  I remember one Ranger Patrol on Ramona Trail- an ‘easy’ hike made deceptively dangerous by a river of ice that had formed on the trail! If you and your “tribe” don’t have the experience or get to safely traverse the whole range of trail conditions, and double your efforts to get back home- get your butt out of there!

5. Navigation Skills. fresh snow leaves a lovely white blanket across the land… Obscuring  every single detail of the trail that once seemed so familiar. Don’t just head out on a wing and a prayer (“I’m a local- I don’t need a map!”). Make sure and bring a Topo map and the navigation skills to appropriately use it. (It never hurts to plan in navigational experiences for your little ones as well.) And don’t just assume that you can always just track your self back – new snowfall can cover up your shoe prints in a matter of minutes!

Now that I’ve been a Scrooge about all your wonderful winter plans, I want to encourage you to get out there and enjoy with your tribe- just do so with forethought and safety! Happy hiking! 

 

Winter Senses Meditation

It’s so easy to let the winter season bottle you up in your house in an odd mix of hibernation mode and cabin fever. But you don’t have to let winter hem you in.

Take some time to go outdoors and re-expand your world. After all, there are only so many board games you can play. Time outdoors has been shown over and over to be vital to our physical and mental health in ways we can’t yet understand and are only beginng to be able to measure.  

Winter is a great time for natural meditation (or just gathering your thoughts). To get back in touch with the rhythm of the seasons, I like to explore the world, focusing individually on each of my senses.

Each season has a unique set of impressions it leaves lingering on your skin, burned behind your eyelids, a faint trace of scent, a taste on your tongue. Each sense you have is a gift, so take the time to truly appreciate each one of them.

Listen

You say you can’t manage a woodland hike in this cold weather? You can barely make it out the door? Then walk just outside your front step tomorrow morning and take 30 seconds to do nothing but listen.

What do you hear? The crunch of your boots on snow. A bird call oddly muffled by the white blanket covering the landscape. The pattering drip of water melting off the trees? Take a deep breath. Take it all in.

Look

Take a walk through the pines. Leave your camera at home so you can see through your own eyes. What do you see?

The dapple of sunlight dancing its way through the branches? Early morning steam rising off the meadow where sun meets frost? Stillness interwoven with movement as birds dart their way between their refuges? Or maybe the clear bright stars of a winter night? Take a deep breath. Take it all in.

Taste

Every season has its own taste. The fresh young pine needles of the summer inevitably give way to winter’s sharp, dry tannins. Autumn’s fruity rose hips dry into tart little berries, just begging to be made into tea.

The world is there to be experienced — and there’s no experience quite like the crisp, clean taste of a new snowflake melting on your tongue.

Smell

My favorite reward of a hike in the mountains is the moment I take a deep breath and become aware of the fresh scent of pine and wet earth. Slowing down to enjoy the scents of the trail, my lungs seem somehow clearer, my mind brighter.

They say scents have the most direct connection to the emotional center of the brain — I guess that means that if you want to brighten your day, you should take the time to open up your nose first.

Feel

Winter definitely has its own feel. Stepping out into the wild, what will you feel?

The feathery brush of a snowflake against your cheek. The slippery lurch of ice underneath your feet. The crisp, pinching bite on the tip of your nose on a bitter cold night. The warmth of the fire embracing your body as you walk through the door.

Take a deep breath … and take it all in with a smile. Time in nature is time spent healing. 

So when winter comes, instead of complaining about the cold, go out and consciously revel in its crispness, its beauty, its sensations.

Guided By Nature

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Finding your way in the woods without a map or compass can be a daunting task, yet our ancestors travelled their wild world, sometimes hundreds of miles on foot, without a breaking a sweat… How the heck did they do it??

Being guided by nature is based in reading the subtle patterns in nature that modern domesticated humans normally ignore. The directions of the world are worn into the very rocks, reflected in the undergrowth leaves reaching towards the sun and in the gnarled branches of trees twisting their way to the sky. Our ancestors could read these natural patterns as easily as you read a street sign, guiding them to their destinations and back again.

So how do we (re)train ourselves in this ancient human skill? There is no one fail safe, true in every location “trick” to natural navigation. Finding your way naturally relies on understanding of the larger natural patterns of the area you live in- the amount and direction of light, prevailing wind(s), level of moisture… These cumulative forces cause subtle asymmetries that you can learn to interpret. In short, you must spend time out in nature, observing and interacting.

Here are some handful of rough directional patterns to get you started:

1. “Into the light”. In an effect known as Heliotropism many plants orient themselves towards the greatest source of light. In our forest one of the more sensitive (and obvious) Heliotropic flora would be our lovely fiddlehead ferns. Ferns in direct sun will tend to orient much of their growth southwards to catch the most light. Note: make sure to look for obstacles to light that can change the fern’s orientation. Under heavy tree cover, heliotropic plants will orient towards the nearest bright opening in the canopy, no matter what direction it is. Open meadows may be your best bet.

2. Look for a tree’s “Heavy Side”. Lone Trees tend to be “heavier” with more leaves and branches to the south side (in our northern hemisphere) in order to catch more of the life giving sun. Take the time to walk around the tree and view it from multiple angles. Note: this effect can be muted or overridden in a grouping of trees as their shadows interact with each other.

3. Branching out. Sunlight also directs the growth of individual branches. Southern branches tend to grow more horizontally (towards the sun), while the shaded northern branches tend to grow more vertically in their quest for more sunlight. This can be most easily seen when observing the tree from East/West. Once again, individual trees are easier to read than groves.

4. Moss and moisture. Isn’t moss supposed to grow on the north side of trees? Yes, but… for the record, moss does not always grow just on the north side of trees. Where moss grows depends mainly on the level of moisture, and this is not always on the north side. Also, disregard growth in the first 2 feet up from the ground around the trunk – which tends to be influenced by the evaporating ground moisture.

Interested in exploring this further? For an engaging guide to these skills look for Tristan Gooley’s book “The Natural Navigator”. There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of more tips to explore and many more of your own to discover as you go out and start looking for your own patterns in nature.

(NOTE: This does not give you an excuse to go out into unfamiliar territory without a map!)

Happy navigating!

What’s Eating You?

  Every day spent hiking out in our forest brings more mysteries to be answered. This week let’s explore some partially “parasitic” partnerships that have always fascinated me out on trail.

 

INSECT GALL:

Ever see a round woody ball growing out of a tree branch? Often it’ll have a random pattern of little holes dotting it’s smooth surface. You are looking at a bona-fide insect larvae condo! An “Insect Gall” is a custom construction project of living plant tissue with the resident insect playing lead contractor. In order to hijack plant growth to form galls, the insect must seize a time when plant cell division occurs quickly: in our part of the world, that means Spring!

The insect (and/or it’s larvae) feeds on the rapidly growing plant tissue while injecting chemicals to encourage further growth. Quickly growing (meristenatic) tissues like buds, bark, and leaves are most vulnerable to these little guys.

After the gall is formed, the insect larvae develop inside until fully grown. Galls provide the industrious little larvae with not only a 4-course buffet, but their own impenetrable fortress, protecting them from predators as they grow. When they are ready, they bore out an exit hole and venture out into the wide world.

Galls, especially those located In the woody portions of plants) also tend to be a rich source of concentrated tannins, which makes them a great medicinal resource as strong astringents. 

Although insect galls get bad raps for their role as “unsightly” tumors on plants, they are completely harmless. The insects are usually excellent caretakers and make sure that their construction projects do not threaten their hosts. Most species even provide an overall benefit for their host or local environment including quite helpful pollination services for the plants, and food sources for our beautiful birds and bats!

As a healthy bonus for those of us with a tendency for wildcraftin, the galls of many plants contain a high concentration of immune stimulating substances. but before you go out collecting, make sure that you have checked on the safety of the plant in question and thoroughly checked it for any unwanted denizens or harmful fungus, etc.

MISTLETOE:

Particularly noticeable in winter as an oddly green bushy clump high up in the barren branches of trees, Mistletoe is a (in)famous parasite that attaches itself to trees and shrubs, pirating water and nutrients from it’s host.

American mistletoe’s scientific name, Phoradendron, means “thief of the tree” in Greek. However, Mistletoe’s common definition as a tree-killing pest may be too simplistic a view. Mistletoe may take from the tree for its own survival, but it pays back to the local ecology in several unexpected ways.

Despite it’s nasty reputation, studies reveal that an abundance of mistletoe in a forest means that many more kinds and numbers of birds and critters can thrive there. An amazing variety of critters rely on mistletoe for their food, especially in winter. Animals from birds to squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines and even deer eat the leaves, tender young shoots and juicy berries, leaving behind mistletoe seeds in their droppings.

These seeds will again grow into mistletoe’s medusa-like masses of branching stems, providing excellent shelter and nesting sites for many animals. The northern spotted owl is always on the lookout for a nice mistletoe to settle down in. The caterpillar stage of several beautiful butterfly species also use mistletoe greenery as their shelter, and as their only food. Even better, Mistletoe flowers often provide the very first pollen available in the spring for extremely hungry honeybees and native bees.

Thus, although it can shorten the life of some trees, mistletoe can also have a very positive effect on on our forest, providing high quality nutrition and homes for a broad range of critters. So next time you get a chance, take another look at these “bad guys”.

Pine Pop Quiz

Have you ever asked yourself…

Why do pines have both big and teeney tiny cones?

The answer lies in the basic biology of pine tree reproduction. Every conifer tree species produces male and female cones (usually both on the same tree!). The male cones start out small and stay small, usually going pretty much unnoticed by the unobservant public.

These diminutive male cones fall off the tree soon after they do their job in pollination and will never really open up into what we often consider a “real” decorative cone. Meanwhile, the female cones grow ever larger and larger- maturing to their full size in a matter of months up to several years depending on the species.

Why do Ponderosas smell so darn good?

Ever catch a mysterious whiff of baking cookies as you stroll through the woods? No, you’re not out of your gourd. You’re probably just passing near an old stand of Ponderosas, or their cousins the Jeffery pines.

These trees perform a fascinating trick as they age. When a Ponderosa or Jeffery reaches around 110 years old (a mere teenager!), their bark changes color from black to yellow-tinted and they start producing a special chemical in their sap that emits an absolutely delicious aroma when warmed by the sun.

So look for these older “yellow-bellied” trees, stick your nose into a deep crevice in their bark and take a good, deep sniff …ahhhhh… Now go home to satisfy your sudden craving for some warm cookies and cold milk!

Are sugar pines really all that sweet?

Actually… yes! The Sugar Pine exudes a sweet gummy sap which hardens up into rock-candy like shapes, just ripe for the picking. The Native Americans prized this sugary sap as a delicious sweet treat. The “sweet” in the sap comes from a sugar alcohol named pinitol which is under investigation from modern medicine for possible insulin sensitizing and muscle building properties.

Don’t just decide to go out gathering pine sap though, unless you are prepared to get covered in sticky goo. and remember, sap serves as part of the tree’s immune system against pests like the bark beetle and gathering it can put the tree at risk.

So, get out there on the trail and enjoy a new view (and smell) of our old friends, the pines!

Natural Wonders…

Have You Ever Wondered?

Hiking around these mountains there’s all sorts of things in nature that just seem designed to boggle mind. Have you ever wondered…

1. Why is your pine tree foaming at the mouth in the rain?? Don’t be alarmed, it doesn’t need rabies shots!
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This foam is caused by the formation of a crude soap on the bark from fatty acids in pine sap/resin. Over a drought a mix of sap salts and acids accumulates and coats the bark surface to form the basics of a rough detergent.

When it rains, these ingredients mix with the water and start sudsing up. The froth (foam) is from the agitation of the mixture as it runs down the rough bark during its flow toward the ground.

So it’s a perfectly natural thing when a pine suds up in the rain- although if it does so excessively, it may indicate that there is some insect or other damage that is causing it to “bleed” more sap.

3. Why are there sticks walking around at the bottom of the stream?

Next time you’re down by the creek in the summer take a look at the bottom of the small pools and you’ll see a collection of small sticks that seem to be crawling along against the current.

These little guys are caddisfly larvae. They are sheltered by a shell of pebbles, bark and other debris that they have built-up and “glued” in place around them with a form of silk that they excrete. It’s a great protection and camouflage all at once. Some types of caddisfly not only form shells with the silk, but also make nets in order to collect food and build hideaways.

2. Do you know how to tell who ate your pinecone? Lots of critters like to munch away at pine cones to fatten them up for the winter, but each has a distinctive way of chowing down.

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You can always tell where a squirrel has eaten lunch, since they leave a clean pine cone ‘core’ (like an apple core!) and a big pile of stripped pine scales on the ground behind them. (Didn’t their mom ever teach them to clean up?)

Woodpeckers and many other of our feathered friends also peck away at pinecones. They use their pointy beaks to pull out the pine scales, one by one. This leaves a ragged, “pokey” edge (the scales of cones eaten by squirrels have clean-cut edges because of their sharp teeth).

So next time you’re out and about and you run into a strange natural phenomenon (or just something you’ve always wondered about), take the time to do the research. There’s almost always a fascinating answer that can help you understand more about natural patterns around you- and it’s great hiking trivia!

Is Your Pine Tree Foaming at the Mouth?

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While walking through my rainy woods on a wild edibles foraging trip I noticed this funky phenomenon… The pine trees were… well…foaming

After copious pics, poking and prodding, I rushed home to research.

In short order I found out that there was no need for me to get my forest checked for rabies.

This foam is caused by the formation of a crude soap on the bark from fatty acids in pine sap/resin. Over a drought a mix of sap salts and acids accumulates and coats the bark surface to form the basics of a rough detergent.

When it rains, these ingredients mix with the water and start sudsing up. The froth (foam) is from the agitation of the mixture as it runs down the rough bark during its flow toward the ground.

So it’s perfectly normal when your pine suds up in the rain- (although if it does so excessively, it may indicate that there is some insect or other damage that is causing it to “bleed” more sap.)

Handy Plant: Making Yucca Soap

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Careful! Don’t get cut by your soap source!

Ever want to have a quick way to clean up in the field? Luckily the yucca is a widespread plant across much of the Southwestern US. Here’s how to make cleansing suds from yucca spines.

Yucca roots and spines both contain the compound saponin, which has detergent properties. It will not only suds up and help to clean your skin and hair, but anything else you decide could be a just a little bit fresher!

Roots vs Spines?
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The roots contain more saponin, and thus more sudsing potential, but harvesting your soap that way means death for the plant you take it from. I prefer to harvest some of the green spines- it may be more work for me, but means less damage to the plant.

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Soaping up in the field:

1. Cut spine(s) from the plant, being careful to move slowly and avoid their razor sharp edges! OUCH!

2. Pound and scrape the spines between 2 smooth surfaced rocks to break open the surface of the spine and separate the fibers.

3. Once the fibers are adequately separated and no sharp edges or points remain, the yucca is ready to suds up.

4. Add water and rub it between your hands. The first suds will be green as the spines give up their chlorophyll, then gradually turn clear/white as you continue rubbing and adding water.

There you go: all clean!

Soaping up at home:

1. Gather up your spines as before

2. Use a knife or sharp rock to scrape off green waxy skin of the spine and save it to the side.

3. Put your scrapings into a sealable container with water and shake vigorously for a few minutes to combine the saponins with the water.

4. Pour the mix through a filter or mesh to separate out the scrapings.

5. Store in the container of your choice- tip: hand soap pumps can work great!

6. Enjoy your natural suds for anything from shampoo to dishwashing detergent.

SAFETY NOTE: always test the first time of any topical plant use with a small patch of non-vital skin to make sure your’e not one of those with the rare but serious reaction!