Coronavirus Cabin Fever Antidote #5: Langley Pond Loop Trail

3 05 2020

Dam. If it weren’t for that dam leak, Langley Pond would probably still hold onto its claim to fame as the world’s largest pond.  When full, this 1854 mill pond covers 285 acres.  As it is, the pond level has been brought way down, so there goes that distinction.  Hopefully, the water level will be back up in the next few months, but in the meantime, the Langley Pond Loop Trail is still one of the prettier hiking trails in Aiken County.

Disregard all the construction equipment and mountains of dirt covering the field in front of the pond. Turn left onto the dirt road right before all this mess and park your car by the fence.  There’s even a mounting block by the kiosk; equestrians are allowed on the trails!  Walk through the entrance and up the hill to find yourself under a cool canopy of lushness. 

Developed by the GAIT Foundation (Greater Aiken Integrated Trails) and sponsored by area businesses and organizations, this hiking and horse riding trail has two loops, the Big Pine Loop and the Hambone Loop, that combine to create a 4.75 mile trail.  A disc golf course runs beside much of the trail, although its closed due to improvements being made to the pond’s edges. 

The single-file trail winds through a mixed hardwood forest with dense shade. The trail is rooty in places, although in the past the roots were all painted for cross-country races. There are a number of trail signs denoting distances and directions which were more confusing than helpful since I didn’t pay attention to the color key at the kiosk.

At the far end of the Big Pine Loop, the trail takes you down to a dirt road that crosses over a newly constructed sort of water retention area close to the edge of the pond.  We crossed this spot and took the trail to the left that led up a small hill and back into the dense woods. (This may be the start of the Hambone Trail, although the signs left me clueless.)

We passed a massive oak tree still clinging to life, the ground littered with its branches whose diameters were bigger than most of the trees around.  A small fringe tree still had some of its stringy white blossoms dangling in the breeze.  A bright yellow slime mold on the ground caught my eye; thankfully it hadn’t yet turned into the brown “dog vomit” stage.  I almost missed a small thicket of kalmia with their peppermint-candy-colored blossoms. 

Soon we came to the Highpoint Shelter overlooking the pond: a good place to sit and rest a minute, taking in the view below. Next time I’ll bring my binoculars.

We gnawed our way up and around the rest of the Hambone Trail, dropping down to the edge of the spot where the old railroad trestle from around 1900 crossed the pond.  When the leak in the dam was discovered and the water level was dropped back in 2015, the pilings crossing this narrow spot in the pond were visible.  Since then, the pilings have been removed, most likely to improve the pond for the rowing regattas held here.  It will be interesting to see what those in charge of pond improvements have in mind for this area as it is obvious that work is being done here. 

For the time being, however, this is one area that if you squint your eyes you can still see the beauty of the pond.  As we watched, a flock of geese swam closer and closer, honking their gr-onk gr-onk as if we were infringing upon their territory, as we probably were.

We continued on our way back, following the disc golf course along the edge of the pond and then the dirt road back to the parking area.   This week’s newspaper reported that the dam was complete, and while pond improvement continue, the end is in sight.  Yet even without the pond, it made for a nice walk through a cool forest.  And next time I’ll pay more attention to the map key at the kiosk, bring my binocs, and steer clear of those angry geese.

GPS Address:  113 Langley Dam Road | Langley, SC 29816

Coronavirus Cabin Fever Antidote #4: Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve

23 04 2020

If you come to the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve expecting a scenic walk through shady woods, you will be disappointed.  If you come here expecting to be soothed by the beauty of nature you will be disappointed.  If you come here expecting to see lots of tortoises or even ANY tortoises….you will probably be disappointed.  The Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve is stark.  It is brutal.  But if you come with an open mind and open eyes, you will be impressed with what this unique ecosystem has to offer.

To the untrained eye, this preserve doesn’t look like much.  Nutrient-poor sandy soil, wiregrass, and longleaf pines cover much of the 1,622 acres here.  To a gopher tortoise, this is heaven.  Gopher tortoises used to be numerous in this part of South Carolina, yet fewer than a dozen remained here when SC Department of Natural Resources acquired the property in 1993, victims of habitat loss.  Gopher tortoises are listed as an endangered species in South Carolina.  Working in partnership with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab, Riverbanks Zoo, and the Longleaf Alliance, SCDNR has been restoring and managing this ecosystem to its natural state, with the goal of giving this keystone species a head start.

It turns out that gopher tortoises are social animals with a strong sense of home.  So when orphaned or “waifed” tortoises collected from other locations are brought here, they can’t simply be let loose.  Think Homeward Bound.  To build a sustainable gopher tortoise population, researchers corral them in a 2.5 acre pen until they develop “site fidelity” and adapt to a new social group.  Each tortoise is carefully monitored and eventually those low metal walls will come down.

In the meantime, when you are walking the trails, be cautious about getting too close to the burrows.  This is mating season, and the females often lay their eggs at the mouth of their burrows.  In addition to providing shelter for the tortoise, these extensive burrows are also inhabited by the endangered indigo snake, gopher frogs, and a variety of other species, hence the tortoise’s status as a “keystone” species.

Note the domed shape of this burrow. Judging by the cobweb, this one isn’t used often.
Stand back. This one is active.

As intriguing as the gopher tortoise is, it is not the only animal being repopulated at this Preserve.  The red-cockaded woodpecker is being given a jump-start here as well.  Six or so artificial cavities have been installed in trees near the trail, and if you are observant you might hear the squeaky call of this federally-endangered species or see one flit from tree to tree.  I was excited to see that one of the birds is excavating its own cavity in one of the trees: that’s an endeavor that will take several years to complete. 

These banded trees have artificial cavities inserted for the RCW
These birds know how to build!
Sap flow discourages predators and the upward slant keeps rain out of the cavity.
RCW Id 101: This is NOT an RCW. The head is red. Male RCWs have only a tiny flash of red on their heads. Also, it is making a cavity in a dead pine. RCWs only make cavities in living trees. (This is a red-headed woodpecker. But you knew that.)

Even if you don’t see a gopher tortoise or a red-cockaded woodpecker, there is still plenty to hold your interest if you look closely.  I found several large clumps of what I later identified as Georgia beargrass.  Coming up out of it was what I thought as first were stalks of wild asparagus.  Although the deer had obviously been chowing down on it, it is not tasty to humans.  Don’t ask me how I know.

It will be interesting to go back later to see the blooms, if the deer don’t eat it all!

Getting up close and personal with your surrounding can lead to some beautiful discoveries.  The dainty pine-barren sandwort doesn’t deserve this name.  I hereby christen it “Dixie Starflower.” 

And who knew there were so many different types of lichen?  I saw old-man’s-beard growing on the same tree trunk as a shield lichen that I believe is perforated ruffle lichen. 

And then there are the lichens growing on the ground: reindeer lichen and British soldier lichen.   Chances are you’ve heard the story of how Freddy Fungus met Alice Algae and they took a LICHEN to each other.  Freddy built the house and Alice cooked their food.  Although their relationship is on the ROCKS, they’ve decided to STICK together.  A true symbiotic relationship built on puns; what’s not to like?

It’s easy to tell the difference when you see
reindeer lichen and British soldier lichen growing together.

Even this unassuming clump of “grass” assumes importance when you recall its name: grass-leaved golden aster.  You’ve probably seen a carpet of these silver-leaved plants lining the highways.  In the late summer, they’ll send up a tall stalk with a pretty yellow flower.

I have barely scratched the surface of all the intricacies of this irreplaceable ecosystem.  Endangered species and so many other birds, plants, and animals…lots more to explore!  The lack of a trail map kept my walk simple.  I need to go back and investigate other trails in this Preserve; as it was I hiked a big loop of less than two miles, making left turns at each intersection until I was back on the road.  But I’ll be back, with eyes and mind open.  And I won’t be disappointed.

Four layers of vegetation:
dwarf huckleberry in front of deerberry in front of wiregrass in front of longleaf pine!

A word of caution:  Be alert for snakes, especially venomous ones.  Early morning or later in the evening are good times to visit as it can get quite warm on the sunny trails.  And you may want to use insect repellent.  

From Aiken: Drive south on US 78 for 12 miles to Windsor. Just beyond the sign for Aiken State Park, turn left onto Spring Branch Road.  In five miles, you’ll turn right onto a dirt road.  The kiosk is less than a mile down the road on the right.

Coronavirus Cabin Fever Antidote #1.5: Silver Bluff Audubon, Revisited

18 04 2020

I had a wild hair yesterday.  Actually, I had more than one wild hair.  The Stay At Home order has me way overdue for a haircut, and although I printed out directions for my husband, he refused to cut my hair.  It’s probably best that way.

No, the wild hair I got was an inner call to hike at Silver Bluff Audubon in Jackson, SC.  My next hike was going to be to another heritage preserve.  But two questions kept niggling in my brain. First, I wanted to check on the interpretive signs on the Nuthatch Trail that I installed (with lots of help) as part of the capstone project for my Palmetto Environmental Education Certification.  After cutting and installing new steel lids for the boxes and gluing in the signs I wrote, I was curious to see how it all stood up to the storm that came through earlier in the week.  I was also curious to see what the forest in the middle of the trail looked like, exactly two weeks to the day from the prescribed burn that I helped out with.

The good news is that both were doing quite well, thank you.

The interpretive trail boxes had weathered the storm wonderfully.  Although there had been tornado-force winds and rain a few days before, there was no water inside the boxes, the contents were intact, and the signs on the inside of the lids had remained glued in place.  I count that as a win! 

Of course, the second piece to my capstone project was to take a group of middle-schoolers on a scavenger hunt through this trail, but that like many other things during this COVID-19 quarantine will have to wait.  I’ll be interested to hear feedback on this interpretive trail.

While I was excited to see how well the boxes had stood up, I was completely wowed by the new growth just 14 days after a major burn.  The leaf litter now burned away, the forest floor was coming back to life in a big way.  The thickets of sweet gum saplings had been knocked back by the fire, opening up the forest floor and clearing out space for grasses and other forbs.  Common Stargrass (not so common for me) was popping up all over, the bright yellow flowers in stark contrast to the blackened earth.  A mop of green confused me, until I realized that it was one of many clumps of wiregrass.  The dry bunch grass had provided fuel for the quick-burning fire, but the roots were unscathed and lost no time in sending up new leaves.  And the Grass Leaved Golden Aster was already blanketing the ground in brilliant green.

And how, you ask, did my favorite longleaf pines fare?  Splendidly, thanks for asking.  They are born for this, you know.  Their thick bark acts like a fireman’s coat, protecting the trunks from damage.  That’s all well and good for the mature trees, but what of the youngsters?  Not to worry.  The growing tip is safe and sound surrounded by thick green needles.  As a bonus, with the ground now clear of leaf litter, longleaf seeds have more room and less competition to start their lives. 

But what of the animals?  Surprisingly, or maybe not so, few animals die in one of these prescribed burns.  Birds, insects, and larger animals skedaddle, as you would expect.  Other animals like snakes, toads, or lizards take refuge underground.  Fatalities do happen.  On my walk around the Nuthatch Trail, I came across this burned nest of eggs, probably that of an Eastern Towhee.  But once the fire is over, birds will build new nests and lay another brood.  Animals are quick to return.  Nature is resilient.

I’ve often heard folks ask why we should restore and maintain longleaf habitat as is being done at Silver Bluff Audubon.  Why not let the forest grow naturally, with hardwoods gradually taking over the pines?  What’s the big deal?  Well, the big deal is that we have taken the natural process of fire out of the equation.  The ecosystem of this area is supremely adapted to the abiotic factors present here, including the sandy soil and hot climate.  Plants and animals over the years have thrived with periodic wildfires sweeping through, adding nutrients to the soil and maintaining an open grassy forest floor.  Without these periodic wildfires, many of these plant and animal species are now in decline.  With each loss of a species, one more thread of that web of life is lost.  By restoring and maintaining longleaf habitat, we are supporting a robust, diverse and natural ecosystem.

Let me leave you with this thought:  This COVID-19 quarantine has been tedious at times and a hardship for many.  But by clearing out much of the leaf litter of our everyday lives just as this prescribed burn has done, that jumble and that rubbish we fill our lives with, it’s given us an unprecedented opportunity.   What new growth do we want to see when the fire is past and life can continue?   What priorities might change? 

Next week we celebrate Earth Week.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to come see the new life on the scorched earth of the Nuthatch Trail at Silver Bluff Audubon.

Coronavirus Cabin Fever Antidote #3: Savannah River Bluffs Heritage Preserve

16 04 2020

Sounds, sounds, everywhere there’s sounds.  A cacophony of bird song. The rasping drone of crickets. The cheerful giggles of a creek.  And the crashing churn of the Savannah River.  With the chaos of COVID playing a constant tune in my brain, I need a way to clear out that evil earworm and replace it with something more calming.  Assailed by the sounds of nature, I’ve come to the right place.

I’m on the trail at the Savannah River Bluffs Heritage Preserve, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why it’s been so long since I’ve hiked this unique area. 

Savannah River Bluffs Heritage Preserve on 1129 Old Plantation Road in Belvedere, SC is an easy drive from Aiken. From Exit 1 on I­-20, I drive south for 0.4 mile, turning right onto Plantation Road between the Shell gas station and a fireworks store.  I see a “Wildlife Viewing Area” sign at a fork so I veer right.  I’m stricken with House Envy as I drive the short distance down Old Plantation Road to the parking area. 

I pull into the small parking area and let out breath I didn’t know I had been holding.  Only four cars.  Even better, two of the cars pull out as we park.  Mid-morning on a weekday seems to be a good time to come to this popular spot.

Although Savannah River Bluffs is only 84 acres and minutes from I-20, I am soon enveloped in a green cocoon of life.  The thick canopy overhead provides cool shade.  Sturdy vines spiral up tree trunks.  The rocky rooty downhill trail demands attention to my footwork.  My dogs stay on leash, jerking me to a stop at each new smell.

 I soon reach a power line easement, but the buzzing I mistake for the zip of overhead electricity turns out to be a myriad of insects, happily flitting and flying amongst the tall grasses and flowering plants.  I squint my eyes against the glare of the sun and mentally erase the power lines, envisioning a wild meadow teeming with frenetic invertebrate activity.  

Turning left, I follow the trail down my wild power line meadow.  The dogs pause at a small footbridge to graze on some lush grasses growing beside the seepage creek.  Up another hill and I’ve now reached the “pop” part of this lollipop trail: having walked the “stick” section, the loop begins to my right. 

Once again, I am enfolded in the wood’s embrace.  Am I still in the midlands of South Carolina?  If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in the mountains.  The trail twists and turns, up and down, over and under fallen trees and across rocks that seem to have no place here, following a creek that speaks to me in a clear cheery voice. 

I cross a footbridge over the creek and a little while later cross another to get back.  Meanwhile, the creek trickles and tumbles over rocks, keeping me company with its constant gurgling. 

One more turn and its pretty little music is drowned out by the tumultuous thrashing of the Savannah River as it races over the rocky shoals.

The trail opens up to a beautiful vista.  I stand at river’s edge on uplifted roots of a large sycamore tree, looking out over the rushing waters.  On the other side, Georgia.  I can just barely make out tiny little walkers on the Augusta Canal tow path.  I look closer at the sparkling waters separating us, catching glimpses of cormorants diving and bobbing down the river. A faint honking alerts me to a flock of Canada geese feeding in the shallows of an island.   Spanish moss waves gently on low-hanging branches above my head. I could live here.

But my dogs pull me forward and so I explore a side trail parallel to the river.  I pass the remains of a dead cormorant (doggy noses miss nothing) and climb over a large downed oak tree.  We make our way through a stand of saw palmetto.  From the mountains to the jungle!  

And then suddenly a rock wall stands in front of me. The bluffs.

Funny story.  Several years ago when I was down here I got really excited about a strange formation in one of these rocks at the edge.  Body, legs, tail clearly raised up in bas-relief on the flat rock.  It must be a fossil of a prehistoric reptile of sorts!

 I was able to convince a local rock and mineral club to come take a look-see.  After very little observation and discussion, the group’s consensus was in: Not.  Apparently fossils are not found in metamorphic rocks.  Totally deflated my ego.  Ahh, well.

I breathe deeply of the cool air, store one last mental photograph in my mind palace, and head back to the open area by the river at the main trail.  Rather than return the way I came, I head up a steep and rocky slope.  This path is wider and winds around the top of the hill looking down at my happy brook and out over the landscape.  The trail loops back to the power line easement, where I turn left, through the meadow blazing with ragwort, and back up the hill to the parking lot. 

I had only encountered two single hikers the entire time, each of which courteously stepped well off the trail for us to pass.  Although only 1.5 miles, the hilly terrain made this hike more of a workout.  I am tired but satiated, that is until ugly reality rears its head: a couple of used face masks in the middle of the parking lot.  Why, why, why?

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs.  A sign in front of a church on Bettis Academy Road asks, “Is God Angry With Us?”  A billboard promoting Edgefield’s Wild Turkey Federation exhorts us to “Come Play Outside”, while just opposite it an electronic highway sign spans the road declaring “Go Home. Stay Home.”

I look up at the clear blue cloudless sky.  I know COVID-19 is still hovering overhead, invisible and insidious, but now I sing my own song.  In no uncertain terms, I say “Be gone, you nasty earworm!  My hike through Savannah River Bluffs has replaced your incessant hiss with a more soothing tune.”

Next up, Ditch Pond Heritage Preserve.  Or maybe the Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve.  It’s hard to choose…  I’d love to hear about your favorite spots.  Where do you like to hike in Aiken County?

For a virtual field trip of Savannah River Bluffs, watch this video produced by SC-DNR:

Coronavirus Cabin Fever Antidote #2: Henderson Heritage Preserve

13 04 2020

As South Carolina enters its fifth week of schools being closed due to COVID-19 and the second week of a state-wide Stay at Home order, I’m seeing more and more people walking and riding bikes in the neighborhood.  And through social media, I’m hearing more and more folks looking for different places to get out and exercise safely while maintaining the proper six feet of social distancing. 

I commiserate with my friend in Columbia, S.C. who hesitates to walk on narrow nature trails. “My issue is that the poison ivy is right on the edge of so many trails and if someone comes along, there’s nowhere to go,” Kathryn Braun Fenner says, “I am particularly concerned about runners huffing past.”

For those of us in Aiken County or the surrounding C.S.R.A., the good news is that we have quite a few good options for safe hiking trails.  Everyone in Aiken knows about beautiful Hitchcock Woods, so I won’t spend time going over the obvious. My last post described the hiking trails at Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary.  Although all but one of the employees have been sent home (which, sad to say, includes myself as a volunteer), the trails remain open.

Today I’d like to tell you about a lesser-known natural area: Henderson Heritage Preserve located just south of I-20 in Aiken County. Managed by the SC Department of Natural Resources, it was established in 1993 with a donation of almost 200 acres by Ms. Rosetta Miller and named for her great grandfather, Frank P. Henderson, a former mayor of Aiken.  (Not only renown as a mayor, Mr. Henderson took part in the famous charge up San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War of 1898!)  Now encompassing more than 400 acres, Henderson Heritage Preserve protects a longleaf pine-scrub oak sandhills ecosystem that was once the dominant and most biologically diverse ecosystem of the southeastern United States.  As is done at Hitchcock Woods and Silver Bluff Audubon, this ecosystem is now being restored and maintained in its natural state through the use of prescribed burns.

This Preserve takes a bit of exploring to get a feel for it.  There are creeks, beaver ponds, pine forests, old home sites, and even a graveyard with headstones dating from the 1800s.  Probably the most unusual aspect to this preserve are the vaucluse udorthent features. The term “vaucluse” refers to the sandy clay soil, while “udorthent” means disturbed, often by human activity although also by natural erosion processes. Think Bryce Canyon hoodoos, those eroded geologic formations of natural sculptures.  Although not nearly so large or distinctive as the ones in Utah, our local hoodoos still inspire awe. With their stark, barren gullies and ridges laced with blaring white sand, you wouldn’t be surprised to find it littered with dry white bones and vultures circling ominously overhead.  While I did find a few old bones near one, even more interesting were the small vertical tunnels in the rocks, very similar in nature to the fossilized marine worm holes found in similar formations in the Sandhills region, indicative of the Eocene Epoch some 50-60 million years ago.  And standing atop one of these areas and proclaiming it “vaucluse udorthent” gives one an incredible feeling of genius!

I think of Henderson Heritage Preserve as the number eight, with Mayfield Road bisecting the two sections, each of which has a separate entrance. The upper section is accessed off of Mayfield Road and includes 152.5 acres north of the road.  You’ll see a kiosk and a small dirt parking lot on the right.  A pond with ducks is just over the hill, most likely dug as a kaolin quarry. Starting at the Mayfield kiosk, the first sign that nature awaits is a large beaver lodge in a pond just off the path.  From there, follow the path along what used to be a creek, but has been engineered by beavers into a series of ponds that serve as habitats for a variety of fish, water fowl, and other wildlife.  By taking a small side trail off the main one, you can actually stand on top of one of the beaver dams.  Your best bet to see beavers is early morning or late evening; the preserve is officially open one hour before dawn and one hour after sunset.  Fishing is allowed and provides a great excuse for sitting quietly and letting nature seep into your bones.

Coyote tracks and scat are all over the Preserve.  All signs point to a healthy population of these usually shy predators.  Even more telling was a complete coyote skeleton I once found near one of the beaver ponds. 

Quail, turkey, deer, beaver, and fox squirrels round out this healthy ecosystem, although you must be very patient and quiet to see them.  Mourning doves, pine warblers, and my personal favorite the pileated woodpecker sing you down the trails.

For the most part, the hiking is easy. However, one part of the upper section requires going across a rather large puddle, so appropriate footwear is required and a walking stick will come in handy.  The trail is somewhat hilly as well, so be prepared.  As you hike up and around the trail, you’ll want to take the first trail to your right, which will lead you to the top of a vaucluse udorthent area and then back to the trail beside the beaver ponds. 

For all the charm of the upper section, the lower trail section of Henderson Heritage Preserve is my favorite.  This area is south of Mayfield Road and has about 264 acres.  The first part of the trail is wide and gradually downhill, which you won’t appreciate until you have to go back up it.  After about half a mile, you’ll see a small trail to the right.  This trail runs parallel to a swampy creek and is quite pretty, but dead-ends in about half a mile.  Staying on the main trail, you will come to a fork: the left fork is another dead end but pretty as well.  I always veer to the right, which will take you to a small footbridge over a creek.  My dogs think this is the best part of the trail as they cut the fool, playing tag over the bridge and splashing around in the clear water.  

This trail narrows and eventually will take you past an old home site, grave stones (you’ll have to look carefully to find them), and around to the first of two vaucluse udorthent areas.  Finding the rest of the trail can be tricky: walk across the flats, over a rotten log, and around to the left.  There may be footprints that can help guide you.  You will go through a thicket of kalmia, which should be in full bloom right now (mid-April), and then to the side of another vaucluse udorthent area.  Here the path splits.  I always go up to the right, which takes you to the top of the cliff and then eventually around, through another thicket of kalmia and down to the base of the cliff.  If you choose to go down to the left at the split, you can bear left again to loop back to the trail that crosses the creek. 

Kalmia latifolia: known locally as kalmia but elsewhere as mountain laurel

Although my description may sound a little daunting, the trail is well marked and even going around the long way only clocks a little over two miles.  I rarely see anyone else on the trails, and I am comfortable letting my dogs run loose.  I will warn you to do a tick check when you get home.  No matter the time of year, I usually find a tick crawling on me.  But that’s the price I pay to visit a secluded, natural ecosystem filled with all sorts of wonders.

So, say “vaucluse udorthent” three times fast, hop in your car and head a few miles north of Aiken to the Henderson Heritage Preserve to see this unique ecosystem. To access the upper trail system, from Aiken go north on S.C. Highway 19 and turn left beside Aiken Memorial Cemetery on Mayfield Road and travel approximately a mile to a kiosk on the right.  To get to the lower trail section, take Croft Mill Road north from Robert Bell Parkway for a little over one mile.  The GPS address is 309-337 Croft Mill Road.  Look for a small road sign on the left with a hidden gravel parking lot and kiosk. Whichever section you choose to explore, you’ll find yourself in another world, far from nasty viruses and surrounded with natural beauty.

Neighborhood Easter Alphabet Egg Hunt

4 04 2020

Many neighborhoods have been hosting Bear Hunts and other similar activities to give children a chance to get outside and exercise while staying safe from COVID-19.

But with Easter next week, how do you have an Easter Egg Hunt when the world is COVID Crazy and you’re doing your best to stay socially distant? Here’s an idea for a hunt that will have families walking through the neighborhood trying to find eggs with all the letters of the alphabet on them.

First, get your neighborhood on board by posting the following photos on Nextdoor or Facebook (or both). Advertise it as much as possible to get the most participation.

Then the fun and exercise (and learning, but shhhh…) begins. Kids will mark the letters they find on their walk along with the addresses on their tally sheet, hopefully finding all the letters of the alphabet. (You may want to advise neighbors that to do their first initial if it is one of the less common letters such as X or Q.) Once they get home, they can use the letters they found to spell as many words as they can.

To add a math component for all our new home-schooling parents, have the kids add the numbers in each address to find the sums. Which letters are worth more? Less? Spell a word and see how much it’s worth. How much is your name worth? Can you make a math problem with your letters or words? For example, if the sum of the numbers of the address for B=17, U=7, N=10, and Y=13, B+U+N+N+Y=? Who can make a word worth the most? the least?

If you want to take this a step further, help your child make a bar graph to compare the frequency of the letters. Which letters were the most or least common?

With a little creativity, parents should be able to find plenty of ways to keep their young’uns active, engaged, and learning in this crazy time of COVID.

I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences with this activity or others you’ve engaged your children with.

A Breath of Beauty

4 02 2020

Most of my posts describe various trips and adventures I’ve had. But sometimes, I’m struck from above and a poem forms unbidden in my head. Today was such a day.

A Breath of Beauty

I delight in the sky and the clouds high above

With the scree of a hawk and the low of a dove.

I take joy from the air with the soft scent of pine

And the rustle of trees with the needles that shine.

I drink deep from the sun that reddens my skin

And warms the bare earth and the seedlings within.

I breathe in the beauty of God’s given land

And strive for a future that’s clean and as grand.


13 01 2018


Does the end ever justify the means?  Is it ever okay to say or do things that are morally or ethically wrong to achieve a goal deemed as “right”?

I’ve spent the last few years in open-mouthed dismay at the political goings-on in our country.  I’ve heard good people—family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, all well-respected, big-hearted folk who serve our community with their time and talents—support the current administration.  Bewildered, I’ve listened to their rationale, trying to understand where they are coming from, hoping to piece together the jagged edges of a polarized people.

I understand more about the frustration felt by conservative Americans that led to the Trump presidency:  years of self-serving leaders, dead-end appeasements, and political correctness.  I’ve had devout Christians tell me in so many words to “pull up my big-girl panties and get over it,” to stop being offended by words meant to downgrade other people.

But “words mean things.” These words were spoken by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show in 1994, and are often repeated, as #34 of his 35 Undeniable Truths. Although I disagree with much of what he says, Rush did get this right.  Words do have meanings.  The pen (dare I say, “tweet”) is mightier than the sword.  Words hurt, far more than sticks and stones.  Words convey intent, motivation, and power.  We teach this to our children, yet we excuse it from our highest elected office.  How can our country maintain our footing on high moral ground while our chief diplomat insults entire continents with gutter talk?  Diplomacy begins with respecting all peoples, and diplomacy is conveyed by communications, private and public, both in-house and in the world at large.

I’ve listened to many Conservatives who shake their heads in embarrassment at these doings, but still support this presidency.  “He’s just saying what everyone else is thinking,”  they say. “He’s doing the hard stuff that no one else had the guts to do.”  “Just take away his cell phone, don’t let him tweet.”  While that may quiet the controversy, the hatred remains. We cannot let this ugliness infiltrate our country.  This is not us.

The problems of immigration are beyond my scant understanding, but I do know we are a nation of immigrants and stronger for it.  And I do know that it is our moral, ethical, and Biblical imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves, helping those who can’t help themselves.  How best to do this is a question I struggle with daily and one that as a nation we need to come to grips with.  I believe we can, we must, do this in a way that is morally right.

My father fought, one of millions, in a war to free Europe and our world of an evil empire that derived power from the oppression of people groups seen as sub-human.  His involvement has inspired in me a life-long interest—some would say obsession—in the history of World War II.  In my current read, Crimes of War: Guilt and Denial in the Twentieth Century, Jan Philipp Reemtsma says, “A public debate about war crimes is always a debate about the whole society’s moral standards—what we are, what we want to be, how we want to look, and how we really look.”

No war crimes here, but still the questions give pause:  How do we want to look to the world?  How do we really look?  Does the end justify the means?  Who are we, America? And what are we going to do about it?

Our Maine Event: A Mammoth Undertaking

8 08 2017

Our vacation was coming to an end.  But we had one more adventure: Mammoth Cave National Park.  And this one we would enjoy with friends and family.

7/19/17 Day 13: Drive to Mammoth Caves. 425 mi./7 hr.

After an uneventful drive…No, I can’t say that.  By this point we were well into the audio-book Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, so deep that the miles just flew by and we were slightly disappointed when we arrived at Mammoth Cave National Park.  I had downloaded two audio-books onto my phone before leaving.  The first was Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck.  I enjoyed listening to this book as we made our way up to Maine, but Brian didn’t.  In describing his travels, Steinbeck went on too many detours for Brian’s straight-forward engineer’s mind.  But Before We Were Yours—well, this book grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go.   Set in Aiken, it had links to Tennessee, Edisto, and Augusta, but even the local interest was not as enticing as the storyline.



After setting up our tent in the Mammoth Cave campground, we made our way to the Horse Cave KOA where our friends John and Deborah and their grandson Tristan were camping in their RV.  Before long we were joined by my niece Becky, who drove her son Nate up from Franklin, TN to stay with us.  Nate and Tristan were like-minded ten-year-olds who had hit it off the year before at Camp Invention.  Having them together took away some of the struggle to entertain them each separately, but also provided us adults with ample entertainment just watching them.


When it’s hot and there’s nothing to do, you make your own fun!

7/30/17 Day 14: Explored Mammoth Caves.

Our first tour of the caves was the self-guided Discovery Tour, one that I had been on many times and so was not particularly excited about.  But this was the first time in the caves for four of our party, so it was a good place to start.  I must say, though, that I left this tour completely enthralled with what I learned from Park Guide Jerry Bransford.  The direct descendant of one of the most renown slave guides at Mammoth Caves, Mr. Bransford told gripping stories of his ancestors’ lives, stories of children being ripped away from their parents, land sold from underneath them, and jobs that evaporated because of their skin color.

Our next tour was also one I’ve done before: Frozen Niagara.   This is a simple tour, but a good one with its views of cave formations including flowstone, stalactites and stalagmites.


Then, later in the evening, Brian and I took the boys on the Star Chamber tour.  Outfitted with oil-burning lanterns, we got a glimpse of the cave as people long ago did, encountering graffiti on the walls and ceiling made dot by dot with candles on the end of long poles.

And from these three tours, it was reinforced to me that wherever you are, the best way to engage learning is to involve the senses and emotions.   The history, the personal stories, the sheer awe of the place leaves an indelible mark on those who are open to the experience.

7/21/17 Day 15: Drove home.  8 hrs./503 mi.

It was time.  I hated for the adventure to end, but at the same time I was glad to be heading home to our dog and our own bed with a bathroom nearby.   We met Nate’s mom in Franklin, TN where we all were amazed to hear what he remembered!  The teacher in me had been in full bloom while at Mammoth Cave, with the boys reading each sign aloud and me giving quizzes  and points for correct answers.  It was all in fun, but the boys took it seriously, vying for points as we went.  A little competition never hurts!


When we finally got home, we were greeted by a super wiggly dog and a fridge stocked with dinner left by our daughter.  And later that evening, before bed, we finished the last 30 minutes of Before We Were Yours.  It was that good.  And so was our trip.

John Steinbeck, in his book Travels With Charley: In Search of America, wrote, “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

This trip did take us.  It took us through time, through cultures, through geography and geology.  But mostly it took us through ourselves, opening our eyes to new experiences and reinforcing our belief that this is a grand and glorious country.  And after living in a car, tent, or stark cabin for two weeks, I realized how much I can do without and how much I appreciate the “with.”

While we were in Acadia National Park, I read a quote by Donald Soctomoh,  a Passamaquoddy Indian: “We are part of everything beneath us, above us, and around us.  Our past is our present and our present is our future.”  With so much in the media about “living in the present” we forget that it is impossible to do this without remembering who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and our place in the world.  This trip is now a part of me, a part I want to remember and learn from.

But my favorite quotation I’ll take from this trip came from Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours:

Oh, child. The best thing is to know. I always tell ’em, best to be who you is. What you is deep down inside. Ain’t no other good way of livin’.

For me, traveling and learning and learning and traveling is a good way of livin’.  It’s who I is.




Our Maine Event: Cuyahoga Valley National Park

7 08 2017

I had never heard of this national park.  And after I did, it took me a while even to pronounce it correctly: ki-ya-ho-ga.  Located in between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, it wasn’t even formally a national park until 2000, which helps to explain my ignorance.   And so, we set off to see what this area had to offer.

7/18/17 Day 12: Explored Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Drum roll!  Today was our 30th wedding anniversary and we didn’t have to sleep in a tent!  After a breakfast cooked on the picnic table out back of the cabin (egg burritos, of course) we headed into CVNP.


The bathhouse in our campground:  I didn’t do it!

There seemed to be no central visitor’s center to this park, just smallish stops with signs or kiosks.  We finally made our way to the Peninsula Depot and bought train tickets for the on-off train that ran through the valley.  It was slightly disconcerting when we looked at our tickets to find that:

a. We had 1 ½ hours before the next train came around; and

b. We had been given the senior discount without having been asked.


Our Senior discount tickets and Brian’s iconic Krispy Kreme hat

So, to while away the time, we walked up a path by the river where we noticed a kayaker had left his kayak quite abruptly to take a bath and said kayak was caught in the rocks of the rapids.  Quite an interesting dilemma as he and his friend were now up the river without a kayak.


A kayak caught in an eddy

We boarded the train and got off at the Science Exploration Center, where we had about 20 minutes to explore before the docent gathered us all up for the next leg of the train ride.  Finally, some background into why this is a national park!  But quick.

Apparently, this valley was the site of the Ohio & Erie Canal system constructed in the early 1800s.  Before the railroad came, one could theoretically travel by water from New York Harbor up the Hudson River through the Erie Canal to Lake Erie, then down the Ohio & Erie Canal with only an 8 mile portage to the Ohio and then Mississippi River down to New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. Bam.

And then there’s the James A. Garfield connection.  As a teenager, our 20th president worked as a mule driver guiding barges along the canal towpath, until he fell (was pushed?) into the canal, took sick with malaria, and decided to go to college instead, a path that led to the presidency but also his assassination some six months later.  Walking in presidential footsteps, we also took the towpath back to Peninsula Station, although our journey was only a mere two miles and didn’t involve mules or malaria.

Our next exploration of this park was at the Ritchie Ledges, a geologic oddity that while lacking in historic significance made up for it in scenic beauty.  The Ledges are a series of moss-covered sandstone cliffs and crevices thought to be millions of years old from the Sharon Conglomerate, a tidbit of information that I’m sure means something to someone.   Giant cleavages in the rocks make narrow canyons of coolness, a welcome change from the humid warmth of the area, with the straight edges of the cliffs lined with layer after thin layer of pock-marked sand and pebbles.

While there were no signs or kiosks with information explaining this area, there were signs very clearly saying DO NOT CLIMB, signs that were quite frequently and very obviously ignored.  For a brief time, we watched two pre-teen girls who had scampered up a steep outcropping before finding it too scary to descend.  And for once, I kept my Teacher Voice in check.  Their father was below giving them encouragement and advice (“Just get your butts down here, you scaredy-cats!”); we left before we could hear the thuds.

We ended the day by celebrating our anniversary with only our second and last restaurant dinner—pizza—and then ice cream at the Dairy Queen.  Let it not be said that we don’t know how to live it up!