Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hiking with our boys and the gear we choose

Jen and I love hiking and exploring in the woods. As a result our goal is to try and instill that same love for the outdoors into our boys. With that in mind whenever we have some free time on a day off we'll often pack up the Jeep and head out to explore a new trail, or visit an old reliable wooded area.

There's not much worse than a cranky kid halfway through a hike because no matter how you slice it, you have to hike back to the vehicle. So the gear we choose really is critical to our success.

Last Father's Day Jen purchased a frame style toddler pack. The Chicco Smart Support Backpack, available on seemed to have all the features we were looking for. My shoulder straps are padded and contain a lot of adjustment. The waist band is similar. When it comes to my 6"1" 230lbs frame I'm always skeptical when purchasing online, but this fits as it should. Anyone who has ever carried a framepack and knows how to adjust it, will have not problems with this pack.
The pack also comes equipped with a kick stand, so the pack can be rested on the ground, completely unsupported, even when loaded with a toddler.  Aiden is just over 30lbs now, and he rides back there very comfortably. He is sitting up and completely supported by the nylon seat. A previous cloth infant pack we used a handful of times made him appear as if he was strapped to my back. This pack he can clearly see his surroundings and can rest his hands on the frame, or my shoulders.
On the back of the pack is a detachable bag that we've used to carry small items. Our plan is to make that our First Aid kit to use during our smaller hikes.

Since everyone's happiness is a real necessity on family outings, Jen has taken to carrying an older JanSport backpack. These leather bottomed bags are ideal little daypacks. The one she's carrying I used while in college some 15 years ago, and it's still going strong. The main compartment is undivided and when unzipped opens up flat in order to view everything stored within. There are two smaller compartments on the outside, perfect for small items you want to keep handy.

In reality the biggest necessity for a successful hike with our boys is our preparation. We constantly keep in mind that they are much smaller than us, and physically can't keep up with our pace. Plus they need to be entertained. As an adult, I know the excitement of turning a bend and coming face-to-face with a wild turkey or a white-tailed deer, but they don't know that yet. They will easily get bored, so we are constantly pointing stuff out to them and making sure they are seeing all the interesting things around them. We stop frequently to point out natural habitats, and areas where animals have obviously left their mark. When it's time to rest, we find some downed trees and break out the snacks.

There's no time table when hiking with our kids, we let the day bring what it will, and most of the time it brings beautiful memories.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Local wilderness vacations: Erie Bluffs State Park

On a recent sunny Sunday we found ourselves with nothing specific to do. A rare thing for a family with 2 young boys, but I'm not crazy enough to look a gift horse in the mouth!

Jen and I quickly packed up a daypack with some snack and drinks. I made sure my toddler pack was in the Jeep, then I grabbed the camera and we hit the road.

We headed west of the City of Erie, on US 20 all the way to Girard, PA. About 30 minutes from the city. Then we cut down to US 5 and drove about another 5 miles to Erie Bluffs State Park.

Erie Bluffs is a relatively new addition to PA's State Park system. Boasting over 500 acres open to hiking, and hunting. There is a developing trail network suitable for exploring with kids, or even mountain biking.

Attached to Erie Bluffs State Park is the Elk Creek Access Area, maintained by the PA Fish and Boat Commission. Elk Creek is one of the world's premier Steelhead fishing destinations.

Trails interconnect between the Access Area and the State Park.

Being that this was our first trip we reviewed the map and the information pavilion and headed off down the main driveway. This road is maintained with gravel to support the agricultural equipment used on the approximately 100 acres of corn fields.

Seeing such a wide expanse of cut corn fields is not that common among State Parks, but it is a very good use of the land. The land was already opened to agriculture, prior to becoming a State Park, so why not continue allowing the land to be farmed, in order to offset the cost of maintenance and development of the park.

We followed the main driveway as it wound it's way on the east edge of the corn fields towards the north east corner of the park. Here we found a wooded trail, which was well worn and very easy to follow. Several other trails cut off of this primary trail, but we followed along eventually coming to a point where we could see down over the bluff to the parking lot for the access area. Knowing we were on the eastern edge, we then followed another trail closer to the lake bluffs.

Here is where the real beauty of this natural area lies. Raw and undeveloped this area looks much the same as it would have for the settlers some 200+ years ago. Steep cliffs, giving way to narrow shoreline, looking out over an enormous body of water. This was early spring and the trees haven't yet budded out, but I can only picture what the area will look like when we visit later in the summer. 

After following the trail along the cliff for about 300 yards, the trail took an obvious bend and we found ourselves meeting up with the initial trail very close to the trailhead and the end of the gravel driveway. Several hundred yards back towards the parking lot was a small picnic grove. Four rustic tables and a cement fire ring are all that fill this little clearing in the woods, but it was just perfect for some Goldfish crackers, a couple oranges and bottles of water.

After a nice rest we took a small trail out of the opposite side of the picnic grove, which wound around to the driveway and we headed back out to the Jeep.  We had a fun time exploring the east end of the park, but in the two hour trip, we barely scratched the surface. There are several trails at the west end of the park, and someday I'd love to make a loop hike walking the entire perimeter including all of the shoreline.

There's great potential in this park, and after reading the State's Master Plan document I think they are on the right track.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spring Gobbler Season: 9 Days and Counting

Alright Turkey hunters, this is it, the time of year we've all waited for, just 9 days from today the season will open up and we can start chasing them Toms again.

How will you spend your time?

Lots of hunters will continue scouting, and maybe even increase their scouting so that they can target specific birds on specific roosts. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact if you are really careful you can pattern the bird fairly accurately.

Me personally, I like to back off the final two weeks before any season opens, but particularly the spring turkey season. I have a rather tight hunting area, with limited spots where I can set up and have a real shot at success. So if I bust turkeys out of even one spot in the pre-season, well that's putting a serious damper on my odds.

Plus, whether or not you are still scouting, I would lay off the calls, and let your optics do the scouting. Turkey's visual acuity, is only rivalled by their hearing. Once in season, the name of the game is calling that bird to you, so you're calling is the "voice" of another turkey. If the turkeys you hunt constantly hear that "voice," but never see that turkey, I think they'll be less inclined to come to that "voice" once the season begins.

Now that's not to say that you shouldn't be perfecting your calling at home. Watch some turkey hunting DVDs, listen to turkey sounds on the Internet. Mimic the sounds you hear, and sharpen up your calling.

I find it relaxing to pack up my gear, and doing it a week or so before the season gives you plenty of time to discover what is lost or damaged, and replace it. If you are going to any kind of turkey camp, now's a good time to make a list and start shopping for that excursion.

Finally, if you have kept a journal of previous years, blow the dust off of it, and see what last minute lessons you can glean from those pages. Get out that photo album, and relive a couple of your successful hunts. Nothing will get you more in the spirit, then thinking about the ones your brought home, or the ones that got away.

Happy Hunting
Scott M

Monday, April 15, 2013

Farm Stands of Erie County

As the weather turns, my mind wanders to the fresh produce available all over Erie County. The ready access to farms is really one of the true blessings of living here. 

Below I've compiled a short sampling of some of the farm stands below. If you know of more, by all means leave a comment and I'll be sure to include them in a future post. There are also several online resources to find farm markets: click on Consumers, then click on A Consumers Guide to PA Farm Markets.

Troyer Farms

Travelling out Route 19/Peach St, 8.7 miles from the I-90 interchange, the road runs straight into Waterford and in the middle of town a farm stand is set up for the well-known Troyer Farms.  This stand carries the strawberries in early summer until the corn, cabbage, and squash of fall.  Early summer strawberries are well know and worth the trip, this June.  Everyone I talk to enjoy a very simple preparation that highlights the natural sweetness of the berries:

1 quart strawberries, stemmed, washed, and halved
¼ cup of sugar
Mash a handful of berries, and combine mashed berries with remaining berries, and sugar in large bowl.  Allow to sit at least one hour, for the berries to start yielding their juice.  Serve over biscuits, with whip cream.

Finnell Farms

About 1.7 miles on Route 20, from the light in front of Harborcreek High School is Finnell farms.  This stand carries a variety of fruits and vegetables including strawberries, corn and peaches.  The peaches are particularly fantastic from Finnell’s.  While I love to eat peaches, just like an apple, below is a preparation will knock your guest’s socks off at your summer dinner party:

1 peach per guest
1 quart vanilla ice cream
Wash peaches, leaving skins intact split peaches in half and remove pits.  Place peach, cut-side down on a very hot grill.  Grill for 60-90 seconds.  Serve in a bowl with a scoop of ice cream. 

Mason Farms

Driving out Route 5/ West 12th street 6.6 miles is the roadside stand of the venerable Mason Farms.  Most Erie residents are familiar with Mason Farm’s store on Peninsula Dr.  However, when the weather is good and the vegetables are in season the scenic drive down Route 5 is worth the time.  As a certifiable corn snob I simply won't purchase corn on the cob from a grocery store. For my taste there needs to be a little road dirt on the husk for the corn to taste right.  My favorite preparation combines two of my Erie favorites:

6 ears of fresh corn, shucked
1 bottle of Erie Brewing Co.’s Railbender Ale
Combine corn and beer in a stock pot with just enough water to float the corn.  Bring to rolling boil, and hold at boil for 6-8 minutes.  Add butter and salt to taste.

Hulings Blueberries

Just off of Route 99/Edinboro Rd on Old State Rd, about 4 miles south from the blinking light in McKean is Hulings Blueberries.  Don’t let the name fool you, they’ve got more than blueberries, Including Pennsylvania maple syrup.  However, the blueberries are worth the drive by themselves and if you don’t pick up the syrup, here’s a easy blueberry sauce to cover your pancakes:

2 ½ cups fresh blueberries
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup orange juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Combine berries, sugar and ¼ cup of the orange juice in sauce pan, and warm over moderate heat.  In separate container combine remaining orange juice and cornstarch, breaking up any lumps.  Bring sauce to boil, and stir in cornstarch mixture, allow mixture to boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, allow to cool 5-10 minutes.

Perry Square

If a country drive, won’t fit in your schedule today that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy fresh produce for dinner.  Depending on what is currently in season, there are between 2-4 farm stands set up in Perry’s Square in downtown Erie most days.  The stands carry a variety of fresh produce, but it is hard to top fresh tomatoes.  Store-bought tomatoes have to be harvested early in order to clean, package, and ship before they spoil.  Farm stand tomatoes, may have come off the vine yesterday or early this morning.  Here’s a delicious dinner idea that may not be the best for date night, but is delicious anyhow:

2 tomatoes
2 white onions
2 pieces of rye bread, toasted
1 cup cottage cheese

Wash tomatoes, then slice the tomatoes and onions into slices of equal thickness.  Alternate layers of onions and tomatoes, adding salt and pepper to taste on the tomatoes.  Serve on toast, with a dollop of cottage cheese on the side.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Camping with our Boys, Ramping Up

It's April 1st, and camping season is right around the corner. Being the father of two young boys I know how excited those boys are to go camping again. I also know how quickly a pleasant camping trip can turn south and end up with tears and frustration. Over the past 3 summers my wife and I have developed a lot of good habits, and uncovered some bad habits, all in the hopes of developing the same love of the great outdoors in our boys that we already have.
With that in mind here's a handful of tips we've come up with that may help you out the next time you head out to camp:

1. Preparation.
As I said it's April 1st and for us our camping season has already begun. Have we been to camp? Unfortunately not yet, but since about mid February, when we visited the Erie RV and Camping Expo, we've been plotting out our summer activities.

Our primary location is a cabin that has been in my family for nearly 50 years now, so our first order of business is circling the weekends we want to go there. My uncle uses the camp regularly as well, so to maximize everyone's enjoyment I work closely with him to secure our weekends.

Next we look at other weekends, and types of camping we want to do this year. My father has a small camper that's truly built for 1 or 2 people, but our boys are so young we're going to give it a try. Figuring on the 7 year old sleeping on the fold down table, and the 2 year old sleeping with us, it will be cramped quarters for sure. It will also be the perfect reason to keep everyone out in nature, and not huddled up inside a camper. 

We also want to attempt tent camping this year. We've had a few failed attempts at this in the last couple years, but now I think we're ready to try it. I've scouted a couple campgrounds with lots of amenities and with any luck we'll have a good time. With all of this in mind we've got to take a close look at the type of gear we have and make a list of what we'll need to buy

2. Organization
The natural next step is getting everything organized. There's nothing worse then forgetting that critical piece of gear, or hustling around the house trying to fide it, when you wanted to be on the road 30 minutes ago. My wife and I have a supply of camping goods that we keep segregated in a rubbermaid tub. This includes old housewares that we no longer use in our kitchen, but are in good enough shape to go camping. By having these set aside, we can immediately grab that tub, inspect that everything is there, load it up, and our camp kitchen is ready.

Since a typical camping weekend has been on our minds for months before it happens, getting organized the week of, is just part of the excitement. We'll typically leave Friday afternoon, so clothing is packed Thursday night, with Friday's clothes laid out and ready. Toiletries will have to be packed up after they are used Friday, and then they are placed in the top of the bags for ready access. Food was typically purchased several days before, but anything cold will need to be packed into coolers the day of.

**My wife and I have learned that being organized, and getting packed up is really one of the most critical steps. Almost no matter what else happens, if you have what you need, and got off on a good step, you can always salvage a camping trip. Take your time with this step, it absolutely will pay off.

3. Activities
"The best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray."
No matter how well organized you are something will throw a monkey wrench in the plans. That's exactly why we like to have a few more activities planned then we actually have time for. We won't stress out and try to cram everything in. Instead we'll roll with what we have time for. Within all our plans we'll have to have a few rain activities planned, becuase a rain day eventually happens to all of us. That weatherman was wrong and the low pressure system shifted, dumping rain on your perfectly pitched tent. How are you going to handle that? What other activities can you do?

Rain days are great days for roadtrips. Your initial intent of this trip may have been to hike down to an unfamiliar river and drowned a couple worms, but since the weather isn't cooperating, why not hop in the car, and put some miles in the rearview. My wife and I did exactly this on the 2nd day of our summer vacation camping trip last year. The rain blew in, so we loaded up and headed towards a campground I had circled on the map, but never had the time to scout for a future trip. Not only did we find one of our favorite public campgrounds, with great views of Kinzua Resevoir, and cute little cabins, but we also found an amazing butcher, who produces 22 varieties of sausages. We tried 2 last year, and plan on going back to try even more this year.

4. Advocate for each other
I have never claimed to be some super amazing father who never gets frustrated. For better or worse I do. This is where as parents we need to advocate for each other. When my wife's patience wears thin, I make an effort to step in and find another activity for the boys to do, while she gets a drink of water and clears here head. She'll do the same for me. Parenting is tough, and parenting in a confined space and time, when everyone wants to do something different is tougher. You've got to have each other's back, and not let a couple bad attitudes ruin the whole weekend.

5. Enjoy it! 
With everything else in mind, the most critical thing to do is to enjoy it! You're out in nature, a place that most of us only get to visit. So who cares if you forgot to pack the extra socks, or if you didn't bring that special dessert you had planned on, or if you end up with the wettest weekend of the entire summer. Shake it off and find something to enjoy. Maybe it's a card game around a small table. Maybe it's a drive down an unfamiliar road. Maybe it's sitting on the porch swing watching hummingbirds feed. You never know what little memory will really stick.

Happy Camping
Scott M