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Thursday, February 18, 2016

What We're doing in the Woods

North Branch Trekkers is an outdoor based after school group for children in grades 4 through 8, which meets every Thursday, throughout the school year… really, it is me and a bunch of kids goofing off in the woods.  But that goofing off is important.  When done in a thoughtful way, it builds a communal love for the outdoors and sense of place.

During Trekkers, we adopt an off trail mentality, using our local landscape to create opportunities to push our limits and go beyond our comfort levels.  We make it a point to venture away from the beaten path as we explore areas that many people have walked past but few have ventured into.  Stretching our limits together as a group strengthens our bond and sense of community.  It could be sledding down a 40 foot chute in the deepest recesses of Montpelier's forests, brushing past ancient hemlocks as you wiz by; or as simple as following a set of deer tracks as far as you can, leading you through frozen marsh and across steep ravines, post holing in snow up past your knees.  These are experiences that test both our mental and physical boundaries, pushing us right up against our comfort levels and beyond.  Sharing these experiences within the group strengthens our communal bond and utilizing the fields and forest in such a way makes the landscape as much of a character in our adventures as we are ourselves. 

As a part of our exploration of these unfamiliar areas, we take the time to observe who has been there.  One way that we do this via tracking.  Some kids are interested in taking measurements and analyzing the stride, straddle, and gait to figure out what animal made the tracks.  Others want to forge ahead and follow the trail as far as they can.  Every now and then we come across something that stops everyone.  It could be a kill site,  some sort of predator track, or a particularly large pile of scat.  To monitor high traffic areas that we come across in our travels, we set up motion activated trail cameras.  Part of our weekly routine is checking our cameras to see what has come to visit.  In four years, we have captured photo and video of deer, grey fox, coyote, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, fisher, mink, red squirrel, mouse, and shrew, all within the boundaries of the North Branch Nature Center property.

Often in our off trail adventures, we come across many examples of the great bounty that nature provides and with a group of young preteens after school, food is never far from our minds.  Wild grapes, choke cherries, beaked hazelnuts, hawthorn haws, apples, wild leeks, and the sap of sugar maples have all played an integral part in our gastrological education.  We taste the seasons as they come and go; grazing on grapes and roasting apples in the fall, boiling sap and "taking leeks" in the late winter/early spring.  

Every semester has its culminating feast.  In the fall we cook a Thanksgiving dinner which we have dubbed "Trekkers-giving".  Everyone brings something that can be cooked over the fire.  This past year, we have made a critical addition to our Trekkers' community.  His name is Hansel the Griddle.  Hansel is a flat piece of slate that one of our Trekkers found over the summer and thoroughly dried out to avoid cracking when exposed to direct heat.  A special nook was carved out in our fire pit for Hansel to preside over, where we can keep him warm by raking hot coals underneath.  He is often lathered in melted butter and fed delicious sliced apples and pancake batter.  He has  become an integral member of our gang and allowed us to truly expand our culinary horizons.

March is time for sugaring.  Cutting firewood, carving staghorn sumac branches into spiles, tapping trees and collecting sap, the Trekkers do all of the work themselves.  Using a pot suspended over the campfire with a tripod of three alder trunks lashed together, last year we boiled down enough sap to produce 3/4 gallon of maple syrup.  This syrup served as the fuel for our most anticipated feast of the year... the annual Trekkers pancake banquet.  Pancakes are fried up in small camping pans over the fire.  Apples and bread are roasted on sticks, then topped with a drizzling of fresh maple syrup.  Just when you think it couldn't get any better, someone breaks out the Italian sausages.  They are boiled in a pot of maple sap, then skewered and held over the flame to caramelize the sugars from the sap.  The result is a juicy mouthful of meaty mapley goodness that will be forever etched into you taste buds.  The food is truly delicious, but the most important spice used in any of our feasts is the weeks of work put into the preparing of the meal, starting with the first cut of firewood.

So why do we do all of this?  What we are really doing is creating memories.  These memories will be even stronger and longer lasting having been formed within a community of peers - friends growing up together, romping in the forest.  The groundwork for nostalgia is being laid here.  When these kids are grown and have children of their own, they will look back upon this time spent in the woods and want to recreate it for them; passing down a love for the outdoors from one generation to the next.  This is how we create a culture that appreciates and protects natural places... and it all starts with a little goofing off in the woods.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


If children play to change, then could there be a better companion than snow for this journey? 

 It falls, melts, freezes, hardens, disappears...Snow, in its bittersweet ephemerality, in its malleable, movable nature, transforms the world outdoors into one giant sandbox.  

The senses of smell, sound, taste, even sight are diminished in winter as normally fertile nature is buried in insulating white.  But touch.  Touch reigns and the children of Winter Whispers are taking full advantage of winter’s tactility.  

Padded in many layers of protective clothing, the children roll and slide and shovel and build.  Icy wind nips cheeks and noses, but core temperatures are warm and the outside world is their oyster.  

Snow.  Catch it if you can.