Another Infamous Blogger Break

And I did it again.  It’s been way too long since I’ve written anything here.  I was in the shower this morning (one of the places I do my best thinking), and realized that I missed blogging.  So, we’re going to try to get this up off the ground again.

I’ll blame it on the demands of work and parenthood.  Laziness plays a role too, truth be told.  Taking care of two little kids is even crazier than one…but that’s not really shocking, is it?

The good news is that I’m having more outdoor adventures than before.  So the blog should be rife with new content in short order.

In the mean time, please enjoy this crazy kayaking video!

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Ethan’s Guide to Adventuring with Kids

IMG_1583Outdoor adventures were a big part of my childhood.  My parents were taking me on hikes as a very young child.  My dad keeps a photo of him and I in his office; I’m all of a few months old, asleep in a child pack on his back.  I’ve attempted to give the same types of experiences to my children.  Eli has turned into quite the little hiker/adventurer, and we have every hope that Ezra will as well.

I’ve had a few folks over the past several years ask how best to get their families engaged with the outdoors.  So, I’ve decided to put together my suggestions into a blog post.  Take them with a grain of salt, as they are by no means definitive, but I hope the reader can find them useful.

1.  Start them young.  Kids that grow up having outdoor adventures tend to keep enjoying and seeking out adventures outside.  My siblings and I were going with my parents on hikes before we could walk, and Mel and I had Eli out in the mountains and wild spaces before he turned one.  Being outside won’t hurt them, as long as you use some common sense.  If your kids are older, it’s not too late!  In that case…

2.  Just get them outside, and go as a family!  The actual place is not as important as just being outside.  Richmond, where we live, is hours from the mountains.  However, as a family we have excellent outdoor adventures without even driving beyond the city limits by utilizing the city park system.  Most areas have fairly easy access to outdoor recreation areas with trails and woods/nature to explore, even if they do not have national or state parks and forests.

One of Eli's first hikes.  Nicholson Hollow, Shenandoah National Park

One of Eli’s first hikes. Nicholson Hollow, Shenandoah National Park

When you go, go as a family!  Make this a family adventure.  Its more meaningful that way, and more likely that the kids will have fun.  Plus, its good for you and your significant other too.  Take lots of pictures.  Take in a ranger or a naturalist program as a family, or let your kids do the Jr. Ranger program, if you find yourself in a national park.

Family hikes are awesome!  Barefence Mountain, Shenandoah National Park with Mel, Eli, Aunt Bonnie, and Grandma Zook

Family hikes are awesome! Barefence Mountain, Shenandoah National Park with Mel, Eli, Aunt Bonnie, and Grandma Zook

3.  Control your goal-oriented mindset.  This is perhaps the most important thing to think about when taking kids into the outdoors.  As adults, we tend to be goal oriented.  When we think about hiking, we think about it as a means to an end.  In other words, we focus on hiking a certain number of miles, climbing a certain amount of elevation, or reaching a certain point or peak.  In other words, we set a goal, and if we don’t attain the goal we generally view the hike as a failure.

Kids are very different.  Kids are generally not goal oriented to the same extent as adults, and tend to be more interested in what is going around them “right now.”  For kids, the joy is in the journey, and in exploring their surroundings as they discover them.  For a kid, a successful hike is one in which they had the most fun possible.

Dirt is important.

Dirt is important.

Practically speaking, this means that you may go hiking with your toddler and only cover 400 yards in an hour, because the toddler is spending so much time looking under rocks, playing in the dirt, exploring hollow trees, and watching squirrels.  And this is OK!  The hike is for them!

As you plan family hikes with young children, don’t feel the need to shoot for significant objectives like peaks, mileage, or altitude.  Save hiking to objectives for your own hikes, and remember you’ll have plenty of time when your kid(s) get older to take them on hikes like this.  With young children, shoot for quality time outdoors, and leave the goal-oriented mindset at home.

4.  Encourage exploration and getting dirty.  This is a sort of “part B” to the last post.  Encourage your little hikers to explore the world around them.  Look under rocks, check out the hollow tree, look at the different shapes that leaves come in, watch animals.  I spent hours trying to catch tadpoles, minnows, and salamanders in streams as a child, and it led to a life-long interest in nature and science.  It’s incredible for me to watch Eli as he crouches down and investigates beetles along the trail.  I don’t take him on hikes just to watch bugs, but right then he’s have a great time and that’s really what we’re out there for.

Cold weather hikes take a little more preparation to ensure that little hikers have a good time.

Cold weather hikes take a little more preparation to ensure that little hikers have a good time.

If it is safe to do so, allow your little hiker some independence.  I often allow Eli to explore without being directly behind or with him.  I choose the areas in which I allow him to explore very carefully, I keep him in sight, and am always ready to intervene, of course.  However, I want him to feel comfortable enough in the outdoors that he does not feel the need for me to be guiding his every move.  Additionally, don’t stress over dirty clothing and hands; this is not a time to worry about the kid messing up his new shoes.  Exploration can be messy.  When I was a child, I could not explore a creek without stepping in it eventually.

Hiking with Grandma.

Hiking with Grandma.

5.  Make your hikes kid friendly.  I wrote earlier about how you should check goal-oriented thinking at the door when hiking with kids.  This does not mean, however, that you can’t choose where you are going based on what it offers your children.  Eli loves the water, so we frequently include some time to play in water as part of our hiking trips.  This offers several advantages; first, it’s a fun experience that can be looked forward to and adds a great deal to the hiking trip.  Second, it allows us to stop walking, drop our packs, and create a place we can use as a “base camp” as we play in the water and explore the surrounding area.  Finally, it also gives us a chance to wash any poison ivy oils off which we may have gotten involved in.

In colder weather, my dad used to include a stop for hot chocolate at some point in the hike.  We would stop, make a “base,” my dad would boil water on a camp stove, and we’d drink instant hot chocolate.  This served the same purposes as swimming.  Additionally, on cold days it allowed us to hydrate and consume some calories, both of which are helped keep us warm.

Other ideas include taking some snacks along, stopping for a picnic at some point, or (if the area allows it) making a campfire and roasting marshmallows.

Ready with his backpack!

Ready with his backpack!

6.  Give them ownership and responsibilities.  Allowing little hikers some responsibility, and some ownership of the experience, is important.  It makes kids really buy in to the experience.  As a young child, my dad made me my own backpack so that I could carry my own equipment.  We gave Eli his own backpack when he started walking.  We also let Eli carry his own water bottle (a fairly small one) and his own flashlight.  Not only does the water bottle encourage hydration (very important) and the flashlight make the dark woods a lot less scary (also important), but they give him some responsibility and make him feel like he is an important parts of the hike rather than just along for the ride.  I also like giving Eli the responsibility of leading the way on the trail.

The Deuter Kid Comfort in action.

The Deuter Kid Comfort in action.

7.  Logistics, logistics, logistics.  The boy scout motto is “Be Prepared.”  I never was a boy scout, but its a motto I resonate with.  Make sure you have enough food/snacks and water for everyone, and make sure you have some extra in the car.  Little hikers get hungry and thirsty, and its important to keep blood sugar up and little bodies hydrated.  Since you’re beyond worrying about kids getting dirty, make sure you have extra clothing and shoes in the car.  Also, make sure you have the right equipment.  If your child is young and you plan to carry them, a good-quality child carrier backpack is a life and back saver.  I recommend the Deuter Kid Comfort, but there are some other excellent ones out there.  Bring a flashlight or a headlamp.  You never know when havoc will intervene, and when/if it does, you don’t want to be benighted without light.  Rain gear for everyone is also important, unless you can say unequivocally that there will be no rain (I’ve never managed that yet).  Research, and become an expert in, layering clothing.  Additionally…

8.  Do your research.  In the age of the Internet, there is no reason to go hiking blind.  Research the area you intend to go hiking in.  What’s the weather supposed to be like this time of year?  How hot or cold will it be?  Where is there gas, food, or other necessary items?  Personally, I prefer books and paper to the internet.  The Falcon Guides are a great series; you can find one about most national parks.  I also like looking at the topo map of the area before I go, just to get an idea of what the lay of the land is.

Have resources, will travel!

Have resources, will travel!

9.  Prepare for the inevitable scrapes, bruises, and cuts.  It will happen.  There is no way it can’t.  We’re talking about kids, remember?  They will fall, they will jump for rocks and miss, they will hit each other with sticks, and they will be stung/bit by insects.  Make sure you’re ready for it.  Buy a small first aid kit, or assemble it yourself.  Make sure you have any necessary prescribed or over-the-counter meds you may need.  Is little Johnny allergic to bee stings?  Then you should take his epi-pen.

Additionally, make sure you have the knowledge and training to use the first aid kit.  A wilderness first aid course is geared for outdoor enthusiasts rather than hard-core medical personnel, lasts two days, and is usually about $150.  I believe everyone that spends time in the outdoors should take one; I took WFA for the first time as an 18-year-old, and the increase in confidence I felt on completing it was significant.  I felt like I could handle almost anything that was thrown at me.

Hiking with mommy!

Hiking with mommy!

10.  Finally, shoes.  Young kids generally don’t need dedicated hiking boots.  For hiking, a good pair of sneakers with a closed toe and heel are sufficient.  Hinge boots really become useful when the amount of weight being carried increases, and additional foot and ankle support become important.  For swimming in non-domesticated water (that is to say, anything that isn’t a swimming pool), I recommend wearing either water shoes or sandals with a heel strap.  In our family, we wear sandals (not flip-flops, as they easily float off) overtime we swim in water other than swimming pools.  This is to protect our feet against sharp rocks, sticks, glass, and fishing hooks which may be lurking at the bottom.

If you have any questions or additions, feel free to let me know.  Good luck, and happy hiking!

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I Just Need a Moment of Your Time

This will be a quick post, little more than a mouthful. I just wanted to bring this YouTube video to your attention. It’s the preview about Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s recent traverse of the Fitz Roy range in Patagonia.

I’m a big fan of everything about this, and I really enjoyed the trailer. You should spend the roughly 7.5 minutes to enjoy this too.

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Urban Hiking Through History

IMG_4990Richmond is one of those cities where you trip over history.  So much has happened here throughout the history of this country.  As an example; six blocks from our house is a city park called Chimborazo.  The park is on the site of the largest hospital for injured soldiers run by the Confederacy during the Civil War.  On the north-west corner of the park is a historical marker which states that an important battle of the French and Indian war occurred less than a quarter-mile away.  Eight blocks to the west is St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” speech.  And directly across the street from the church is another historical marker, which explains that the entire city of Richmond was burned during the War of 1812 by the British.  It’s dizzying.

I have the day off today, and because we’re currently pretty close to broke (it’s the week between paydays, and we’ve just paid all our bills) we decided to find a low-cost (read: free) option for family recreation.  We decided to walk part of the Richmond Slave Trail.

Since I began this post by talking about history, I should probably give some more background.  Richmond was a major slave market during the days of slavery.  Slaves were brought from Africa in ships, and (until 1778, when Virginia banned importation of Africans) were unloaded just down the river from Richmond at Ancarrows Landing.  Even after Virginia no longer allowed importation of slaves, Richmond remained a major center for the exportation of slaves to other points around the US.  Slaves which arrived at Ancarrows Landing were then marched up the river to Richmond, where they were sold at auction.

The Richmond Slave Trail retraces the trail traveled by slaves, and through interpretive markers, educates hikers about the history and horrors of the slave trade.  It’s part memorial, part history education.  I wasn’t able to find an official trail website, but the Richmond regional tourism website has a lot of great information about it here.

Eli is a great hiker, but tends to get tired after a fairly short distance.  Ezra would be riding in a stroller.  We decided that doing the entire trail was probably not a good option, so we opted to do the section of the trail on the south bank of the river.  We parked at a parking lot next to Diversity Park (Hull St. and South 3rd St., if you’re interested), loaded Ezra, a diaper bag, and several Nalgene’s of water into the stroller, and began walking.  The view from the observation platform at Diversity Park is incredible.

It's hard to do the view justice...

It’s hard to do the view justice…

Two of my favorite hiking buddies!

Two of my favorite hiking buddies!

Overlooking Mayo’s Bridge, all of the James and the business district of Richmond is in front of you.  Mayo’s Bridge is another one of those hidden historical gems; its one of the oldest bridges in Richmond.  As Union forces closed in, the Confederate Army torched the city, then retreated to Appomattox (and surrender) across the bridge.  The trail then circles underneath the bridge, and sets off east down the river bank, hugging the floodwall.

Mayo's Bridge...probably not how it looked during the Civil War.

Mayo’s Bridge…probably not how it looked during the Civil War.

He's a big helper, and loves his little brother.

He’s a big helper, and loves his little brother.

After a casual stroll along the floodwall, we walked under the I-95 bridge.  This is Eli’s favorite bridge; he calls it the “AHHHH Bridge,” because he likes the high-pitched whining sound the car’s tires make as they roll over the corrugated cement.  We transitioned from a paved/gravelled side-walk like path to a mulched trail which wound through the trees beside the river.  The trail was ideal for trail running, strolling, or mountain biking.  Pushing a stroller?  Not quite so easy.  Very doable, but not ideal.  The stroller was just a bit wide, so we ended rolling half in the undergrowth on either side of the trail.  Still, we enjoyed the fantastic views of the Tobacco Row area, Church Hill, Chimborazo, and Great Shiplock Park across the river.

Slave Docks trailhead, directly under the I-95 bridge.

Slave Docks trailhead, directly under the I-95 bridge.

Eli the Explorer leads the way!

Eli the Explorer leads the way!

Tobacco Row, the Lucky Strike Building, Church Hill, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

Tobacco Row, the Lucky Strike Building, Church Hill, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

After about 30 minutes of walking, we arrived at Ancarrows Landing.  It’s now a Richmond city park, with benches, fishing tables, and trash cans lining the riverbank.  Someone had also attached a rope swing to a large tree which overhangs the river.  There is a large parking area there, so it appears possible to drive your car in for the day.  The biggest thing that struck me about the park was how badly cared for it was.  There was trash everywhere.  Many of the trash cans were overflowing, and spilling out onto the ground.  Its pretty clear that not much thought is given to maintaining the park, which is unfortunate.  After a few minutes of poking around and exploring while Mel fed Ezra, we began the walk back to the car.

We had a great time, and if you enjoy being outside while learning some history I’d highly recommend you take a day (or a half-day) and do all or part of this trail.  The grade is easy and mostly flat.  It’s about 1.3 miles from the parking lot on Hull St. to Ancarrows, and the trail is well-maintained and good for those who are not hardcore hikers.  A word of advice; if you do this trail, there is a huge amount of poison ivy.  Either learn how to identify it (here’s a resource for you), or commit to not touching anything leafy and green.  Either way, go home and take a cool shower immediately.

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Welcome to the world, Ezra!

baby_cartoon_st8Just over three years ago, I introduced you to my firstborn.  Elijah has since grown into an active, inquisitive three year old.  I also wrote that we were expecting our second this past December.  I was busier this time, and so wasn’t able to blog about the run up quite as much as with Eli.

Two weeks ago, Ezra Matthew Zook was born at 1:34PM, weighing in at 6 lbs 13 oz, and 19 inches long.  Labor proceeded very quickly this time.  Melissa is doing great, and Ezra has quickly made a place for himself in our home.  Eli was initially a bit unsure of how to react.  Since then, he’s become very protective of his little brother, and loves him dearly.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll stop writing and let you see the what you’re actually here for!

Brand new!

Brand new!

Brothers, meeting for the first time!

Brothers, meeting for the first time!

These PJ's are just a bit big...

These PJ’s are just a bit big…

Ready to head home.

Ready to head home.

"I'm talking to the baby..."

“I’m talking to the baby…”

They say he looks like me.

They say he looks like me.


We took him to the river for the first time yesterday; he showed us the true meaning of "relaxed."

We took him to the river for the first time yesterday; he showed us the true meaning of “relaxed.”

Just two brothers, hanging out.

Just two brothers, hanging out.

More to come soon!  We went to a new swimming spot yesterday, and I have some photos to share of that too!

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On the Cyclic Nature of Existance

The title is a fancy way of saying “its funny how life goes in circles…”


Would you let this guy take care of you?

Would you let this guy take care of you?

Three years ago, I started this blog and wrote many posts from the Ski Patrol Aid Room at Massantten.  That’s me, three years ago at about this same time of year, happy in my radio harness, with my trauma shears and radio.  I waxed eloquently about how happy I was to “work a job where I got to choose what clothing I wore based on the weather report,” and also wrote with anticipation of the arrival of a child(who bore the pseudonym of Bean at that point).  I also wrote with excitement about my first set of skis.

Of course, if you’ve followed me you know that Bean turned out to be an Eli, and that the winter in the Aid Room gave way to a move to Richmond, where I traded my skis for an ambulance, and my OEC certification for EMT/Paramedic Student.  Recently I’ve been fairly quiet about everything.  I just haven’t had time to write!  Work life has been crazy; personal life has also been mostly crazy!

For those of you who were following my exploits as a paramedic student, you may be excited to know that as I write this, my certification cards list me as a full state and national registered Paramedic.  I made the grade!  Last monday, I began the final leg of my journey towards becoming a full Richmond Paramedic by starting my preception time, in which my ability as a medic will be evaluated.  After 22 shifts (which should be sometime mid-January), I should be released.

Back in the radio harness, a few years older with a few more pounds (I'm working on it).

Back in the radio harness, a few years older with a few more pounds (I’m working on it).

The title, however, refers to where I’m currently writing this post, and some other developments in my life.  I’m writing, once again, from the Ski Patrol Aid Room at the Massanutten ski slopes.  I again have the old, familiar radio harness attached to my chest and my trusty hiking boots on my feet, and I’m once again caring for those who have found themselves (unfortunately) at the crossroads where gravity, speed, and low-friction surfaces meet.  My skis are leaning against the wall waiting for the end of my shift, when I’ll go out for a turn or two and see if my somewhat older body remembers how to ski (I’ll start slow, I promise).

I’m able to do this because with the paramedic certification came a raise, which allows me to commute to the valley once or twice a week and spend a day among the mountains I love, with people who feel similarly.  I’m not able to be here as often as I’d like, but that’s the price we pay for financial security, medical insurance, a decent car, and the ability to travel a bit.  We’re still living in Richmond, but one improvement at a time.

baby_cartoon_st8The other deja vu has nothing to do with the ski patrol, or with EMS/outdoor medicine whatsoever; those that are friends on Facebook will already know this.  We are once again expecting!  Baby #2 has been given the pseudonym “Noodle,” because once again we are not going to find out whether we are having a boy or a girl.  Noodle will be joining use around June 25, 2015.  So once again, the baby picture icon will be making an appearance on my blog.

We are, of course, a week away from Christmas, and just over two weeks from a new year.  So, if I’m not able to blog between now and then, may you and yours have a beautiful December, a wonderful Christmas, and a New Year filled with adventure!

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A Philosophy of Exploration

River hiking in the middle of the city.

River hiking in the middle of the city.

From where I was stood, balanced on top of a huge pile of dead trees stretching 200 meters down the front of an old damn, I could see no good way forward.  Eli rested his hands on top of my head, and solemnly surveyed the scene from his perch on my shoulders.  We were searching for a new swimming hole, and had spent the past half hour thrashing through weeds, unsuccessfully attempting to avoid the poison ivy lurking in the underbrush, climbing over boulders, and balancing on logs.  We found an old damn which funneled water into a disused/crumbling hydroelectric plant; the original thought was that if we walked out this damn towards the middle of the river, we might find a good spot in front of the damn where the water backed up.  The massive log jam in front of us, the product of decades of floods and storms, proved my intuition was wrong.

It was at that moment that I realized that the word “explore” really just means “to make lots of mistakes.”

I said as much to Eli, who really just wanted to swim.  He informed me we were “esplorering,” so I took that as his blessing to continue.  We backtracked (back down the damn, over the huge logs), then crossed from the damn to an island on a fallen tree.  A short walk and a short wade later, we found a beautiful, isolated gravel bar next to a section of river that was the perfect depth with a sandy bottom, and enough movement in the water to keep it fresh and not stagnant.  We splashed and swam until it was time to head home for dinner.  Eli fell asleep on the way home, which is as good a measure of an expedition’s success as any.

Walking through the old hydroelectric plant, starting the search for a swimming spot.

Walking through the old hydroelectric plant, starting the search for a swimming spot.

Mel and Eli discover a toad!

Mel and Eli discover a toad!

The whole experience caused me to reflect a bit on exploration.  I was only half serious when I said exploration really just means making lots of mistakes, and yet at the same time making mistakes is a huge part of exploration.

In order to make my musings more formal, I looked up the actual meaning of explore in the dictionary.  This is what I found:

EXPLORE:   A transitive verb.

1)  To investigate, study, or analyze.

2)  To become familiar with by testing or experimenting.

3)  To travel over (new territory) for adventure or discovery.

4)  To examine, especially for diagnostic purposes.

-Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Definition #3 is a no-brainer, especially for the purposes of this blog.  But I think I like #2 best; in a nutshell, its exactly what we were doing last night.  We figured there would be a good waterhole somewhere in the area we were exploring, and set off to test our hypothesis.

Failure and mistakes are inherent to the process of exploration.  As famously pointed out by The Princess Bride, “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”  Look at Ernest Shackleton, my favorite explorer.  He lost his ship to the ice, and his crew had to survive on whatever they could until rescued.  Hardly auspicious, yet we view Shackleton as a successful explorer.  Why?  Because of how he responded.

Since making mistakes is an inherent part of exploration, fearing those mistakes shouldn’t hold you back.  Instead, the best explorers focus on responding to mistakes and challenges in positive and well-considered ways.  Back to Shackleton.  After he lost his ship, he undertook a daring voyage in an open boat to an isolated whaling village to get help for his men.  He ended up rescuing all of them.

We’re not all Shackleton, or J. Michael Fay, or David Livingstone, or Ed Viesters.  But we can explore nonetheless.

Because explore is just a big word that means to make lots of mistakes.

And as you explore, don't forget to play in the dirt.  That's important too.

And as you explore, don’t forget to play in the dirt. That’s important too.


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