Next Saturday, September 24th is National Public Lands Day.   When I went to the National Public Lands Day website earlier this summer, I fully expected to have a plethora of volunteer opportunities to choose from in Orange County.  The area we live in is filled with environmentally aware, forward-thinking people--when the rest of the state turns red during election season, we are always blue. 
I was surprised to discover that there were no service sites close by.
This day is important to me for several reasons:

  •          Encouraging families to get outside and get active helps fight obesity which is becoming epidemic in the U.S. (1 in 3 children is overweight).
  •          Encouraging families to get outside helps expose children (and adults) to nature and fights “nature deficit disorder” that is so commonplace today given our more urban environment (and time spent playing video games).
  •          Budget cuts both national and local have greatly affected the accessibility and quality of experience at many parks (some have been forced to close), which simply don’t have the resources they once did.  

For those of you not familiar with (NPLD), it was begun in 1994 with 3 sites and 700 volunteers.  It has grown over the years to become the nation's largest hands-on volunteer effort to improve and enhance the public lands Americans enjoy.  Last year, over 170,000 volunteers worked at 2,080 sites in every state across the country.

I think public lands are a wonderful thing, particularly since these days it seems like developers are trying to pave over everything. With so many people living in more urban areas now, public lands are particularly important because sometimes this is the only resource families have for outdoor recreation and to be exposed to nature. According to a recent study in the Journal of Forestry, more than 170 million people visit national forests for recreation each year. 

I watched the fascinating documentary on the creation of national parks by filmmaker Ken burns, last year. Even in the 1800s, people were aware of the need to protect our natural resources, because there are so many people who would care not to. Before regulations were put into place to protect our national lands, their resources were abused--wildlife slaughtered, names carved into rocks, forests razed.  

Budget cuts have greatly affected our national and state parks recently, and some have had to close or reduce their hours of operation. Public support for our parks is still high, however, as evidenced by the recent the  had in obtaining petition signatures from Americans opposing further cuts to the National Park Service budget.

National Public Lands Day is a great way for Americans to show their appreciation for our wonderful public natural resources. 

When I contacted the Orange County Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation to see if they had a NPLD project I could take on, the Land Conservation Manager there identified their new Fairview Park as a site that had service opportunities.
The Fairview community is an historically underserved one and residents of the community have worked for many years to bring the park to fruition.  Although some funding for the project had been secured as far back as 2001, it only opened this past April. The new park is an expansion of an existing playground, which greatly increased its size and amenities offered. Amenities include: a lighted baseball/softball field, lighted basketball courts, hiking trails, horseshoe pits, a picnic shelter, playground, lighted tennis courts, volleyball court and lighted ¼ mile walking track.  The tennis courts are the first public (non school) courts in northern Orange County. 

There are 4 community service projects we will be tackling at the park on the 24th.
One project is planting a couple of trees along a trail leading through the park.  One is picking up litter scattered in the woods between the park and Rainey Avenue.

Another project is clearing sticks and branches along an unfinished section of trail within the park, and spreading mulch on the trail.  Here is the trail.

Here is the mulch pile. ;>)

The final project is actually around the corner from the park.  A group of residents in the Fairview community is working with the NC Cooperative Extension to revitalize a community garden that has been neglected for several years.

The garden itself has been covered in black plastic to kill the weeds and a couple of rows of veggies were planted over the summer.

Our project will include clearing brush from around the garden fence and tacking the fence back up in various places.

Please join me at Fairview Park next Saturday.  Wear your long pants, bring your favorite work gloves and your picnic lunch!
After our NPLD service projects we will have a kids' play date for NC Play Daze.
NC Play Daze is a weekend-long initiative by the NC Early Childhood Active Play Alliance and Be Active Kids, encouraging people to organize a play event in recognition of the importance of play to children’s social and physical well-being.  We will have games for the kids, and basketballs and other sporting equipment will be available for use, too.
Here is the schedule:

Registration - 8:30
Community Service Projects - 9-11
Bring your Picnic Lunch - 11:30-12:30
NC Play Daze - 12:30-2:30

Here is the address:  , Hillsborough, NC

Thanks to all our project partners:

Orange County Dept. of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation

Play Every Day –inspiring active family lifestyles
NC Big Sweep
Be Active NC/Be Active Kids                                                   
Carolina Environmental Student Alliance 
Cub Scout Troop 880 from Chapel Hill
Triangle Sportsplex
Sports Endeavors
NC Cooperative Extension 
Community Nutrition Partnership
Sierra Club of Orange/Chatham County
Walkable Hillsborough Coalition
Eno River Association

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market

Salt Palace Convention Center image credit  Anne Clark

I spent last weekend looking at acres of brightly colored tradeshow booths at the Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City.  I have never seen so many outdoor products in one place in my life—proof that active family lifestyles are alive and well, despite US obesity statistics.  Indeed, according to the , “Fitness activities continue to increase in popularity, with walking, lifting weights, and running leading the way.”  I saw many new products that make it easier for families to be active, but I just want to mention a few.

ORShow 2011 image credit  Anne Clark

I don’t know about you, but nothing spoils my enjoyment of the great outdoors faster than a mosquito bite.  Mosquitoes love me—if there is one within a mile, she will find me and feast. (yes, it is the female mosquito who is the bloodthirsty one.  Male mosquitoes don’t feed on humans.  Hah!) 

image credit shoo!TAG

One product I saw has the potential to make all your outdoor adventures blissfully bite-free (or almost).  At first glance, the appears to be a credit card-like plastic square.  On the back are 2 magnetic strips, just like the back of a credit card.  This is how the product works:  the magnetic strips are encoded with a “frequency” that repels mosquitoes.  When worn on your body, the magnetic strip reacts with your personal energy field which amplifies the frequency and works to keep the bloodsuckers away.  No sticky sprays, no stinky chemicals.  All you have to do is keep one of the tags close to your body. 

There are a couple of caveats, though.  According to the sales rep I spoke with, it is only effective on about 80% of the population.  It takes at least 24 hours to begin working, and must stay in contact with your body most of the time for it to work.  I had a hard time envisioning this until the sales rep told me he puts one under his fitted sheet at night beneath the spot where he sleeps, and slips one in his pocket in the morning.  Each shoo!TAG retails for around $20 and lasts up to 4 months—perfect for the summer.

image credit  The Piggyback Rider

Another ingenious new product I noticed was .  Part backpack and part child carrier, it is the perfect option for those active families who have children who no longer want to ride in a stroller but still tire of walking. 

The Piggyback Rider straps over your shoulders like a backpack and has a metal bar that hangs horizontally at about waist level.  Once you have put on the carrier, your child climbs on your back, and is strapped into the Piggyback Rider.  He/she stands on the metal bar, and off you go!  He/she feels like the king of the hill, riding high above the ground, while you are able to walk normally, with no little fists clenched in a death grip around your neck.

The Piggyback Rider collapses into its own bag, and has other features such as a carry strap and waterbottle holder.  It retails for around $80.

is an awesome new free app for Iphone or Ipad that lets you find parks and public lands near you.  It is searchable by zipcode, by type of activity you’d like to do, or by park name.  Each listed park has a wealth of information including a description, map, directions, list of available activities and information about each activity, phone number, website, and list of events. 

For those without an Iphone, the OhRanger! website contains the same information, including a forum where you can have your burning questions about parks and public lands answered by an expert.

What are some favorite products that make it easier for YOUR family to be active?

Stay active…and play every day!

Aquarium Adventures

image credit  Anne Clark
There is a Styrofoam container of redworms sitting on my kitchen counter. The last time I remember having redworms I was 12 years old and fishing at the small lake down the street from my house. My mother could always tell when I caught all the fish because my little brother would come back home crying.

Now, I go into the Rod n’ Reel and the guys look at me like I’m lost or something. “Help you?” they ask, in a ‘isn’t she cute’ kind of way. I ignore them and head to the cooler in the back.

Recently, my active family put an aquarium in our dining room. My husband filled it with saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean, and we planned to stock it with things we caught ourselves in our cast nets. It was my husband’s idea, which I pooh-poohed at the time, remembering the African pygmy frogs that were ignored by my children practically as soon as I brought them home from the store. Now, I have found myself with nose pressed to aquarium glass more times than I’d care to admit.

Low tide is key. We always catch more at low tide. With my first throw, I brought in a couple of good-sized shrimp and a pinfish, which went into the bucket. My son caught some silver minnows of indeterminate type. A tiny flounder also fell from my net. Next we brought in a couple of starfish, a lizardfish, and a grunt.

I knew what I wanted for that aquarium, though. A puffer. No matter that we had never caught one; had only seen them in passing—swimming near the marshgrass at the shoreline once or washed up occasionally on the beach. I wanted a finding nemo-cartoonish, prickly balloon of a puffer fish.

I walked to the end of the dock and threw my net again. As my grandfather would have said, I must have been holding my mouth right. As I pulled it in, I saw a small, round, tan object caught in the lines. “I…….caught…… a…….PUFFER!” I screamed, as I ran for the bucket, letting my prize fall from the net. Down into the water bobbed a very angry little fish, who was so swollen with water, he rolled in circles instead of swimming until he could spit it all out again.

image credit  Anne Clark
Over the weeks we have caught a plethora of marine life to add to the aquarium. Some, like the eel, went in and came out almost as quickly. I wasn’t taking any chances with my puffer—the eel’s mouth looked a little too big. Others, like the feathery spadefish and the striped sheepshead were allowed to stay.

I feel like a new mother again—feeding my baby puffer—it’s a wonder I’m not getting up at 2am for a night feeding. Did you know that redworms still wiggle even after they have been hacked into little pieces? We also catch little periwinkle snails that he crunches up with his strong jaws, a puff of shell detritus falling from his mouth as he chews.

And the shrimp. We realized we might have a problem returning him to the wild when he started swimming to the top of the tank and waiting for us to drop in live baby shrimp for him. It was only a day or so before he was taking the shrimp from our fingers, when we dangled it in the water. Now, the puffer, technically a , heads for the surface as soon as he sees us.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of opportunities for a family to be active when keeping a home-grown aquarium.

There is the catching of the specimens. So far in our tank we have had, in no particular order: pinfish, spadefish, triggerfish, spider crabs, flounder, eel, lizardfish, African pompano, a garfish (which got wrapped around the impeller of the aerator), hermit crabs, blue crabs, 2 kinds of snails, mullet, killifish, sheepshead, glass minnows, sea anemone, sand fleas, shrimp, grunt, 2 live sand dollars, 2 starfish (which made it a couple of weeks until, alas, the fish discovered they were good eatin’ and tore them limb from limb), other indeterminate minnows, and of course, the striped burrfish.

There is the catching of the food. In addition to the baby shrimp, which we catch with a small-holed long-handled net, and the snails, which we pluck from the marsh grasses at low tide, we have added small sacrificial minnows to the tank, also caught by net, which tend to disappear overnight. We also purchase the aforementioned redworms, dried brine shrimp, and tropical fish flakes to round out our guests’ diets. We feed them several times a day.

There are the many opportunities for observation and comment that the aquarium affords. Who knew, for example, that our 2 large shrimp would be so aggressive? Whenever a hermit crab manages to find a piece of redworm that the puffer hasn’t devoured, the shrimp attack it, waving their many legs wildly, and snatch the worm away from the crab. They also bury themselves in the sand for long periods of time, obviously emerging only to assault the hapless crabs.

Setting up the tank was easy. We bought a 30 gallon aquarium kit that contained everything we needed—aerator, filter, net, light. We added about an inch or two of beach sand on the bottom, filled the tank with seawater, and within 15 minutes had added our sea creatures. Caring for the tank requires rinsing the filter every few days (probably because we overfeed our fish), and changing it every 2 weeks. We also wipe down the inside of the tank walls every week or so with a sponge brush when green algae starts to grow (again, probably because we overfeed the fish, but it’s so much fun!)

If you don’t live at the beach, this idea could be adapted for dry land as well. Why not set up a terrarium in your house with creatures you have caught in your backyard? I bet your children would just love to handfeed a lizard!

Just keep swimming…and play every day!

Beach Fun: Capturing Crustaceans

image credit  Anne Clark

Thud-thud-thud.  The dock shakes with the pounding of little feet and the air reverberates with the delighted squeals of little voices.  That can only mean one thing…it’s Crabbin’ Time.

If your active family is taking a beach vacation this summer, one fun family activity you shouldn’t miss doing is catching crabs with your kids.  I don’t know why children are so fascinated by creatures, but my kids can spend hours terrorizing helpless minnows in the tide pools by the ocean.  Crabs are even more fascinating for them—maybe because they fight back.  Catching crabs is easy, requires little in the way of equipment, and is guaranteed fun.

Crabbin’ is best done toward or after low tide in the ICW (intracoastal waterway), preferably in the morning or late afternoon—not during the heat of the day.  If you don’t have access to a private dock, most beaches have public accesses to the ICW.  The only equipment you need is a crab line or 2 (sold at any local beach or fishing store), a fairly large net, preferably with a long handle, a bucket, and (here’s the yucky part) chicken necks (yes, chickens have necks, and fairly long ones, too, as you will see when you buy them.)  You can find chicken necks at the beach or fishing store, as well, since crab catching is the only thing I can imagine people use them for.

Catching crabs requires a fairly complicated technique that will take some time for novices to grasp.  First, you tie the free end of the crab line to the dock, or to your wrist if you are on the shore.  Next, you slide the pin of the crab line through the center of the chicken neck.  Then you throw the chicken neck into the water and wait for the crabs to show up.

image credit  Anne Clark

You usually don’t have to wait long.  Crabs have chemoreceptors on their antennas, and can “smell” the food in the water.  Check the crab line every few minutes by gently pulling on it to see if it feels heavy.  When you’ve got one, just pull the line in slowly until you have the crab in sight.  Then slowly slip the net in behind him and scoop him up.  After you’ve captured the unlucky crustacean, anything can happen.  Toddlers manning the net usually inadvertently free the angry crab, and chaos ensues.  Mad crab clacking claws, children screeching and dancing around…you get the idea.

If the crab doesn’t make it into the bucket, and you want to pick the crab up, always come in from behind to grab it.  The crab’s anatomy is such that it can’t reach you if you are holding it near its back legs.  Most of the crabs we catch on the North Carolina coast are blue crabs, but we recently also caught a stone crab and some spider crabs.  Our crabbin’ outings are strictly catch and release—blue crabs are tasty to eat, but there’s a reason a pound of crabmeat costs so much!  The amount of meat you get from one crab makes it prohibitively time-consuming to catch enough for a meal.  Better to let the crabs live to entertain your children on another day.  If you do plan to keep the crabs you catch, check your state crabbing regulations first to see how many you can keep.

Fun Blue Crab Facts
  • Blue crab, or  Callinectes sapidus, means calli (beautiful), nectes (swimmer), sapidus (savory)—beautiful swimmer that tastes good!
  • The blue crab isn’t really blue—it is green.  It gets its name from the color of the male’s claws, which are blue in color.
  • You can tell the difference between a male and female by looking at their abdomen.  The females have a wider and more rounded apron section on their abdomen, while the males’ is long and slender.
  • Most people think of crabs scuttling around in the mud, but did you know that blue crabs swim?  They have 2 paddle claws in the back that they use to swim through the water.

Some moreabout blue crabs from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

How to Put a Crab to Sleep
Want to amaze your children and make them think you are a crab whisperer?  Here’s how to put a crab to sleep!
  • First, catch one of the crabs using the aforementioned, grab-em-from-behind technique.
  • Next, flip the crab over belly-up onto the dock.  
  • Start stroking the crab on its abdomen.  After about 30 seconds or so, the crab will be asleep.

Happy crabbin’…and play every day!

image credit:  Anne Clark

I am kneeling on my board, pushing through 10 inches of murky water.  It is low tide, and the smell of pluff mud is strong back here on this branch of the Shallotte River.  As I propel myself along, shrimp dance all around me, flinging themselves out of the shallow waters, onto my board, the backs of my legs, stinging me as their tiny claws prick my skin.  To my left, a sudden shlooshing sound and muddy swirl tell me I have disturbed a big redfish waiting for his supper.  As the water gets deeper, I am able to stand on my board and start paddling.

I first remember seeing someone on a stand up paddleboard at our beach about 6 or 8 years ago, and wondering why someone would stand on their surfboard and paddle around.  Since then, our active family has become SUP enthusiasts.

Stand up paddleboards or SUPs as they are known, look similar to, and are like traditional surfboards.  They differ from surfboards in their size, being wider and thicker, and usually longer than surfboards, although some of the boards used for paddle surfing are so small it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.  Except for the paddle, of course.

SUP originated in Hawaii, and has since become popularized by Laird Hamilton, among others, who uses it as an alternative to surfing for exercise.  Paddling is a great way to stay fit.  Unlike surfing, where some of your time is spent waiting for the next wave, when paddle surfing or paddling on flat water, you are always moving and engaging many different muscle groups as you paddle and balance on the board.   Also, unlike surfing, you don’t have to wait for waves to SUP.  Although many people paddle surf, SUP is just as much fun on flat water.

image credit:  Anne Clark
Family Fun
Yesterday morning, the tide was up in the creeks and marsh behind our house, and the wind was low.  I came back from my run to see my husband and my 8 and 10-year-old kids out paddling, each on their own paddleboards.   We also go out as a family with my husband and I each paddling and a child sitting cross-legged on the front of our board.  The extra 60+ pounds makes for an even better workout!

Standing up on a board is much more interesting than sitting in a kayak, for example, because you are higher above the water and can see the marine life swimming below.   We have seen many different fish, sea turtles, skates, and porpoises, all while paddling. Paddling at the beach can be a little tricky, sometimes.  Wind and tide are not always your friends.  But you can SUP on lakes and rivers, as well as the ocean, something you could never do with a surfboard.

How to Choose a Board
The different features of paddleboards such as size of the rails, how flat the hull is, whether the nose is rounded or more pointed, and how many fins it has, all contribute to what the board is best used for—surfing, racing, flat-water paddling.   and is some technical information about board shape and from SUP Surfing Magazine, for those so minded.

I spent a lot of time researching different boards because I wanted to make sure that I chose one I would be happy with.  When we went to purchase one, however, we discovered we were limited to the few brands we could find in our area, not wanting to buy one sight unseen.  We did demo the boards we bought, but even doing that is not very helpful unless you have been on a SUP before.  The most useful thing you can do is to let your salesperson at the surfshop know what type of water you’ll be on the most, so that they can steer you toward the proper board.  I knew that I wanted to spend most of my time on flat water—cruising the ICW (intracoastal waterway), and taking it out into the ocean on calm days.  I also got a board that was built for speed—so I don’t have any trouble keeping up with my husband.  My board is a 12’ Naish , and my husband has an 11’6” Naish , which is a hybrid flat-water/small waves board.  We also have a smaller  for paddlesurfing.

How to Choose a Paddle
Not only do you have a big decision to make about the board, you have to choose a paddle as well.  There are many different paddles out there, and they can be darned expensive.  We decided, though, that for us, the paddle was actually the most important piece of equipment, since you will be doing a lot of strokes.  We wanted ones that were as lightweight and easy to use as possible.  We went with the brand carbon fiber paddle, and have been super happy with them.  They make a women’s version that is even lighter weight and with a smaller diameter shaft than the men’s.

SUP has enjoyed a surge in popularity over the last few years—REI even carries them now—and for good reason.  It is a sport that is great for active families—like yours!  Have you ever tried SUP?  What did you think?  I"d love to hear from you!

Here are a couple of links to some online SUP info and to the blog of one of our local SUPers:

Paddle hard…and play every day!

It is evening, and my husband stands in the tidal creek in his waders.  The net he throws arcs out again and again in a silvery circle as he catches shrimp so we can go fishing.  Speckled seatrout love live shrimp.

One of the things my active family and I love to do here at the beach is to catch sea creatures on our neighborhood’s dock on the intracoastal waterway.  My son is a master at swishing a long-handled net into the water and scooping up minnows, but my arms just don’t move that quickly.  Instead, I rely on my 4-foot cast net.

For those of you not familiar with a cast net, it is a circular net with weights along the outside perimeter, and fishing line strands bisecting it at intervals and gathering up through a hole in the net’s center.  There is a long nylon rope attached to the gathered center strands, with a loop on the other end.

We have caught all manner of wonderful things in our cast net.  It is almost like Christmas each time I throw the net, because we never know what we might see.  Our children love chasing the flapping minnows or tormenting the blue crabs that are unlucky enough to fall from the bottom of the net when it is released on the dock.  I have caught an African pompano, which I mistook for a shiny jingle shell, it was so flat.  Last week, my husband caught a large spadefish in his net.  They are the white and black striped fish that look like Gill, from Finding Nemo.  Yesterday, I caught a 12-inch flounder.

Asking someone how to throw a cast net is like anything else --everyone has a different way to throw it, and everyone’s own way is the right way.  Here’s how I throw it.  I also found a Youtube illustrating my method—it’s very short!  This is the technical part, so feel free to skip it and just watch the video if you are not of that mindset.

To throw the net, you form a slipknot through the rope’s loop, put the wrist of your throwing arm through it, and coil the rope into that same hand.  Then you lift the center of the net in your other hand and let it fall like the folds of a dress.  Because the 4-foot net is long for me to throw, I fold over the top third of the gathered net, and grab that fold in my throwing hand.  Then you reach down with your other hand and grab the edge of the net, lifting it up and draping the edge over the outstretched thumb of your throwing hand.  Reach down and grab the edge of the net again, keeping that edge in your non-throwing hand, and flip the part of the net between your thumb and the edge in your non-throwing hand backward so the weights on the edge are facing you.  Whew!  Are you still with me? 
Now you’re ready to throw.  Standing on the edge of the dock facing the water, you will rotate your hips around to the same side as your throwing arm, then quickly rotate back forward, bringing your throwing arm back and forward as you do so, and releasing the net from both hands at the same time.  The twisting motion of your body and arm causes the net to spin and land in a circle on the water.

It only takes a few seconds for it to sink to the bottom, then you pull it in rather rapidly, coiling the rope in your throwing hand as you go.  As you pull it in, the weights on the perimeter of the net are drawn up by the fishing line running through the net’s center, trapping your ocean bounty in the net.

If you don’t give a good throw the first time, don’t worry.  You’ll have another opportunity to try for that perfect arcing circle in less than a minute.  Almost instant gratification.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has a great saltwater fish identification guide , so you can identify the fish you collect.

Happy throwing…and play every day!

To celebrate the 4th of July, I’m sharing my family’s favorite ice cream recipe.  If you have an active family like I do, spending a lot of time preparing meals is not always something you can do. 

Ice cream is a favorite treat in our family, but many ice cream recipes call for cooking the custard and then letting it cool.  Who has time for that?

I adapted this recipe many years ago from one I think I found on the Internet—and I have probably made it a hundred times.  It is the best vanilla ice cream I have ever had—it’s creamy and tastes like the cooked custard kind, even though it takes only a couple of minutes to mix the ingredients before freezing.
I also add different ingredients to it when I want to make something other than vanilla—peaches or strawberries, or crushed Oreo cookies are particularly yummy.  Just use your imagination and add the extra ingredients toward the end of the freezing period.

The Best Ice Cream
1 can sweetened condensed milk (I use fat-free)
1 pint of heavy cream
½ cup of whole milk
1 Tablespoon of vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon of salt

Mix all ingredients together then freeze in ice cream freezer.  We have the kind of ice cream maker where you store the bowl in the freezer so that we can pull it out at a moment’s notice whenever the need for ice cream hits us.  Enjoy!

Happy July 4th…and play every day!