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Small Comforts

Grace and I love our new Eureka tent!

I’ve been reading “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” by Cheryl Strayed.  A memoir so raw and beautifully written you can feel the mortar of her life crumbling like bricks turning to dust, “Wild” recounts Strayed’s decision to hike 1,100 miles alone from the Mohave Desert north to Washington.

There are many things about the book that are striking: Strayed’s grief over the death of her mother, who died when Strayed was only 22 and her mother 45, the falling away of family, the self destructive acts born of heartbreak.  I admire the grit it took to set one foot in front of another, “Hunching,” as she titled Chapter 3, “in a Remotely Upright Position” under the weight of an extremely heavy backpack.

Many years ago, I climbed Mt. Marcy, the tallest peak in New York State, the trail ending at Lake Tear of the Clouds, source of the Hudson River.  Like Strayed, I carried my gear on my back, though my trek was a lark compared to her journey.  I slept in lean-tos and traveled with companions, “roughing it” for only three days, not three months.  This was 30 years ago, when my internal frame was younger and stronger.  I’m glad that backpacking is part of my history, both in the sense that I’m glad I did it and glad that it’s history. Just reading about the preparations and the load Strayed bore–clothing, dried food, camp stove, sleeping bag, tent, camp chair, cooking pots and utensils, toiletries, books, and water—just the water weighed nearly 25 pounds—made me cringe.  I couldn’t do it.  I can’t imagine wanting to do it—now.

I’m neither proud, nor embarrassed to admit that, at this point in my life, I like a measure of comfort.  I enjoy camping with my daughter, Grace.  I love waking to the cacophonous sound of a hundred birds greeting the morning. I love lying back in the beat-up vinyl lawn chair watching vigilantly for shooting stars.  I love wading in cold mountain streams and racing leaf boats with Grace.  But I do not love sleeping on the hard ground or going long sweaty days without a shower, or having to carry anything weightier than a thermos, an insulated lunch bag and a book.  I like having my car nearby, if only to keep food away from prying raccoons and bears.  And yes, I like being close to a bathroom with electric lights, flush toilets and warm water.

For these reasons, Grace and I tend to camp at state parks, pitching our tent in shady sites that offer nature and privacy, but are never far from basic amenities.  And if there’s a sandy beach with kayak rentals and an ice cream shop nearby, all the better.

Every year, I visit Campmor.com and add to our collection of camping equipment, making our adventures a little easier. Last year, I bought a grill basket so I could cook four hotdogs over the fire at once, instead of one at a time at the end of a stick.  This year, I bought the long-coveted (by both Grace and myself) larger tent and two sturdy cots.  I can stand up in the new tent, meaning I don’t have to lie on a leaking air mattress struggling to get into my jeans.  And the doors—there are two!—are generously wide.  While I still have to stoop to get out, I no longer crawl.  These are accommodations that allow me to focus on time with Grace, rather than my own discomfort.

I want to raise a daughter who is determined and focused and strong. Who will create her own adventures, struggle through her own hardships and emerge wiser.  Who may, one day set off into her own wilderness.  And, as I see her off, I’ll be cheering from the comfort of my camp chair.

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Our Favorite Things: Part I

Joelle, Grace and Daniel at Little Stony Point, Cold Spring

Last weekend, on a breezy, sun-dappled fall afternoon, I met the mother of one of my daughter Grace’s soccer teammates. Elizabeth, her husband and two children had moved to the Rivertowns from New York Cityonly a few weeks earlier and I was happy to tell her about some of Westchester’s great outdoor spaces. After referring her to the Rivertown Kids blog, I realized that she would have to read through several postings to find concrete information about local (and not so local) nature centers, hiking trails, campsites and bike paths. So, Grace and I have compiled a completely subjective list of our favorite things related to outdoor adventure. We’d love to learn about your favorite things, so please comment!

1)   Best Nature Centers: Greenburgh Nature Center, Scarsdale and Beczak Environmental Education Center,Yonkers

Greenburgh Nature Center’s trails and outdoor animals offer the perfect nature outing for children of every age. Even toddlers can manage the gentle slopes and uneven paths and will delight in seeing bald eagles, turkeys, sheep, ducks and prarie dogs in their enclosures. On rainy days, the animal museum in the Manor House is a great place to visit, and perhaps touch, snakes, turtles, a chincilla and ferrets. GNC hosts family events year-round, as well as birthday parties and school break camps.  Grace has attended both the week-long summer camp and a winter break camp and has loved the hands-on activities. But GNC is not just for children. Last winter, with spring still weeks away and longing for a dose of nature, I tramped through the snow, alone in the quiet woods. For more information, visit www.greenburghnaturecenter.org

Located on a semi-industrial street along the Yonkers waterfront, Beczak is an environmental education facility with a focus on the ecosystems that make up the Hudson River and its shoreline. Grace has created small treasures at Beczak’s weekend eco-art actvities, we have kayaked during the summer celebration, and I have enjoyed affordable concerts as part of the Urban H2O series.  Check out Beczak’s River Explorers program for 5-10 year olds, Fish Tales story time for ages 3-5 or Rivertalks, a lecture series for adults. Beczak also hosts birthday parties and summer camps. To find out what’s going on, visit www.beczak.org

2)    Best Place to Wade in the Hudson River: Little Stony Point Park, Cold Spring.

When you still your mind and reach deep for a vision of your most peaceful place, where is it? For me, it’s the memory of floating on my back in the Hudson River at Little Stony Point, the thin branches of shoreline trees reaching toward the water, a clear blue sky overhead and Storm KingMountain rising up on the western bank. Obviously, this was pre-parenthood, but last June, my friend Jackelien, her two kids, Grace and I packed a picnic lunch and headed upstate.

Little Stony Point lies just north of the village of Cold Spring on Route 9D, about 70 minutes north of the Rivertowns.  Park on the left side of the road near the entrance, or across 9D in a small unpaved lot and follow the trail across the railroad bridge and through the woods. Don’t let the word “park” fool you. There is a beach, the river and a couple trash cans, and that’s it. There are “No Swimming” signs, but people do, and there’s no harm (in my mind) in letting the kids wade in the river. Use your own judgment (but keep in mind the river’s current). Even without the wading, Grace and her friends had a wonderful time enhancing a fort other children had created from a bent-over tree. It’s one of the loveliest spots I know on the river; a perfect place for a picnic, at the very least. Be forewarned: Little Stony Point is popular with the locals, so go on a weekday if you can.  For more information, visit www.littlestonypoint.org

3)   Best Place to Walk Across the Hudson River: Walkway Over the Hudson, Poughkeepsie.

Spanning the Hudson just north of the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, Walkway Over the Hudson is one of New York State’s newest public parks. The transformation of a historic railroad bridge into a pedestrian walkway was spearheaded by a grassroots non-profit organization, proving yet again, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, that a small group of thoughtful citizens can indeed change the world. Or at least the way we view it.

Now you can view the Hudson River and its shoreline from 212 feet above the water. If this sounds scary, it’s not. The Walkway is broad, smooth and motionless, with high barriers strong enough to keep everyone safe, but built to allow amazing views. At 1.28 miles each way, it’s just long enough to feel that you’ve exercised, but not too long for a small child. For more information, including parking locations, visit www.walkway.org.

4)    Best Bike Path: The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Popular with joggers, dog walkers and cyclists, the Aqueduct Trail runs for over 26 miles from Van Cortlandt Park at the Yonkers/Bronx border north to the Croton Dam, following the historic aqueduct that once brought water to New York City. The path is ever changing: wide and gravelly, narrow and smooth with packed dirt, pockmarked with small stones and scarred with tree roots. The scenery is often surprising as well: patches of deep woods opening to suburban back yards, grand homes, tennis courts and the parking lots of small towns. On the ride from Dobbs Ferry to Tarrytown alone, you will cross the campus of Mercy College and Main Street in Irvington before arriving at Lyndhurst, a national historic site overlooking the Hudson River.

Earlier this month, village officials and Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct celebrated the completion of a new trail entrance at Cedar Street in Dobbs Ferry. If you’ve ever struggled to carry your bike over the uneven concrete slabs that marked the former entrance, you’ll love the new paved ramp that slopes in a gracious curve to meet the dirt trail.  For more information, visit: www.aqueduct.org

5)    Best Mountain Climb for Children: Sugarloaf  Mountain, Garrison

O.K, so Sugarloaf is really a large hill, but to the 5-10 year old set, it’s a mountain. Grace and I climbed Sugarloaf for the first time two months after she turned five and we’ve done it twice since. The trail ascends gently for most of the hike, though the terrain is rugged in spots and you’ll have to climb over trees felled by recent storms. Toward the summit, the climb is steeper and may involve some scrambling.  When you reach the top, keep walking along the ridge until you see a rocky outcropping that overlooks the Hudson River and the Bear Mountain Bridge. At 890 feet, the view is beautiful, but the scenery is also lovely at lower elevations, where one can gaze across fields of high grasses to West Point looming across the river. The adjacent hill is topped by Osborn Castle, a privately owned fairy tale home.

For directions, visit www.nynjtc.org/hike/east-hudson-highlands-5. The hike up Sugarloaf (one way) takes about 1.5 hours. While light-weight hiking boots are ideal, we find that sturdy sneakers do just fine.

Stay tuned for Part II of Our Favorite Things, where we’ll cover Grace’s and my favorite campground, pick-your-own apple orchard and more.

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