The tiny footprints followed a tiny stream up a rolling hillside. It was obvious from the tracks that there were frozen waterfalls that had been used as slides. There were giant rocks that had footprints scrambling up the side to where the view of the forest was better before the footprints went bounding up the frozen stream. There is a lot to learn about animals by their tracks, and much to learn from these particular double set of tracks.
One set of tracks was smaller, the other a hair larger. The smaller tracks seemed drawn like a magnet to every rock and waterfall, where they slipped and slid and leapt across every surface. The larger set belonged to a more cautious creature that ran full speed ahead, but didn't leap and bound off the rocks.
I was tracking my feral children, who had been semi-imprisoned in the house by the frigid temperatures and were now running free and wild through the woods on a double digit day.
Above, snow turns the whole world into a magical landscape waiting to be explored. Below left, winter creates the perfect time for kids to explore, since they are covered in a thick protective layer and easy to track. Below right, Audubon’s Snow Camp is a full day of winter fun, exploration and learning in the great white outdoors.
We showed them a frozen stream bed to explore that wouldn't go far or anywhere dangerous and set them free. Going off the trail and into new areas was like opening a whole new world for them.
The trail, which they had been on their whole life, was boring. It had been seen from the baby backpack, explored as a toddler and run down as a preschooler. While new things were always found, the joy of hiking the same trail was limited. The creekbed, however, was a whole new world.
The creek was unknown, and the children adventurers setting off to chart new territories, venture off the map and see what no one else had ever seen before. OK, maybe it wasn't that dramatic, and maybe I had already meandered up that creek, but to the children, it was an untamed wilderness where anything was possible.
They dashed into the opportunity with enthusiasm and a speed unmatched on previous hikes. Though they were never far, they did sometimes get out of sight around the next bend, bramble or fallen tree. The nice thing about winter, according to my wife, is that the kids are so bundled up with snow pants, coats, gloves and hats that they bounce when they fall and never get hurt, like being encased in a giant ball of bubble wrap.
It's true that I would not allow them this freedom in summer. In winter, their trail can always be followed. The leaves are off the trees and let them venture farther without venturing out of sight for long. The snow and the cold actually allow for more freedom than the summer. It's harder to scrape a knee, get poison ivy or get scratched up by wild roses in the winter.
They are protected by their warm bubble of clothes from many of the things that hurt them in the summer. Their tracks always give them away, so they can't get accidentally venture too far without being found. Winter, in short, is a great time to let kids and adults stretch their comfort zone a little and venture into new territories.
That said, I already knew the territory they were venturing into and was pretty sure they weren't going to get into trouble.
The whole process reminded me of a nature hike that someone was described to me as a Muir Trek. In a Muir Trek, the group wanders off into the woods following their whims instead of the trail. If something looks interesting, the group meanders over to see it.
The Muir Trek is named after John Muir, a famous naturalist who helped found the Sierra Club and worked to get Yosemite and other beautiful places a National Park designation. Muir was famous for wandering off into the wilderness of the 1870s. He took President Roosevelt off into the wilds of Yosemite, where they roamed off by themselves and camped in the back country.
He wrote a book entitled "A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf" about his adventures walking from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico.
It is a fun thing to do with kids. Last year, at Audubon's Snow Camp, I accompanied a group of kids from our Summer Day Camp on a mini Muir Trek. We set out shortly after 9 a.m. and ventured into the semi-familiar spruce woods next to the driveway, where we slid on the ice and found signs of squirrel and rabbits and mink.
The group randomly followed the mink tracks across the ice of a small pond and began their trek. It led through new and swampy territories, past curly shaped trees and into fields. While breaking ice on the edge of Big Pond in the winter, they discovered tadpoles in the shallow water below where they were waiting out the winter.
Nature is full of mystery and wonder that isn't always seen right on the trail. Snow Camp is a great time to see that. It only lasts a day, and the kids have a chance to explore outside as well as do tons of fun games, activities and crafts that have to do with winter. It's a day of exploration, laughter, new friendships and learning, all melted together into one that takes place on Feb. 17.
For more information on Snow Camp, go to Audubon's website, jamestownaudubon.org. Jamestown Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, between Jamestown and Warren, Pa. Snow Camp in the winter and Mud Camp in the spring provide a great opportunity for children to get out and explore the world around them.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary.