Friday, January 31, 2014

Green spaces deliver lasting mental health benefits

New research from the University of Exeter Medical School demonstrates that green spaces can provide long term mental health benefits to communities.

"Green space in towns and cities could lead to significant and sustained improvements in mental health, finds a new study published in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology.  Analyzing data that followed people over a five year period, the research has found that moving to a greener area not only improves people’s mental health, but that the effect continues long after they have moved.  The findings add to evidence that suggests increasing green spaces in cities - such as parks and gardens - could deliver substantial benefits to public health."

Read more HERE.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 15 — Chief Lake to Edison Lake

We crested Silver Pass in the morning, travelling through a landscape of alpine meadows and glacial lakes.  Marmots scurried on the rocky slopes and we spotted gray-crowned rosy-finches and mountain bluebirds.

As we dropped out of the high country, we entered a canyon, its furrowed cliff walls giving the land a wild, raw feeling.  The trail was tough, cluttered with large rocks to step over and down, and even though I was glad to be descending it was hard on the legs.  The trail followed Silver Pass Creek, which rollicked beside us, and I was jealous of its never-ending liveliness—it’s ability to dance, drop and dash without ever giving out, on and on and on like some puckish mountain sprite.

By late morning we’d entered a riparian forest, lush with willows, wildflowers and aspen trees.  We spotted several deer and paused to watch them, the air rich with the smells of living things and alive with a chorus of birds, whispering leaves and the chanting stream.

“It would be fun to be a chipmunk,” Noah said, as he watched one of the furry critters scurry beside the trail.  “You could just live out here and be all cozy.”

We were tired by the time we reached the turnoff to Lake Edison, but according to our map we only had another mile and a half until we reached a ferry landing, where we would catch a boat to Vermillion Valley Resort.  Unfortunately, when we reached the ferry landing, there was no lake is sight.  Instead there was a dusty, barren expanse of sand and sun-bleached stumps stretching on and on in front of us.  There was a note explaining that water levels in the lake were low due to on-going drought conditions and we’d have to hike a couple more miles to reach a temporary landing where the staff of Vermillion Valley Resort would pick us up and shuttle us across.

We were hot, tired and thirsty, having drank the last of our water, and the sun baked down on the parched lake bottom.  But we pushed on, the boys dragging their feet across the sand.  When we finally reached the lake shore we found a small American flag staked into the ground and assumed that marked the boat landing.  The water was choked red with sediment, but I dug out our water filter and used it to start filling a bottle.  The pump became harder to work as the bottle filled, the filter clogging with grit, but we needed to drink so I kept on.  Finally I topped the bottle off and handed it to Kai.  He chugged several gulps, gasped for air and then chugged again before handing the water to Noah who did the same.

About an hour later a small, aluminum boat with an outboard motor arrived and we piled ourselves and our gear into it and shoved off.  The lake’s surface was choppy with wind, and water splashed us as we cut through waves.  The spray felt cold and refreshing, and we put our hands out and let water run through our fingers as we went.  When we reached the far shore we piled into a dusty, dented van and drove the last few miles across the empty lakebed to Vermillion Valley Resort.

We rented a room, which felt huge compared to our tent, and I flopped down on each of the three beds just to feel their softness.  We took turns luxuriating under a hot shower, rinsing the lakebed dust and a few additional layers of grime from our bodies.  Then we put on our least dirty clothes and settled into a booth at the small diner.  Kai and I ordered chicken curry, Noah ate a grilled cheese sandwich, and Pam scarfed down a couple fish tacos.  The boys each drank two cold bottles of root beer and Pam and I chugged a couple Stone IPAs each.  We topped it all off with huge servings of berry cobbler and vanilla ice cream and went to bed smiling.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer

Friday, January 17, 2014

Forward to Nature

I enjoyed this recent article by Richard Louv – Forward to Nature: Why a Walk in the Woods Could Calm ADHD, Make Your Family Happier and Deliver Your Kid to Harvard.

Do you have thoughts regarding things we can do to help the kids we love spent more free time playing outdoors?  If so, please share your thoughts in the comment section.  We'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 14 — Purple Lake to Chief Lake

We lingered at camp until late morning, letting the boys play along Purple Creek near the lake’s outlet.  Our campsite was shaded by pines, only mottled bits of sunlight piercing through, and Pam and I moved lazily like cats to stay in their warmth as we drank coffee.

After breaking camp we climbed gently southeast until stopping for lunch beside Virginia Lake.  The calm water matched the bluebird sky, and magpies and nutcrackers flew between the scattered trees.  Except for the singing of birds, the world was silent, the sun soaking into our tired muscles as we sat back against rocks and ate a skimpy lunch of nuts and dried fruit.  As always, we stopped long before we were full, and I kicked myself for not packing more food.

Throughout the afternoon the boys pretended to be part of a cowboy posse as they hiked.  They named themselves Angus Cedar and Jim McThompson and talked in accents as they searched the countryside for a band of escaped outlaws they intended to bring to justice.  This was actually a fantasy they’d started nearly a year earlier during a camping trip in the Laguna Mountains near our home in San Diego, and they’d revisited it often, delving deeper into their characters and the stories behind them.  Throughout our time on the John Muir Trail they would slip into this gritty adventure in their minds, sometimes switching to become two of the outlaws, Samuel McCain and Farley McDowell.

It had become clear to me over the past couple weeks that Noah and Kai spent a lot more time using their imaginations out in the wilderness than they did at home, delving deeper into characters and storylines, sticking with each imaginary game for longer periods of time.  Most days they would pick something, usually cowboys or buttcrack monsters, and they would stick with it for hours as they walked.  They got along better in the wilderness too.  At home, while it was always clear they loved each other, they often bickered and argued to the point where Pam and I wanted to pull our hair out.  But on the trail, they’d somehow reached a partnership, not so worried about vying for control, using their imaginations cooperatively to lift their spirits, turning the drudgery of endless hiking into a game.  Don’t get me wrong, there were still some arguments, but their relationship was smoother on the trail.

Shortly after lunch we dropped more than a thousand feet, switchbacking down a steep slope into Tulley Hole, where Fish Creek spilled out of the high mountains to meander gently across a picturesque pocket of alpine meadow.  Rugged peaks ringed the world around us, like some insurmountable fortress flanked with granite and scraps of ice.

We skirted the meadow and followed Fish Creek for a while as it ran into a lush canyon, turning lively and playful as it ran across sheets of granite, tumbled through rapids and spilled over falls.  A rainbow of wildflowers carpeted the valley floor—scarlet monkeyflower, bluebells, yellow buttercups—and the air smelled fresh and alive.

Eventually we crossed the stream and climbed steeply towards Silver Pass.  Near timberline we reached Squaw Lake, where we sat for a short time on sheets of smooth granite, the rock polished long ago by glaciers so large they were difficult for me to imagine.  The lake sat peacefully in a glacial cirque, rimmed by white granite peaks.  It was as picturesque a place as you could imagine, and I was tempted to make camp for the night, but I knew we needed to push on at least a little if we had any hope of making it to Lake Edison and Vermillion Valley Resort the next day.  Salty bags of chips and cold bottles of beer waited there for us…

We climbed about a mile further and camped on a rugged patch of alpine tundra, just shy of Silver Pass.  We cooked and ate beside a small pond as the sun set, mountain peaks in all directions coming to life with the sun’s last bits of pink and orange.  Afterwards, the boys and I walked a short distance to Chief Lake and stood quietly on the shore watching fish come to the surface and cast ripples across the reflected mountains.  Then we strolled to the lake’s outlet and hopped from rock to rock down the spritely creek, squatting here and there to watch fish in the still pools until it grew too dark to see much.  Then we turned on our headlamps and walked slowly back to camp as the first stars emerged.

“This is cool being up here above the trees at night,” Kai said.  “Way up in these mountains.”

I nodded and took a good look around.  “It sure is.”

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.” 
– Michael Chabon

Friday, January 10, 2014

Teaching Kids to Paddle Board

I enjoyed these pictures of kids learning to paddle board at Freedom Riding in Costa Rica, and I wanted to share them with you.  I love seeing these kids outside, having new experiences and smiling!  See the entire post HERE.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 13 — Deer Creek to Purple Lake

As I cooked breakfast the boys made up songs and sang them at the top of their lungs, banging on bear canisters for drums and dancing on top of a large, rounded boulder.  We spent the morning climbing steadily southeast, peaks of the Mammoth Crest to the north, the land south of us dropping more than a thousand feet into the Cascade Valley.

In the early afternoon we stopped beside a playful creek, which ran down the rocky mountainside from Duck Lake.  Pam’s feet had gotten steadily worse, and she doctored several painful-looking blisters while I filtered water and the boys built stone bridges for ants to use if they wanted to cross the stream.  We lingered for a while, letting our feet enjoy a moment of freedom from their boots and watching birds that flitted around the stream.

When we finally pushed on, the trail led us up a steep slope before we finally crested a ridge and dropped a couple miles to Purple Lake.  All in all we’d hiked eight miles, and the boys had been strong.  Purple lake was picturesque, surrounded by steep, forested slopes and sheer cliffs except at its outlet.

After dinner as dusk set in the boys and I walked quietly down to stand beside the lake.  Dozens of fish jumped to catch insects, gently disturbing the water’s looking glass surface, which reflected the peaks all around, their faces of stone turning purple and mellow as the sky darkened.  After a while we spotted a bat, darting low across the lake to catch bugs, and as night drew closer more bats emerged, until they darted all around, sometimes flying within several feet of us.

The bats and the stillness of the lake electrified Noah and Kai.  They were quiet and watchful, whispering excitedly to each other whenever a bat drew close.  We stood there until it was too dark to see, watching the world do what it has done for thousands of summer nights at Purple Lake.

“I really love this,” Noah said at one point.

“Yeah, I’m really getting into this,” Kai echoed.

And I smiled.

In the tent that night, after we’d read about Bilbo and the dwarves making their way towards Smaug the dragon, I reminded the boys of a Ken Burns documentary we’d all watched about Lewis and Clark.  I’d been thinking about our conversation the day before, about whether or not we’d continue past Lake Edison.  “Do you remember how in their journals Lewis and Clark often talked about how hard things were, all the struggles and how they missed home.  But in the end, it was the greatest adventure of their lives, right?  They had all these great memories and experiences, and they could be really proud.”

The boys nodded.

“I think maybe this trip is kind of like that for you.  It’s hard, but I think sometimes when we really push ourselves past what’s comfortable, that’s when we have a chance of making the best memories of our lives.”

They didn’t say much, but I left it at that.  I didn’t want to push, but I hoped it was a message they would walk away from this summer really understanding—that they could grind through difficult things, and often if they did they would come out on the other end with good feelings, lasting memories and a true sense of achievement.  It’s a lesson I hoped would carry over someday into their adult adventures, careers and relationships.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Monday Meditation

“The notion that we can stand apart from all things, infer the existence and true properties of all things, and solve the dire problems we have created for ourselves, with reason alone, is what I would call rationalist woowoo.” 
– David James Duncan

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 12 — Reds Meadow to Deer Creek

Our campsite at Red’s Meadow was located about half a mile from the Mule House CafĂ©, and when I woke my mind was already preoccupied with eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and coffee.  We packed our gear in the cool morning air then set out on a narrow trail that wound to the restaurant through a grove of aspen trees.  A soft breeze played against the dangling leaves, causing them to rustle and whisper with a familiar voice that stopped me in my tracks.  I knew that voice.  It was like receiving an unexpected call from an old friend and mentor whom I hadn’t spoken with in too many years.

As a child, I lived for several years on five semi-rural acres in Colorado’s Rampart Range.  Behind our lot the Pike National Forest seemed to stretch endlessly, its ponderosa pine forests freckled everywhere by the most wonderful aspen groves.  I spent hours amongst those trees, climbing their branches, daydreaming in their shade and sharing timeless afternoons with friends.

Now, as I stood beneath those whispering trees in Red’s Meadow I looked up through the leaves and let their voices carry me back.  The leaves of those trees were paper-thin and fragile-looking; the breeze was gentle, but together they stirred feelings and memories so powerfully inside me.

“Do you hear that?” I asked the boys.

They stopped and looked up.

“That’s the sound of my childhood,” I said.  “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

They nodded politely and went on, and as I watched them go I wondered what the sounds of their childhood would be.  What unexpected whisperings would someday freeze them, take them back to summer afternoons that seemed to last ages, remind them of their inherent innocence, their essence, their beginnings?

I had a momentary fear that maybe the life I had provided them wouldn’t have any such whisperings.  They’d lived the bulk of their childhoods in a large Southern California city.  Their homes had always been situated on small lots, fenced from the neighbors.  What if they never found their own version of my aspen trees, some graceful and powerful symbol of their place in the world, some part of nature that rooted them, connected them to everything larger than themselves?

But then I smiled.  Their childhoods had been full of beauty too—oases in the desert, waves during a red tide that lit the night like electricity, fresh berries from our garden, sand between their toes, the racket of wild parrots outside their bedroom windows.  I couldn’t guess exactly what it would be, but they’d find their aspen trees.

As I started walking again, a grasshopper jumped onto my shirtfront and hitched a ride for several hundred yards.

We ate a huge breakfast then enjoyed long, lingering, hot showers before finally hitting the trail in the late morning.  We passed the scorched carcasses of countless trees before reaching a hill and climbing steadily southeast into a dry, forested area called Red Cones.  We ate lunch beside Boundary Creek, making jokes and laughing.  I walked ahead throughout the afternoon, and when I reached Upper Crater Meadow I sat beside the trail and waited for the others.  The air was calm and wildflowers scattered the meadow like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Birds flew in the sky above, butterflies floated carelessly all around and a bumblebee gathered pollen from a nearby larkspur blossom.

When we arrived at camp I dug a nylon frisbee out of my pack, and the boys and I played catch.  After a while it turned into a game of monkey in the middle, which grew wilder and more exciting until the frisbee suddenly got stuck in the branch of a tall tree.

“Oh no!” Noah shouted.

“We can get it,” I told him, and that became our new game, throwing sticks and rocks into the tree, trying to knock the frisbee loose.  It turned out to be just as fun as throwing the frisbee itself, and the challenge of it felt so familiar to me.  I realized it was something I’d done a thousand times as a kid, and I wondered how many countless things my friends and I had gotten stuck in treetops when we were young.

We finally rescued the frisbee just before dinner, and as we sat eating quietly in the late afternoon sun Pam and I looked at each other.  We’d talked earlier in the day about the boys and how they were holding up.  Were they having fun?  Had the trip been too grueling for them?  Already they seemed so much stronger to me, but they’d understandably struggled to get to this point.  The days of hiking had been long and difficult, especially with the smoke, and we hadn’t had as much down time for relaxing at camp as all of us had imaged.  It had been a tough trip, and Pam and I both felt it was important to give Noah and Kai a chance to speak freely about how they were feeling, whether or not they were enjoying the journey, whether or not they even wanted to keep going.

“So what do you guys think about the hike so far?” Pam asked.

They both looked at us a little uncertainly.  “Good,” they said then went back to eating.

“No really,” I said.  “I know it’s been hard.  Tell us what you’re feeling.  Are you having fun?  Does it feel like too much?”

They both looked a little uncomfortable.  Noah spoke first.  “I really like being out here.”  He looked around at the trees and you could see he meant it.  “But walking every day is kind of hard.”  He hesitated, and I could see the cogs turning in his head.  He wanted to say more but he didn’t want to disappoint me or hurt my feelings.  He had always been especially careful in that way.  “A month might seem like kind of a long time, but I still want to do it.”

I translated that to mean it felt like too much, and Kai echoed the sentiment by saying, “It’s just walking and walking and there’s not really a point.”

I felt a little sick inside, like an egg had broken somewhere in my chest and was oozing down through my lungs.  I felt like I was failing.  I wanted so badly for my boys to be having the adventure of a lifetime.  I wanted them to love every moment.  I wanted to feel like we were sharing some perfectly magical experience.

But I knew better.  I had wound my way through other adventures in my lifetime—hiking other long trails, traveling through foreign countries, diving headlong into marriage and fatherhood—and I knew that sometimes the perfect adventure can feel like a total drag.  It can be grueling.  It can make you want to quit.

I nodded.  “I hear you.”

And then Pam said the words I hadn’t been able to bring myself to say.  “Do you want to quit?”

The broken egg gunk oozed down into my stomach.  I didn’t want to quit.  I wanted to make this thing work.  I wanted my boys to walk away from this summer with the knowledge that they’d hiked the entire John Muir Trail.  I wanted to stay out in these mountains, swimming in the playful rivers, sleeping beneath the stars… pretending as long as I could that there wasn’t a cubicle with a computer and ten thousand e-mails waiting for me back in San Diego.

But I knew it would only truly be their adventure, their accomplishment, if it was something they wanted, something they felt some ownership and control over.  It wouldn’t be their adventure of a lifetime if it felt like a chore imposed by Dad with his calloused hands and leather whip.

“If you guys really want to quit, we will.  But I just want you to understand that if we go home, get back in our routine, and then you decide you miss this and want to come back, we won’t be able to.  I’ll have to work.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get this much time off work again for a long time.  This really is our chance to hike this trail.”

Pam kept her eyes on me while we talked, making sure I didn’t push too hard to sway their decision.  “But you guys get to be honest.  You tell us how you really feel.”

One thing I love about being a dad is knowing my sons so well that I can read their faces, and in that moment there was a lot to read.  They were both torn.  You could really see it.  They did like being out in the wilderness, spending time together as a family every day.  They loved going to bed and waking up all together in the tent.  They liked drinking hot chocolate in the sun every morning.  Kai loved catching frogs, Noah loved finding peaceful places to read in the afternoons, and they both loved having free time to dream and play.  But hiking day in and day out sometimes felt like a drag.  It was hard.

“I really miss my guitar sometimes,” Noah said.  “I’m afraid when I get back I won’t be any good at it.”

“You’ll be just as good,” I said.  “You haven’t lost anything.”  But he didn’t look convinced.

“I miss my skateboard,” Kai added.

I wanted to tell him that he had his whole darn life to ride his skateboard, but we’d never have this chance to hike a long trail as a young family again.   But I bit my tongue.  The skateboard mattered to him.  It was real.

“Think about it, okay?  Really think about it, and we can decide when we get to Edison Lake.”  We planned to spend a couple nights at a place called Vermillion Valley Resort when we reached the lake, sleeping in real beds, eating real food and taking real showers.  “If you guys really want to quit when we get there, we can.  But think about how you’ll feel when you get home.  Will you wish you could come back?  Will you be bummed that we didn’t finish our goal and climb Mount Whitney?  Really think about it.”

I wanted to push harder but Pam was looking at me, so I quit.

A short while later while I was washing dishes a hiker named Brian we’d met earlier in the day walked into our camp carrying a bag of trail mix and several granola bars.  We greeted each other and he held the food out.  “I decided I can get by without this stuff, and I want your boys to have it.  We’ve got to keep their muscles growing."

The boys’ eyes widened.  There were a lot of M&Ms in the trail mix, and bars were their favorite things for snacking and lunch.  “Thanks!”

“I just think it’s really cool what you guys are doing.  I love seeing the kids out here.  It’s something they’re going to remember their whole lives.”  He looked at the boys.  “You guys are amazing, and you’re really going to thank your parents for this someday.”

I couldn’t believe his timing.  After the talk we’d just had, for him to come and give the kids a boost.  You could see the pride on their faces when he told them how impressed he was that they were hiking the whole trail—and I could have hugged him for it!

We talked for a while and learned that Brian had been a school superintendent in Santa Barbara before retiring.  He had grown kids of his own.  “The best memories I have are from the trips I took with them.  We went to India a couple times, and I tried to teach them that you can pack light.  You don’t always need all the stuff you think you do.  You feel free when you let go of a lot, and you experience more too.”

That night as we lay in the tent, I thought about the conversation we’d had with the kids.  What could I do to emphasize the parts of our trip they were enjoying and minimize some of the drudgery?  I decided it would help if I let go of my preconceived notions of what our camp routing should be.  I could let them play a little more in the mornings without getting frustrated when we started hiking later than I’d planned.  We could linger a little more at lunch, relaxing and soaking in the peaceful moments, and in the evenings I could do a better job of making time to share fun things with them.  They’d loved throwing the Frisbee, and we could explore a little more, just wander around without our packs and discover things together.

I closed my eyes and tried to send thoughts to Noah and Kai, as if I was Obi-Wan Kenobi telepathically telling Luke Skywalker to use the force.  “You can do this guys.  You’ll feel so good if you make it all the way.  I promise.”

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer