Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Month: May 2017

The John Muir Award via The Hebridean Way

This week Finn and I have been officially registered for a John Muir Family Discovery Award, which to achieve will involve us walking part of the newly designated long-distance footpath, The Hebridean Way.

I first became acquainted with the John Muir Award while volunteering with a wonderful Edinburgh based conservation organisation, The Green Team, through whom I undertook an individual Discovery Award while facilitating a group of young people in conservation work on the Isle of Arran. The philosophy of the award; to encourage awareness and responsibility for the natural environment in a spirit of fun and adventure, continues to resonate with me and is one I want to introduce to my son, so this summer we propose to undertake a challenge together to achieve a family award.

John Muir at Washington Column (Yosemite online)

A bit of background if you’ve not heard of John Muir

The John Muir Award is named after the pioneering ecologist, lover of the natural world and “founding father” of the world conservation movement, John Muir. Although Scots born, his family moved to America when he was a boy. Here, he developed a deep love of the natural world, which took him on adventures including a 1000 mile walk, and it was after his explorations of the country that he became aware of the threats to wild places and encouraged him to help set up the first National Park.

The message of John Muir – that we need to experience, enjoy and care for wild places – is at the heart of the award. Following his lifelong journey of discovering, exploring and conserving wild places and sharing his experience with others, there are four challenges to complete:

  • Discover a wild place for yourself
  • Explore your wild place (find out more about it)
  • Conserve – take some personal responsibility (do something to look after wild places and nature)
  • Share your experiences (let others know what you’ve done, achieved and learned)

I think the award is such a great way for children to not only learn, in a purposeful and active way, about environmental awareness and about taking personal responsibility for a wild place, but also presents a valuable opportunity for kids to spend meaningful time outdoors and really experience the incredible spiritual and mental-health benefits of being in nature. As John Muir described it;

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Our Award proposal

There are three levels of award; Discovery, Explorer and Conserver, each demanding a progressively greater involvement and time commitment to complete. For our Discovery Award we are required to spend a minimum of four days to complete the challenges. After discussion with F, he chose the Isle of Harris in the Western Isles of Scotland as our wild place. We have a family connection with the island so as well as encouraging a general sense of environmental awareness, understanding and responsibility it will be a great way for F to foster a deeper understanding of the home of his ancestors and to appreciate a place we visit regularly in a new light.

One of the many beautiful beaches on the Isle of Harris

We will be walking the 38 mile Harris section of The Hebridean Way, a long distance walking route that in it’s entirety runs the length of the archipelago, over 10 islands from Vatersay to Lewis. The Harris stretch is the most challenging, much of it being across wet and pathless terrain, but as F seems to have a fondness for wandering off the beaten track and getting wet and muddy I’m hoping he will be enthusiastic about his first long distance, multi-day trip. (It was, incidentally, his choice to walk. I suggested we cycle it but F was adamant that we should walk, just so you know it’s not a case of me putting ideas in his head!) On one night of our trip we intend to bivvy or wild camp along the route to more deeply immerse ourselves in the landscape.

In the course of walking we will keep a collective journal of observations, drawings, poems and photos and get more actively involved by litter picking, monitoring plastic pollution, collecting data of wildlife sightings to contribute to various citizen wildlife surveys and by applying a “minimum impact” philosophy to our walk. We will begin our adventure by taking the opportunity to find out more about John Muir himself, his life and work, using a variety of online resources and books before attempting our walk next month.

Wish us luck!

Further information 

If you’re interested in achieving a John Muir Award yourself or with your family you can find out all you need to know here

Information about the John Muir Trust, a charity that aims to make sure wild places are valued by all sectors of society and that wild land is protected throughout the UK can be found here

Mission:Explore John Muir is a unique set of activities to inspire children to follow in the footsteps of John Muir

Further information about walking or cycling the The Hebridean Way can be found here

May Microadventure: On the importance of being flexible

Sometimes even the best made plans fall through. Most of the time if there are children involved. Our plan was to hike up a path beside one of the UK’s highest cascading waterfalls and bivvy by the side of an upland loch. Wild. Tick. Dramatic. Tick. Excellent views. Tick. But when we woke yesterday on the morning of our planned May microadventure (sleeping out one night a month as part of our Year of Microadventures) it was raining. It rained. And it rained. And it hailed. And it rained some more. With each torrential shower, my mind conjured up a new plan, from Plan B (postponing), to camping in a tent (Plan C) all the way to Plan E. By the time we left the house, together with another mother and son, we still hadn’t decided where we were going to sleep that night. But as I’m sure you’ve heard adventurers say before, the most important action is to take the first step, or in our case, just get in the car and figure it out when we got there. Wherever “there” might be.

“There” turned out to be a valley leading into rolling, uninhabited hills down a quiet no-through road that I’d always wanted to explore, despite being barely ten miles from home. We scanned the valley sides for a suitable camp spot and parked up, neatly timing our arrival to coincide with a heavier than ever downpour. Reluctant to leave the warm, dry confines of the vehicle we arrived at a new plan, Plan F. Just in time, as the boys were ready to explore NOW! And they were off, straight into the squall.

We scouted out a spot, only just level and wide enough for four, in a coniferous forestry plantation, sacrificing views for shelter. Not my first choice for a bivvy but with the benefit that we didn’t have to venture far from the road to feel like we were deep in the heart of the forest. The trees were so densely packed we couldn’t feel a drop of rain despite the persistent downpour “outside”.

Having earmarked our bed for the night, we fought our way back out through the impenetrable firs and the boys raced up a small hill to explore (the mums wheezing behind). Reaching a grand, old sycamore we were rewarded as the sun lit up the valley below (for all of ten minutes). We made a meal while the boys made a fire and swung each other from the tree.

As the cloud thickened once more and darkness descended, we too descended, collected our bags and entered the forest, where under the trees it was already dark. What we’d neglected to consider was how different a once visited place will appear under the cover of night. We had trouble locating our intended site. The situation became farcical as the four of us scurried around and around in circles, head-torches scanning this way and that. We had underestimated the distance in the dark but eventually found the spot (then had to backtrack to find the various baggage we’d put down while we were searching). Setting up the sleeping bags and getting the boys ready for bed was a task not made any easier by one of the boys who wasn’t able to settle down (mentioning no names!)

I was woken early, for once not by F, but by a vocal and persistent cuckoo, joined in a crescendo by a wood pigeon and pheasant. This however is one of my most savoured times of day on a sleep out under the stars; to enjoy the emerging light, stirring wildlife and awakening of a new day.

In conclusion, on microadventures with children it pays to be flexible. In my mind’s eye I’d envisaged a wild bivvy in the uplands of Scotland, with sweeping views and far from the road. But then there wouldn’t have been the boys’ delight of the fire or the swinging from the trees or the satisfaction not only of surviving a bivouac out in the rain but actually enjoying it.

 

Read more about our January microadventure here

Read more about our February microadventure here

Read more about our March microadventure here

Read more about our April microadventure here

The Benefits of a “Nature Spot”

For the past couple of years my son and I have spent regular time at a small stony beach on a stretch of riverbank about a 15-20 minute walk away from our home. It’s a peaceful place, punctuated only occasionally by fishermen and the odd dog walker. It’s been a regular destination for us since we moved to this area, but a couple of years ago I intentionally adopted it as our “nature spot”, which we make a habit of walking to at least weekly. We might pack a picnic to eat there, take the paints and sketchpads to do some drawing, collect some seeds, cones or feathers for our seasonal nature display at home, spend some time just sitting quietly and observing, paddle or throw stones in the river or collect and take home litter discarded by others. We’ve visited for the past two Harvest Moons to see our nature spot after dark and at the Spring Equinoxes for a celebratory fire. Sometimes we’re down there a several times a week although if we’re away or have other plans we might not make it for several weeks at a time.

Collecting leaves, berries and seeds for our indoor “nature table”.

Finn paddling in the river with hundreds of tiny fish stranded in a shallow spot as the water level decreased.

Spring Equinox picnic at our nature spot.

Before having children I would preferentially walk somewhere new and different but not always being able to walk far or fast with a wee one in tow, I began to appreciate the benefits of getting to know our local surroundings in a more intimate way and to enjoy anticipating what we might see on regular walks to the same place. As we observe the exact same wildfowl we saw a couple of days previously we start to form more of a connection with them. We often observe our resident heron, the same pair of swans, a male and female mallard. With more of an awareness of our local geography we’ve started to name and map the different locations we walk through to get to our nature spot; kindling wood, the old Beech, watercolour bay, disappointment wood. We now know where the wild plum tree is hidden, where to find crab apples and a tiny lone gooseberry bush. We’ve become more observant and in tune with the seasons, knowing when to expect the first snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, when the hawthorn, beech and ash leaves come out and when we can first expect elderflower or rowan to blossom. And occasionally I’ve been rewarded with something really special that I never expected to see like the otter who I chanced upon floating down the river a couple of metres away from me when the river was highly swollen last winter. He stared at me inquisitively as he floated past then dived under and swam slightly upriver of me where he floated down to scrutinise me once more before letting the river carry him on his way. On our latest visit to our nature spot last week we spent some time identifying and observing a Dipper that would dive in the river then surface and fly to feed one of it’s young left squawking on a tree branch on the other side of the riverbank.

Creating minibeasts from beeswax plasticine based on our observations of bugs found at our nature spot

Finn’s observational drawing of a daisy found close to our nature spot

Exploring Nature With Children

Something which inspired us to incorporate an intentional nature spot into our weekly rhythm was reading Lynn Seddon’s e-book Exploring Nature with Children. I’ve found this to be a practical, comprehensive and inspiring resource for becoming better aquainted with our local natural environment. Although we’ve not followed Lynn’s curriculum as intensely or regularly as I would like (particularly in the summer when we’re away on other adventures and with Finn still being quite young) we’ve found it helpful to use Lynn’s suggestions to give a purpose to even a short walk or winter picnic. Last year we participated in an organised nature swap, which involved being paired up with a family living on the outskirts of London and sending them a selection of natural objects and information about our own nature spot. In return we received a parcel from our paired family containing pressed flowers, cones and sticks from their local trees. We were particularly surprised to compare the difference between the sparse pollution tolerant lichen on a stick from a London plane with the richly lichen covered branches from our local oaks.

What’s special about a nature spot?

Our nature spot is similar to the concept of the “sit spot”, which I first came across in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Evan McGown and Ellen Haas, inspired by the American wilderness awareness schools in the tradition of Jon Young and Tom Brown and their mentors. They highlight the importance of a sit spot as a location where you go regularly to observe and study what you see on a day to day basis. Going regularly is important as it means you’ll get to know this spot at different times of the day and through the seasons. Ideally you would visit every day, but realistically I know our family would never manage that! Even just visiting once a week you’ll get to know the trees, the plants and when they flower or when you can expect to see migrating bird life. After a year you can compare from season to season and with the previous year and begin to form a connection between climate conditions and the animals’ behaviour.

Our children are taught about caring for the environment in an often abstract way, in relation to far away places like the Amazon rainforest or to endangered species like Arctic polar bears, yet have next to no understanding of their own local environment and what wildlife they might find there. Environmental awareness and stewardship should really start on our own doorsteps as observing, forming connections and understanding our local wildlife and environment makes us more likely to want care for our own local environments as well as further afield.


How do I choose a nature spot?

Ideally your nature spot might comprise an area of open grassland with woodland or trees and a river or lake to take advantage of maximum biodiversity. More importantly though your nature spot should be close enough to home where it’s not too much trouble to get to on a regular basis, so a spot in your local park, wasteland or back garden is just fine.

When you’ve chosen your nature spot, it’s really just a matter of observing as attentively as possible. Observe any wildlife and what they do and keep a journal which you describe your observations and further questions. Encourage little ones to draw or paint what they see as this encourages them to observe them even more carefully. Draw and measure any animal tracks you find. Pay particular attention to the birds who react most visibly and audibly to anything going on in the area and learn to recognise their calls. Encourage young children to sit and listen quietly, even if just for a few seconds at first! For inspiration get a copy of Lynn’s e-book and integrate some of her ideas and suggestions into your week. Or if all this seems too much, just use your nature spot as a habitual excuse to get outside, even if just for a short while to immerse yourself or your family in nature on a more regular basis.

Observational drawing and painting of autumn leaves found at our nature spot.

Our nature spot in winter. Still ideal for picnics but we do most of our drawing inside!

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