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Posts Tagged ‘free range kids’

Earlier this week, in the media build-up to the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote a thought-provoking column in which she offers a long tally of incidents from the previous week when schools in America went into lockdown to ensure the safety of the students. A few of these lockdowns occurred in response to legitimate causes for concern, but, in hindsight many of them, maybe even most of them, were overreactions to marginal threats. A domestic dispute in a nearby residence. A bank robbery in the local area. Likewise, writer Lenore Skenazy, on her wonderful Free Range Kids blog, reported last year about a school that went into terrifying lockdown in the days after Sandy Hook because some boys using an umbrella as a prop in a video project about the immune system were thought to be acting suspiciously.

At my school we have gone into lockdown twice that I can think of in the past couple of years. My understanding is that both were prompted by police chases in the general area. And once we evacuated the building because something was making noises in a locker.

Dahlia Lithwick levels the following charge at this lockdown culture:

We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma.

I don’t know that any of my students were alarmed in the least during any of these incidents except for those who needed to go to the bathroom, but Lithwick raises an important point, that there are often unexamined costs to our attempts as educators and parents to make our kids safe. To prevent the abnormal tragedy of school shootings, we’ve normalized turning our school routine upside down on a surprisingly regular basis. Based on the extremely small chance that they might be abducted by a stranger, we make it 100% certain that our kids will miss out on the physical and psychological benefits of walking to school on their own. We no longer allow kids the independence of roaming the neighborhood with their friends, telling them “just be home for dinner.”

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be prepared. Lithwick writes, “Let’s agree from the get-go that doing nothing in the face of lethal school shootings is not an option.” When the Atlanta Police Department calls our school switchboard to warn that a suspect in a police chase is headed towards campus, I agree that erring on the side of caution and locking everything down is probably the right thing to do. And I’ve written before about how hard it is as a parent to imagine letting my kids explore the neighborhood woods on their own like I did growing up. When it comes to keeping our kids safe, we may not examine these costs as carefully as we should, but that doesn’t mean these costs are too high. We’ll do anything for our kids.

And yet.

When I read Lithwick’s column, I thought immediately back to a passage in A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, where he wonders about the threat of climate change to our kids’ futures:

As a society, we have been good about preparing kids for other kinds of dangers. We have “red alert” days in school when the kids have to duck down and crowd in the coatroom. When I was young, we hid under desks in case of a bomb or a tornado. The principal and teachers are worried about strangers coming in, the man in a dark van driving near the school, but about this heat-trapping blanket in the sky we say very little. Kids study maps and geography, but if sea levels rise as predicted, because of ice melt and heat expansion, the maps would need to be rewritten. The man in the van has been out there all along.

We say very little, indeed. We earnestly guard against tragedies that thankfully have almost no chance of happening to our kids—I have been in faculty meetings where we have had discussion about which classroom wall is best to cower against in a Code Red situation (bullets will pass right through sheetrock, you know)—but don’t talk at all about how to prepare them for the much higher likelihood of serious climate disruption.

It’s not something we talk about as parents and educators. And someday our kids will ask us why.

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Earlier today, reading some lively back-and-forth comments on the blog written by my principal, I came across this statement by a chemistry-teaching colleague of mine:

At this age there’s a LOT of boring, fact based learning that needs to take place BEFORE deeper, more meaningful, creative learning and problem solving can take place.

Well, I strongly disagree (albeit respectfully, because I really like and respect this particular colleague). I don’t have any problem with his contention that a good education includes a lot of “fact-based learning”—even in an age of hyper-available information—but I disagree that this stage needs to come first or that it’s inevitably boring.

Perhaps the most powerful learning experience I ever had as a student was my original WMA Wilderness First Responder certification class back in 1993 at North Carolina Outward Bound School. From the very beginning of the course, we would start each new topic with a hands-on simulation, where “rescuers” would try (and fail) to make sense of what was going on with injured/sick “patients.” Only after struggling with a new problem—like a patient with abdominal bruising, elevated heart rate and respiration, and dropping blood pressure—would we start to learn the “boring” details of exactly how the circulatory and respiratory systems worked in tandem, or the implications of hypovolemic shock’s progressing from a compensated to decompensated stage. The basic learning sequence was exactly reversed from what my colleague maintains is necessary. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident I learned far more “facts” in that week-long course than I could have in a whole semester of traditional lectures, and, in this context, none of them were boring. More to the point, nearly twenty years later I still remember most of what I learned. Vividly.

All the research about contextual and constructivist learning tells us something we should already know to be gut-level true, that new information is most readily assimilated when the learner has some sort of internal frame of reference, like prior knowledge (or lack of knowledge, a need-to-know), that gives it a place to stick. Starting with the “facts” before moving on to “meaningful, creative learning and problem solving” seems both woefully inefficient and, yes, boring.

So what does all this have to do with last week’s trip down the Oconee River with Paddle Georgia 2011? Well, I happened to come across this blogversation today as I was editing together some trip video with a focus on my boys’ river education. If you sat them down and asked them what they learned, they’d have plenty to say, I think, but I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of future dividends. Nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection:

For starters, esteemed chemistry colleague, Will and I both agree that we’re ready to learn just what’s going on at the molecular level when we learned how to test for dissolved oxygen in the Adopt-a-Stream training sessions.

Let me say it again: nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection. Which is why I’m still a little skeptical about the headlong rush to embrace technology in education (while my school takes small steps towards more experiential and-place-based learning, we have moved with astonishing rapidity to provide every student with a MacBook).

Anyway, enough soap-boxing . . . let me make a couple of remarks about the video clips.

First, they capture budding naturalist Andrew’s eagerness to pick up critters. He never stopped trying to grab frogs, tadpoles, lizards, salamanders, dragonflies, grasshoppers, fish, water striders, unmentionable squiggly things on the bottoms of river rocks. At base camp in Milledgeville, he proudly informed me that earlier he had “caught something-that-looked-kinda-like-a-scorpion-but-wasn’t” but couldn’t find me to show it off and had to let it go. I’m wondering if I went wrong somewheres in my parenting duty.

Second, I should mention that the tire we barged out was only one of about 70 that Paddle Georgia folks removed on our designated clean-up day. One guy had something like 13 tires either stacked on the deck of his sea kayak or hanging off the sides like tugboat fenders.

Third, who knew kaolin was so cool?

And finally, the last clip is a hat-tip to colleague and educational über-blogger John Burk in the spirit of recognizing and celebrating failure.

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I had someone ask me about the new picture in the Postcards from the Outback header bar.  It’s a picture of Will and Andrew playing in the river left cascade at Bull Sluice on the Chattooga, taken in the interval between our return from Alaska and the beginning of school.

I began taking the boys there last summer on one of those scorching Atlanta days when the only outdoor activity that sounds bearable is swimming.  They would gladly have gone to the local pool every day, but I’m frankly bored by the totalitarian conformity of the concrete swimming pool and knew that we could do better.  A lot better.

Dad, how ’bout I go with those guys?  That looks like fun.

Bull Sluice at full throttle is a pretty fearsome rapid—one that has eaten my lunch more times than I’d care to admit—but as water levels fall and temperatures rise in the summer, the pool below it becomes a popular swimming hole (run this drop upside down in summertime and you’ll have quite an audience).  The meat of the main drop is still potentially deadly, a ledge sluiced with potholes to nowhere dropping onto a massive undercut rock affectionately named “Decap,”  but stay below all that and you’re golden.  It’s easy to get to, maybe too easy (kayaking author/artist William Nealy once wrote that the best thing about Bull Sluice is that you can drive ambulances almost right to it), and it can be quite crowded on weekends, but then so is the pool at our local Y.

For the boys, it has a little bit of everything.  They chase fish through the shallows, trying to scoop them up with their sun hats.  They search for lizards on the rocks.  They investigate little rock slides and plunge pools. They experiment with current.  They skip rocks and shovel sand.  They pause for the regular entertainment of kayak pods and raft armadas passing through, some successfully and others less so. (They’ve become connoisseurs of raft carnage—I’ve taught them well.)  And they can stay all day, protesting when I peel them away after six, seven hours of solid fun.

Will taking the plunge.

Will checks out a spot where you can lie in the current and breathe easily in the air pocket a good hat creates.  It looks a little alarming for the onlooker when you sit still, apparently submerged, for minutes at a time, but it’s an amazing sensation.

Needless to say, if Bull Sluice were closer, we’d be there nearly every day in the summer weeks when we aren’t traveling.  But alas, the nearly four-hour round trip is something of a deterrent.  Do I dare take them just down the street to frolic in the Chattahoochee?  For a while, the authorities posted daily e-coli levels, but I think they’ve stopped now due to budget cuts.  What a shame that urban kids are effectively sentenced to concrete tubs for neighborhood summer water play.  What’s worse, we seem largely content with that.

And so I have a request for my readers.  For relatively good water quality, accessibility, and a huge “fun factor,” Bull Sluice gets my vote as the BEST natural swimming hole in the (somewhat) local area, but maybe you’ve got better suggestions?  If you’re a reader from afar, what’s the best swimming hole in your local area?  The more candidates, the better—and then let us all take our children out to try them.  We may never settle on a winner, but then that’s not the point, is it?

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Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

—Helen Keller

We’ve been home now for several weeks, and a new school year is getting underway.  I am way overdue in putting up a post to wrap-up our summer odyssey and had better do so now before the teaching treadmill picks up too much speed.

Denali Highway, Alaska: a long, long way from home.

Looking back over my posts from the road, I’m struck by the way they fizzled out toward the end, partly due to technical issues but also partly due to languor, the daily demands of logging significant mileage often leaving little time and less energy for blogging at the end of the day.  Compared to the posts from my 2008 trip with the boys, a journey with no real agenda or timetable, the writing just didn’t measure up.  And besides the tyranny of the timetable, there was another significant difference with this trip: I had adult company for the duration.  After the boys went to sleep, I still had someone to talk with.  And, while my dad was with us, someone to knock back a few Alaskan Ambers with.

Anyway, unlike my blog posts, the trip most definitely didn’t fizzle out toward the end.  In fact we ended on a real high before I put Belinda and the boys on a plane in Salt Lake City and drove the rest of the way back.  But more on that later.

First, a couple of general reflections: (more…)

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On Sunday, the boys and I went to visit one of the most important places in the landscape of my youth, a little woodland in my old neighborhood called Alexander Park.  This undeveloped tract preserves some twelve acres of forest in a steep creek valley, a linear greenspace mostly hidden from view behind houses.  Driving past on East Wesley, you wouldn’t think much of its tiny bit of road frontage, might not know it was there at all except for a single grave-like granite monument at the edge of the trees.  During my early years in that neighborhood, I thought the Alexander Park headstone monument simply marked the little clearing of grass at the roadside, and I thought “that’s not much of a park.” Nonetheless, there came an age when my friends and I were destined to follow the creek that ran behind Garden Hills Pool and see where it went, and so we crossed over East Wesley and entered into another world.

I’m not sure how old I was or whom I was with (though I can make a pretty good guess that I was in 3rd or 4th grade—funny how those two years dominate memories of my childhood), but I’ll never forget our delicious sense of discovery and surprise when we found a narrow trail winding its way back through the trees into a hidden kingdom.  Our kingdom.  It was big, it was wild, it was a place apart from our normal worlds.  I was thrilled to discover later that these woods stretched to within a block of my house (who knew!), that I could access the sanctuary with a couple of judicious backyard cut-throughs.  Perhaps nostalgia colors my recollection, but from that day on it seems my friends and spent every free hour down in Alexander Park.  We built forts.  We climbed trees.  We hunted each other with toy guns (the rule was you had to count to 30 when someone yelled “BLAM—got you!” before continuing).  More than anything I remember playing in the creek—wading around looking for crawdads, staging elaborate amphibious assaults of sandy beaches with our plastic army men, frantically trying to build earthen dams faster than the creek could overtop them.  We never saw other kids back there, much less any adults.  Our parents certainly never came to check on us.

In fact, I wonder now just what they were thinking.  What did they think we were up to?  Were they worried at all?  How can it be they didn’t come check the place out themselves, make sure it was safe?  I’m not saying that they should have so much as I’m wondering what’s wrong with me and my peers now that we’re parents.  Have we become weenies?  If I still lived in Garden Hills, would I let my boys have the same sort of experiences?  Perhaps I can’t answer this question yet as they’re still on the young side, perhaps my mind will change, but my gut says I’d be too concerned about water quality and too nervous about their running into shady characters to just let them run free.  In particular, I find it hard to shake an offhand comment from a classmate back in high school that Alexander Park had become an illicit trysting place, a comment that filled my woods with all sorts of bogeymen over the years.  By that age I was no longer heading for the creek every free afternoon, and so it was all too easy for fear to fill a space that had become unknown again.

I had all of these questions in mind as the boys and I crossed East Wesley and slipped into the trees.  The path is still there—somebody still uses it—and the impression of entering a different world is still there, too.  “This is like the mountains,” Andrew shouted out as he pattered along, the terrain being surprisingly rugged, the trees impressively large.  As a kid, I guess I didn’t give much thought to the trees, but I was transfixed by them on this visit—towering white oaks and massive smooth-skinned beech trees and a few remnant grandfather pines, an exceptionally dense and diverse canopy for intown Atlanta.  I don’t know the technical definition for “old growth” forest, but that’s what it feels like to me.  Growing up, how lucky I was to have this little pocket of wilderness so close by.  And how strange and sad it is that so few people seemed to appreciate or even know about its existence.

Unfortunately, the neglect shows.  On Sunday I was immediately struck by how invasives have taken over in the nearly thirty years(!) since I last visited.  Not that I had naturalist sensibilities at age ten, but I knew already that a thick English Ivy groundcover was a pain in the ass to traverse (we had a big area of ivy in our yard at home), and so I’m confident in my memory that Alexander Park wasn’t filled with it.  Moreover, I remember a mostly open and airy forest, big rooms of space under the soaring canopy, not the dense jungle of privet and wisteria that would have made tearing after each other with plastic guns impossible.  Unfortunately, such is the fate of untended urban woodlands.  Fortunately, this deterioration is reversible; take a look at these pictures from the Forest Restoration page at Trees Atlanta’s website to see before-and-after shots of another Atlanta natural area following an organized privet pull.  (For kicks, I’m going to email Trees Atlanta and see what it might take for Alexander Park to be next.)

And then there’s the issue of water quality.  I don’t know how bad it is—and can’t imagine that it’s any worse than it was when I was a kid—but the orange slime covering all the rocks gave me the creeps.  I picked up a few to look for aquatic macroinvertebrates on their undersides and came up empty, but I wonder what a more comprehensive survey would reveal.  I didn’t find any crawdads, either, but I was admittedly reluctant to reach in too far for bigger rocks to flip over.  And of course there was all the God-knows-what that had washed in from upstream: empty plastic soft drink bottles and flattened aluminium beer cans and strips of yellow police-line tape.  Nonetheless, it was all I could do to keep the boys from trying to baptise themselves as they scurried along the banks, gleefully following leaf boats negotiating micro rapids and searching for flat rocks to try to skip in the one slow, deep pool we found.  Wouldn’t it be great if there really were clean creeks close by for our children to play in?  Nothing could be healthier.  (And perhaps my squeamishness is unjustified?)

Hey residents of my old neighborhood—you have a real treasure in (literally) your back yards!  Take good care of it and it will take good care of your kids.

Update: I had the opportunity tonight to ask my parents about their thinking back then.  My dad’s comment: “I never even thought to worry, figured you were okay.  It was never an issue that your mom and I ever talked about as far as I can recall.”  My mom’s reaction: “I don’t think I knew that’s where you were.  You probably just said you were going to a friend’s house.”  I got the impression it would have been an issue had she known.  Good thing I was sneaky, I guess.

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“Is exploring the natural world just a pleasurable way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?  I am sure there is something much deeper–the development of an inner resource of strength that will endure as long as a man or woman lives.”   –Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

“I cherish the sacredness of these outings.  They return me to the father I want to be rather than the one I sometimes am” –Rick Van Noy, A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons

[August 1]  We’re all back home now, including my car, which I went and fetched from K.C. last weekend.  Andrew got his plaster cast off yesterday and was outfitted with a removable walking cast, and the doctors are hopeful that he seems to be (slowly) healing normally.  Nonetheless, he screamed bloody murder as his plaster cast (security blanket) came off, and he’s very reluctant today to put any weight on his foot or let anyone come anywhere near his toes.  With Andrew, the emotional healing is likely to take longer than the physical regeneration.

I still have a week before school starts for me, and there’s plenty of unpacking and cleaning and storing yet to do.  My car needs some attention, too; besides being absolutely filthy, there’s the matter of the “check engine” light that came on about the time I turned eastward.

Looking back on the trip, here are some lessons learned:

  1. I may have backpacking down to a science, but I’ve got a lot of room to refine my front-country car-camping technique.  A first step . . . I’m building one of these.  Moreover, I left town with very few provisions, figuring it would be easy enough to live off the land.  But the little commissary in Cooke City, Montana, has very little in common with my local Whole Foods, and my general lack of preparation was one of the factors that forced us to come down out of the hills every few days for supplies.
  2. I will never ever get a car with an onboard DVD player.  It’s totally unnecessary, unless the kids’ sense of curiosity and imagination has already been sucked dry by such a device.  Windows are amazing things, and I encourage all kids to try them while traveling.
  3. The decision to blog the trip was, on the balance, a good one, and I think I’d do it again.  Keeping up with all that techno claptrap was something of a pain, and from time to time this added layer seemed to usurp our agenda, but writing and sharing was fun, and the boys were proud that other people followed us and seemed to think that what they were doing was special.  Our blogging certainly helped Mommy keep her sanity while we were away from her.  For myself, it was a good dry run for what I might do with future summer courses . . . the Field Geology courses and Naturalist Field Study course that I’ve taught in the past could certainly have incorporated this!

One a more serious note, one of the reasons you leave home is to be able to come back and see home from a new perspective, and I’m sorry to say that I’m even less happy with Atlanta summers than I thought I was before I left.  Baking in its own heat island and smothered with a blanket of bad air, this has not been a pleasant place to come home to.  Of course I expected that.  What’s changed for me is that I look at it now in terms of my kids’ experience; they’ve quickly gone back to being caged creatures.  I’m as convinced as ever that nothing could be more wholesome for my boys (for all children) than more opportunities to be “free range kids” in healthy natural environments, and I’m determined to give my boys more opportunities, but where to do this in Atlanta?  I might take them to Sweetwater Creek, I might take them down to the Chattahoochee River, but I certainly wouldn’t let them play in the water, and I probably wouldn’t let them out of my sight.  (Of course, Andrew can’t get out of his wheelchair, anyway, so it’s a moot point right now.)  What about as they get older?  As a kid, I spent hours with my friends (no parents!) exploring the little pockets of woods in my neighborhood that stitched together the backs of people’s backyards, but do kids do that anymore in the city?  Do I have to drive two hours (or three weeks) out of town to give them these opportunities?

And finally . . .

There are some pictures that I didn’t take but that I cannot get out of my head, as much as I wish I could: every single lodgepole pine tree in the mid elevations of the upper Colorado River watershed is dead or dying from pine beetle infestation.  The west side of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding area is just devastated beyond description.  We drove for two hours through a forest that has died seemingly overnight, mountainside after mountainside, valley after valley.  I backpacked in RMNP last August, and you could see the beginnings of this outbreak, but nothing like what has transpired this summer.  Now I’m not bothered by forest death under natural conditions (the Yellowstone fires of 1988, for instance, were all part of the healthy natural cycle).  Pine beetles are native pests, and big outbreaks do happen every couple of decades under normal conditions.  But the extent of this outbreak is unprecedented, absolutely staggering, and the cause is alarming–ten years of warmer-than-usual winters have removed the primary limiting factor keeping beetle populations steady, and what you have now is an ecosystem in radical flux.  National Park biologists are unequivocal about climate change being the primary factor (among several) contributing to the unprecedented severity of this outbreak.  Is this just a taste of things to come?

Of course I realize that I radically expanded my own carbon footprint by taking a six-thousand-plus mile road trip this summer.  It bothers me.  Theoretically, our family’s cars and air travel are carbon neutral because I purchase offsets for them through TerraPass (who knows, maybe I helped subsidize the windmills I saw popping up in Nebraska and Iowa) , but that doesn’t change the fact that there would be some 5,300 fewer pounds of CO2 in our atmosphere had I stayed home.  Oh well.  To paraphrase Barry Lopez (I think), it’s not the environment that is degraded, it is humanity’s relationship with it.  That is something I can address, at least within my own family.

Back to start of trip

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Without a doubt, the most beautiful seven words right now in the English language are “Will, take your brother to the bathroom.”

As I dreamed about and then planned this trip, I had any number of people ask “are you going to be able to handle those two by yourself for all that time” with the same disbelieving tone they might use while asking  “Are you sure bison-tipping is a good idea?”  I had every confidence in the world that I could—my boys are good travelers, and our agenda was loose enough as to be functionally non-existent if need be.  At least that’s what I hoped.

And they have been good travelers, mind-blowingly good travelers, even better than I expected.  I’ll give you a for-instance: this morning I dragged them from their sleeping bags to go wolf watching in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, revisiting the central point of wildlife watching etiquette as we drove—no loud noises of any kind (you even close your car door witha gentle shove of the hip).  The hard-core wolf-watching regulars with their spotting scopes and two-way radios are unfailingly warm and friendly with the casual tourists, but then again I wanted to be accepted by the inner circle (or should I say “pack”), and most parents with six and four-year olds don’t hang around for two hours at a stretch.

Anyway, they did me proud and then some, hanging around in the car and entertaining themselves for long periods when there was no action and getting out quietly and eagerly when I knocked gently on the window.  And then when Will stepped down from a wolf-watcher’s spotting scope, took out pen and paper and began earnestly drawing what he had seen without any prompting whatsoever, I thought my heart would just explode.  (More on wolf watching—our Sunday morning church service—later in this post.)  Needless to say, the pack approved.

As good as they have been, as regularly as my heart has wanted to explode with gratitude and pride, this has still been tough going for a lone parent.  Someone always has to go to the bathroom or needs to be buckled in or wants something to drink or needs his pancake cut or simply wants a response to a “Dad?” call before asking another question.  I have to laugh at myself for packing my usual traveling library of field guides and tree-hugging literature; I think I’ve read one chapter of Scott Russell Sanders and opened my bird field guide once.  I’m surprised I’ve done as well as I have with taking pictures; every time the camera comes out they start asking to take turns, no longer satisfied with having little disposables of their own.  Will and I have had some earnest discussions about the meaning of the word “pester.”

A very typical Andrew pose.  “Daaad, I caan’t hold it!”

I told Belinda on the phone the other day that I was wrong when thought I’d be the one who most wanted to camp.  I figured the boys would push me to stay in hotels more often.  In fact, it’s been just the opposite—the boys love camping, are disappointed every time we head for town.  And why not?  Each campsite is a big playground for them.

The main attraction at Pebble Creek campground, our home in Yellowstone for three days.  Why am I not in this picture?  Well, I guess because I’m taking it, but in other circumstances it’d be because I’m too damn busy.

It’s just so much bloody work–unpacking the car, pitching the tent, inflating the mattresses, assembling the stove, cooking the food, cutting the food, washing the dishes, picking up and disposing bear-attracting scraps and so forth and so on.  All while “Daaad” rings out every three minutes.

And so there’s no way we could function without my giving them more and more responsibility and freedom.  That’s why the words “Will, take your brother to the bathroom” are the most beautiful in the English language.  Followed closely by “Andrew, ask your brother to help you.”  Or “You boys stay right here for two minutes and don’t move while I [go to the bathroom, run across the street to the ATM, whatever].”

And I have to say something about their ability to entertain themselves.  Right now I’m sitting in a restaurant in West Yellowstone, and Andrew is playing some sort of game with two pieces of silverware (in lieu of talking to Mommy on the telephone).  They’ve made up games using colored pencils, hotel room keys, sticks, rocks, empty water bottles—you name it.  Just before leaving home two weeks ago I decided not to let them pick out a couple of toys to take with them, and I’m frankly glad I did.  And this experience just reinforces my absolute refusal to ever buy a car with an onboard DVD system.

So what have we been up to?

Even the tortoise arrives at his destination eventually.

We entered the park on July 4th by the Northeast Entrance and made camp at Pebble Creek, a rather small and remote site, nothing like the industrial campgrounds at Canyon and Madison.  We drove up and down Lamar Valley and made a quick visit to the crowds at Tower Falls, but mostly we hung around camp and explored its immediate area before going back up the road to Cooke City for fireworks in the evening.  The fireworks were okay, about what you’d expect in a town of 140, but the way the big blasts echoed off the surrounding mountains for a full seven seconds was pretty impressive.  For his part, Andrew spent the whole time with his hands clamped firmly over his ears and asking to get back in the car . . . until they were over and he started talking about how great they were.

On Saturday, we drove toward Canyon, visited the super-cool new Visitor Center, checked out Upper Falls (but had to leave quickly because Andrew had to pee), had lunch by the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley, and walked around the Mud Volcano thermal group.  Will and I are both big fans of the feature called Churning Cauldron.  Andrew isn’t real sure about the “stinky steam.”

Maybe we can catch a fish for lunch!

Will, I don’t want to go in the stinky steam!

But the big highlights for the day were the bears.  We saw four black bears, including a mother and cub, and three grizzlies, including one which we watched for a good thirty minutes from a distance of probably only 40 yards, a truly magical and bizarre experience, the bear being safely atop a thirty-foot roadcut cliff and being ogled by hundreds of tourists below.

No I don’t (yet) own a really big telephoto lens (I top out at 150mm).  He (she?) was really that close

The bear kept digging and eating, digging and eating.  Occasionally a rock would cut loose and roll down the slope, dropping off the roadcut and narrowly missing a tourist car parked below.

And then yesterday we had our wolf morning.  In the past, I have spent a lot of Westminster’s money, contracting with the Yellowstone Institute for their guides to take my courses wolf watching.  I’ve stood and shivered through a number of early mornings, waiting to see what might turn up in what were considered “sure-fire” locations.  And I had seen nothing.  So I debated trying again with the boys, but I’m thankful that I did.  Most of the pack stayed back in the trees, but we heard them howling a couple of times, and then one adult made a circuit all the way around our position, popping in and out of view for a half hour or so.  As wolf sightings go, I guess it was pretty ho-hum, if there is such a thing (yesterday in another part of the Park we just missed seeing one take an elk calf), but it totally made our morning.

We spent the afternoon hiking to Trout Lake, where the big attraction was watching the spawning Cutthroat Trout swim up the inlet stream.

Hiking through a garden of wildflowers . . .

. . . to a beautiful little lake.

They don’t really show in this picture, but there are at least a dozen big cutthroat in this riffle in front of Andrew.  He squeals with delight every time they give him a good splash.

Okay, that’s our progress so far.  If there are any typos, I’ll have to fix them later . . . our laundry is done and the boys are hungry.  This evening, we’re off to Old Faithful.

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