Yesterday morning we set off on an expedition to hunt for frogs. While we have all manner of other wildlife wandering around our garden, we have not yet had any amphibians so we have to go elsewhere in search of them. We know a spot where, at certain times of year at least, we are guaranteed to see frogs.
My oldest son was also hoping we would encounter a snake, as we have found them in the same woods before, but we had no luck. My kids have yet to comprehend that the more noise they make, the less likely they are to meet any critters. Their constant scampering and foghorn voices give any animal within range ample notice to scurry and hide. For instance, we saw the flash of a white tailed deer’s rump as it fled from us a nanosecond after my youngest had bellowed something about climbing a tree.
We were, however, entirely successful in our mission to find frogs. My ten year old must have the best vision out of all of us as he was quickly able to spot frog after frog after frog among the green pond weed. We could hear the bellow of bullfrogs all around us. We managed to spot one particularly chubby chappie sitting on a fallen branch, sadly too far away for a clear photograph, but there were some smaller specimens swimming around in the water or sitting just out of the water.
Some of the frogs were very bright green, blending perfectly with the pond weeds, but others were darker brown with mottled patterns on their backs and rear legs.
We left the pond and wandered off in search of other interesting beasties. We saw birds and dragonflies galore – including some stunning neon blue ones with black wings – and some nonchalant squirrels. Everyone was getting a bit mopey and hot and fractious, forgetting that this was the proper outdoors and not a zoo park. I could sense a rebellion beginning to foment.
Happily we found a stream that was safe enough for pootling about in. The boys liked having fish swimming around their feet but they liked the cooling effect of the water and the shade of the trees even more.
Then, much to everyone’s delight, we spotted another frog and this one was in hand’s reach so they picked it up out of the mud to have a brief closer look before letting it hop off back into the water again. I think it may be a juvenile green frog but I am not confident in my identification, not being much of a herpetologist.
Much cooled down, a little rested, and buoyed from the unexpectedly close frog encounter, the boys’ spirits lifted again and we continued on our stroll around the woods like a band of Merry Men.
Given it is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from where we live, it is embarrassing that we had never visited Wissahickon Valley Park in the 2.5 years that we have lived in America. It was, therefore, time to go for a woodland wander during last week’s Spring Break.
The area that encompasses the Park comprises 1800 acres. It is going to take a few visits to thoroughly explore the area so we opted for an easy dip into the landscape by taking a trail that led to the Thomas Mill covered bridge, the only remaining covered bridge in Philadelphia and indeed the only one left within an American city.
We wandered along a path that followed the shape of the Wissahickon Creek as it runs towards the gorge. There were a number of fallen trees along the route which the boys enjoyed climbing and scurrying along. The youngest two also scampered up a leaf and twig strewn embankment only to realise how steep the climb had been when they had to make a slow, stumbling, and careful descent. They also tried to skim stones along the surface of the creek and had running races along the trail path. Lots of energy being burned off. Just what we parents like to see.
The covered bridge itself was a wee bit disappointing, I must admit. Although it was built in 1855, I doubt that any of its original parts remain. It was restored by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and again in 2000. The wood trusses all looked distinctly new and, as such, it was a tad lacking in character, little history seeping from it. I do love covered bridges though so it was still well worth seeing.
We crossed the bridge and decided to walk back to the car on the opposite bank of the creek. Whereas the path there was completely level and stable, this path was made up of outcrops of large boulders, swift changes in surface level, and tree roots. It was quite frankly all the better for it as it made us feel as though we were more immersed in nature and the boys could do all their nature parkour larking around on the trail and the surrounding embankments. We stopped for a while beside a small waterfall and rocky pools so the boys could splash around and leap from rock to rock. Amazingly, only one of them fell in.
Now that we have finally visited Wissahickon Valley Park, we will definitely be drawn to return time and time again and explore more of its trails and features.
In addition to returning to old favourites and nearby haunts, we have been very gradually exploring more of the state parks in our surrounding areas. Our most recent trip was to Evansburg State Park, near Collegeville.
This was an area first settled by the Mennonite community. Mr Pict and the Pictlings are descended from Swiss Mennonites who emigrated to and first settled in Pennsylvania (though not in this area) before migrating north. That then was an added bit of interest for me, as a family history nerd. Our trek started off next to a building that I assume dates from that era of the area’s history. The main feature of the woodland landscape is the Skippack Creek which carves the landscape up into steep ridges and leads the pathways to curve and wind and double back on themselves.
We set off on one of the multi-purpose trails. It was a lovely, peaceful spot and I enjoyed spotting some definitive signs of Spring asserting themselves in the woodland. Farewell, Winter. The boys loved climbing trees and scampering down embankments to watch the water, or throwing small branches into the creek to play Pooh Sticks. The younger trio then spent some time engaged in imaginative play, orcs and hobbits I think.
All four boys like to do this running, leaping, bounding, climbing, dangling escapade in the great outdoors that I can only really describe as “woodland parkour”. That was when things got messy. The entire walk was incredibly muddy under foot. The pathways were essentially “quick mud” and we walked the trail by navigating a route that followed yet did not involve actually stepping on any of the trail paths. Of course, as soon as the kids started racing at speed through the woods, more focused on leaping and jumping, they started sploshing in the mud, sinking into it, making loud sucking squelches as they withdrew each foot. My youngest made literal the metaphor “feet of clay”. My oldest lost his footing on one leap and ended up ankle deep in a stream. The sticky, clay mud was so unremitting and tenacious that we were all entirely plastered as we trudged back to the car park and, apart from Mr Pict who was driving, we all journeyed home bare foot. It took me two hours of scrubbing to clean our shoes.
It was a lovely spot to explore, however, and we will definitely return in a dryer season.
*PS It seems my recent run of bad luck with appliances and electronics has not yet concluded. During this particular walk, my Nikon DSLR decided to shuffle off its mortal coil. I am not a very capable phone photographer and, therefore, the quality of photography in this post drops off somewhat at the end. Anticipate my photos being duff for a while until I can either repair or replace my DSLR.*
Yesterday was my first ever Columbus Day. Until I saw the kids were off school, I had forgotten Columbus Day even existed. It’s not really up there in the pantheon of great American holidays and, quite frankly, nor should it be. A couple of American cities have actually renamed the holiday which has reignited the debate about whether there ought to even be a Columbus Day – and some states choose to not observe it as a federal holiday anyway. Not only was Christopher Columbus not actually the first European to “discover” North America – and there’s no Leif Erikson Day – but he discovered it as a blunder. What makes Columbus Day particularly objectionable, of course, is that it is named in celebration of a voyage that led to the enslavement and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the continent. Even my 7 year old can tell you that the Columbian Exchange meant fruit, vegetables, animals being introduced to Europe whereas Europe gave North America horses and disease – the latter, of course, also assisting in the eradication of the native populations. Fair swap? Opportunity for some was degradation and destruction for others. As an outsider and newcomer to Columbus Day, it does strike me as very peculiar indeed that Columbus is still considered worthy of celebration (even if that is a low key celebration that means little more than kids getting a day off school). It seems to me to be at least equally as distasteful as the word Empire still being included in the honours the Queen hands out. I am not someone who supports whitewashing history. I think the ills and horrors of the past need to be accepted and embraced and hopefully learned from. I am sure, however, that right-minded people would think it inappropriate to have a national holiday celebrating slavery and that’s in the same moral ball park. Columbus Day really ought to be replaced with a holiday that merits celebration. There is a movement to replace it with a celebration of the indigenous cultures of North America. That would certainly be a way to further redress the “white” imbalance of national holidays but the “male” imbalance could start to be righted by having a national day that celebrates the accomplishments of and contributions made by American women to the world.
Anyway, that’s my rant about Columbus Day over and out. As mentioned, all it meant for us was that the kids had a day off school (yet another day – Autumn seems to be liberally peppered with holidays) and – since all of his colleagues had taken the day off – Mr Pict decided to take the day off too. We decided to go for a bit of a nature ramble. A neighbour had told my kids that she had seen some skunks in some local woodland when she was walking her dogs. Nobody in their right minds goes in search of skunks. My kids wanted to go in search of skunks. So a skunk-searching we went. You will note in the photographs to follow that we were minus one child. He had not been abducted by a sasquatch or indeed attacked by skunks. Our 9 year old was at a sleepover at a friend’s house and thus missed this first opportunity to go in pursuit of skunks. Here’s the thing: we did not encounter skunks. In fact, we encountered less wildlife on our wander through the woods than we can find in ten seconds spent in our garden. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that my kids go nowhere quietly.
The end of the woodland trail brought us out at a local playground. There was a black walnut growing which was depositing its fruits all over the place. Black walnuts look a bit like smooth horse chestnuts, if that makes sense. The green outer casing smells like lime and inside there is black mush that makes me think of charcoal. The interior was, in fact, used as a pigment for drawing and dying through the centuries. The black walnut also features in my husband’s family history in that his Mennonite ancestors used it , when migrating from Pennsylvania to New York and Canada, to determine where best to settle and establish their farms since the presence of the black walnut was an indicator of fertile and well-irrigated land.
While his little brothers played on the play equipment, my oldest son and I decided to employ black walnuts as balls. There are no photos of us juggling with them because a) I couldn’t take photos when two hands were being used for juggline and b) neither of us remotely has any skill with juggling. We then used them for a counting, clapping, throwing game and for practising throwing and catching one-handed (and not with the dominant hand). Who needs toys, right?
Once home, we decorated the house for Halloween and then my husband made a delicious chicken pot pie for dinner. That then was our wholesome, quality family time, marking of our first Columbus Day. No genocide involved. And who knows, maybe our next Columbus Day will actually be Indigenous People Day or American Women’s Day.
We moved to Pennsylvania from a relatively remote area on the West coast of Scotland. We were surrounded by nature. We could stroll the banks of a loch, wander a forest trail, scale a hill or potter along the seashore. A walk of a few minutes from home could have the kids playing in woodland and a short drive could have us lost in the landscape. It was one of the things I loved best about living where we used to: all that access to nature, the fresh air, the space.
We are lucky that where we have ended up is pretty green. We have swapped the red squirrels of “home” for grey squirrels who play in our garden – much to the delight of my 4 year old – and instead of rounding a corner of a single track road to find a large deer leering at me we now have a herd of deer who seem to hang out opposite Toys R Us. We have also seen some lovely birds visited our garden, including a red-bellied woodpecker. Nevertheless, we were missing our nature walks so we used the Thanksgiving weekend as an opportunity to explore a nearby state park.
No sooner had we arrived than we saw some a couple of turkey vultures circling above us, using the thermals to drift higher and higher. Some bird watchers thought one of them might be a bald eagle but I’m not going to claim I saw a bald eagle here until identification is certain. We did, however, see a whole load of blue jays hopping from branch to branch as we walked along one pathway. It was a mild and bright day so the sunlight was flashing off their sky blue feathers.
We found a playground in the middle of the walk so the boys could play.
The little Picts like nature when it is red in tooth and clue. It’s not just a “circle of life” thing with them; they are actually quite fond of the macabre. I will hold my hands up and admit this is my responsibility as a parent. I got them hooked on watching animal autopsy documentaries and have encouraged them to study any dead animals we have encountered on our treks. They still speak fondly of the time when we stumbled across an entire red deer skeleton, picked clean and bleached by the sun. It’s science. So the boys were all very excited when we came upon the rib cage, vertebrae and one leg of a deer. It still had hide on one leg while the rib cage was entirely exposed. My 6 year old wanted to take it home with us. Eh… No. I may have encouraged this fascination in my kids but I do draw the line somewhere.
We only wandered in a small proportion of the park land so we will definitely return there to explore some more and indeed we will visit more state parks as we venture out on weekends and holidays.