Favorite hikes: The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Favorite hikes: The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

There are places on this Earth that feel other worldly. The Quiraing (pronounced KARE-ING) on the Isle of Skye is one of those places. Inspiring, romantic, and immensely beautiful, the mesas and cliffs of the Quiraing are a jigsaw puzzle on the Scottish coastline.

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If the Quiraing looks familiar you probably recognize it from a movie: Macbeth, The BFG, Stardust, Snow White and the Huntsman, Transformers: The Last Night, and the new King Arthur movie all feature the iconic landscape. It is also part of the regular screensaver rotation on Google Chromecast.

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We hiked it on a cold, windy April morning. Our bed and breakfast host warned us the path is muddy and sometimes treacherous and we should avoid it if the weather is not cooperating. We looked at the grey skies above and took a chance.

The crisp wind blew in our faces as we rounded the cliffs, turning our cheeks and noses red and freezing our fingers. Konnor was bundled snugly on his daddy’s back, a brave baby ready for the ride. IMG_20170415_145352

The weather was mixed. It even started to hail on us briefly. Nevertheless, we trusted our instincts and moved forward, confident the unpredictable Scottish weather would hold and we could round the face of the Quiraing safely – toddler in tow.

The trail is breathtaking on several levels. It is one of those places that makes a person feel incredibly small. The human body is minuscule measured against the colossal cliffs and the burn in my lungs is a humble reminder that there are forces in this world much bigger than myself. This sense of humility is one of my favorite emotions during a hike. The fact that I can traverse these environments is incredibly fulfilling.

This terrain is also quintessentially Scottish. Hikers share the grassy terrain with herds of sheep. Bunny rabbits hop in the meadows. The air is crisp and cool. Everything is green.

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I could talk about the beauty of the Quiraing all day, but there is one significant downside. The Quiraing is one of the most popular hikes on the Isle of Skye and it is crowded! Fortunately, most of the bus stop tourists are not equipped for the terrain and many turn around at the  first small stream (nearly impossible to cross in April without sturdy hiking shoes or boots) and do not hike all the way to the rock face. At the front of the rocks only experienced hikers remain.

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The path becomes narrow and slick. There are harrowing cliffs. A single step off trail into what appears to be grass can be misleading and leave a hiker knee-deep in a muddy bog. This is not a trail for the timid. But it sure is gorgeous and quintessentially Scottish.

 

Want to hike the Quiraing? Here is what you need:

  • Transportation – It is far from any of the towns on the Isle of Skye.
  • Sturdy boots –  The terrain is slick and muddy
  • Wind breaker – Preferably a water resistant one. Weather at the Quiraing can turn in an instant
  • Camera – You will not be able to take enough photos.
  • Hiking poles – We did not have poles along, but they would have been helpful
  • Plenty of water – As you should carry for any trail

 

 

 

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Yes, I am concerned about Zika

 

mosuitoToday, Governor Rick Scott confirmed the first case of locally transmitted Zika to be reported outside of South Florida. The patient is in Pinellas County, which for those of you unfamiliar with Florida, is just outside the Tampa area. I live in the Orlando area. The new “hot zone” is roughly 125 miles from my house.

The World Health Organization reports the mosquitoes that carry Zika can only travel 0.2 miles. So, why would I be worried about it in Orlando? Mostly, my concern is due to the fact that I am an outdoors enthusiast and I am a woman of childbearing age. I am not pregnant, nor am I trying to get pregnant, but scientists have yet to reign in this virus. I know they are working hard on researching a vaccine at the CDC in Atlanta, but until it is proven effective and becomes widely available we are stuck relying on good old fashioned bug repellent and DEET to protect ourselves against Zika.

I am a mosquito magnet. I swear, no amount of DEET or citronella candles can keep the bugs off of me. My husband can testify that mosquitoes frequently chew on my limbs leaving large welts all over my body even when nobody else in our group has a single bite. I feel like I cannot protect myself in the Zika environment.

Fact is, scientists don’t know a lot about Zika. They are still researching its side-effects, not only in unborn children and newborns, but also in adults. Microcephaly is just one of many potential birth defects caused by Zika. A study published earlier this month in the British Medical Journal reported on research in Brazil that links severe joint deformities to Zika. The babies also had calcifications on their brain. The study was small and the cause and effect is unclear, but it is the perfect example of how little scientists really understand about the disease. Other studies have related Zika to infant blindness and trouble swallowing.

According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of Zika in adults are fever, rash, joint pain and pink-eye. But its longterm effects are unknown. A study published last week that was conducted by Stanford University researchers and scientists in Brazil suggests Zika may damage adult brain cells as well, potentially causing memory loss. The study was conducted in mice, so it obviously needs more research, but these potentially unknown factors are downright scary to a healthy, outdoors loving adult like myself.

I’m definately not “freaked out” over Zika. But I admit, I do worry. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how long Zika stays in an adult body, so I have to wonder if a baby I concieve three years from now could be impacted by a mosquito that bites me today. In the meantime, I will continue my current lifestyle and the threat of Zika will not keep me out of the woods.

I encourage everyone to contact their local and state lawmakers and ask them to provide more federal and state funding to research and fight Zika. Also, please keep a close eye on standing water. We can’t do much about the swamps and puddles that nature provides, but we can dump out our bird feeders, trash bins, and other items that may be collecting rain water around our homes.

This Florida girl can’t afford to worry about a stupid bug.

The Dog Days of Summer: Hike the Heat with your Hound

The UV Index has soared to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit almost every day this month. If I dress correctly, get an early start, wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water I can still enjoy a hike. I know that I need to pace myself because of the heat. My dog, Arthur, doesn’t seem to make the same observation about the weather.

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Arthur loves the freedom he receives on the trail and I can’t bare to leave him at home. If you feel the same way about your pet, here is some really important advice from two dog behavioral experts and outdoor enthusiasts.

Weather can be dangerous. 
Dean Milenkovic knew this when he took his two American Labrador Retrievers, Blue & Indigo on a 40-mile, 4-day through hike on the Appalachian Trail. Dean is a professional photographer and outdoors enthusiast who also happens to hike a lot with his pets. “During colder months  we go as often as 3 times a week with 2 moderate hikes of 3-6 miles and one longer hike 8-12 miles.  During the summer, we go once or twice a week.  We supplement this with trips to the beach and long morning walks.” The heat is the primary reason why his summer hikes run short. And for good reason. It is estimated that several hundred dogs die from heat stroke in the U.S. each year.

 

Early signs of heat stroke in dogs:
– panting
– hyper-salivation (excessive production of saliva)
– dry mucous membranes (nose is not wet)
– higher heart rate
– dogs may appear hyperactive & excitable
– American Kennel Association

Some dogs are more at risk than others, so it is important to recognize early warning signs before the condition becomes serious and to talk to your veterinarian if you have a dog with thick coat or medical issues.

Teena Patel, a dog behaviorist who owns the University of Doglando, stresses the importance of “heat checks” when spending a lot of time outdoors with your pets. She recommends checking a dog’s temperature and hydration by touching their ears, gums and paws every two hours during the afternoon heat. She also recommends choosing your trails wisely. “We pick trails that have shade canopies and we keep our hikes very short in the summer.  If we are in Georgia or North Carolina or someplace we don’t have to worry about gators, we intentionally choose trails with ponds or lakes so the dogs can swim and cool off.”

Water, Water, Water

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That brings us to our next point: water. Dogs need about an ounce of water for every 10 pounds of body weight each day (Translation: a 50 lb. dog needs between 43 and 85 oz. of water per  day.)

Personally, I try to avoid letting my dog drink stagnant water for the same reasons we don’t drink it. Dogs are also prone to illnesses and parasites. Not to mention, some ponds and streams can be downright nasty. Patel reminds pet owners that no natural water sources can automatically be deemed safe. “We must be very careful of letting dogs drink out of lakes because many lakes have houses around them and people treat their yards with pesticides. When it rains the run off from their lawns go into the lake.” She allows her dogs to drink from fresh rain puddles, but even that is not for everyone. A dog with a poor immune system could be susceptible to anything.

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Arthur enjoying some cool water in the mountains of North Carolina

There are several options for easy-to-carry pet water bowls. I use something like this:

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Arthur’s Water Bottle

Always stay alert: 

Arthur goes insane when we are on a trail, especially if I allow him to run around off-leash. Once I started writing this blog it was brought to my attention that I should probably carry a better first aid kit for him. Milenkovic always carries an AKC First Aid Kit

He also establishes boundaries at the beginning of the hike and encourages his dogs to do voluntary check-ins and recalls by handing out high value treats. He says, “This can come in handy if the dog tries to take off after a deer, bird or a squirrel.  Leaping into tall grass or bushes after a deer can cause numerous cuts to both body and paws. Leaping into water to chase a bird can draw nearby alligators to investigate and pulling the dog by his tail out of the water with gator heading for you is not fun.”

Have a plan:

You never know what can happen on the trail. Write down the address and phone number for the closest emergency veterinarians, and make sure you are not hiking during hunting season. If you do hike in a location where hunting is a possibility,  get your dog a brightly colored vest.

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Hunters will be able to see Arthur better when he wears this vest.

You can also visit your state’s forestry website to find out which locations are open to hunters. For the state of Florida you can check here. It can be safe and fun to hike with your dog in the summer as long as you keep them hydrated, know the warning signs, and know who to call.

The Experts:

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Teena Patel is the founder and owner of the University of Doglando in Orlando, FL. She has more than a decade of experience in dog training and behavioral science. She has traveled the world observing how different cultures interact with canines. Read more about her here.

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Dean Milenkovic is the a professional photographer and outdoors enthusiast. He is the owner of two American Labrador Retrievers, Blue & Indigo. He and his dogs have taken numerous trips to the Carolinas. The longest being a 40 mile, 4-day through hike on the Appalachian Trail. Read more about Dean and his photography here.

 

3 Reasons to take baby hiking (and what doctors think about it.)

I set out to write about the benefits of hiking with a baby, but once I started doing a little research I found that most parenting websites either don’t recommend it or offer suggestions and tips that seem overly cautious, especially to an experienced hiker.  Here are 3 reasons why I believe babies belong on the trail.k hikes

1.) It is healthy: As new mothers, our bodies are wrecked. Hiking is a great way to get in shape and lose the baby weight. Depending on your body size, fitness level, trail speed, and hiking terrain you can burn upwards of 700 calories in just two miles! (source: livestrong.com)  Consider this: A woman who weighs 150lbs. burns an extra 200+ calories for each hour she wears her infant. (source: myfitnesspal.com)  Hiking also works your core muscles, helping you regain stability and strength after birth.

It isn’t just about fitness. Hiking also exposes you and the baby to Vitamin D filled sunshine which is critical in the postpartum weeks, especially for mothers who breastfeed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed babies take Vitamin D supplements due to a lack of exposure to sunlight.

“If baby gets enough sunlight, mom’s deficiency is unlikely to be a problem for baby. However, if baby is not producing enough vitamin D from sunlight exposure, then breastmilk will need to meet a larger percentage of baby’s vitamin D needs. ” – Kellymom.com

You still need to be smart about it. Pediatricians encourage parents to always lather their babies in sunscreen and keep them covered against the sun’s dangerous UV rays.

2.) It is therapeutic:
I honestly don’t know if I would have made it through those early postpartum weeks so easily if I hadn’t quickly hit the trail with my new little hiking buddy. Konnor was only a few days old the first time I took him into the great outdoors for a stroll around the neighborhood and within weeks I was strapping him into my Tula carrier with an infant insert and heading to one of our favorite nearby trails. The sunshine, the mossy oak trees, the cicadas buzzing, and the birds chirping all helped me relax and relish the overwhelming new love that had come into my life. The trail made me believe in myself and focus on the positive aspects of childbirth rather than the trauma of what my body had experienced. In those early postpartum weeks I felt stronger and more confident than ever before. I rocked FIVE DAYS of labor, including 3 1/2 hours of pushing to bring Konnor into this world. I defied statistics by managing to give birth vaginally despite the odds laid out against me. For the first time in my life, I recognized the strength and power within my body. Hiking during that “fourth trimester,” as many call it, helped me hold onto that confidence.

Clearly, I am not the only new mother who finds hiking therapeutic. There’s a group in Salt Lake City, Utah that hosts an event every year called “Climb out of the Darkness.” The event bills itself as the world’s largest event raising awareness of maternal mental illness. The woman who runs the group’s facebook page, Lindsay, says “Hiking and being in nature is calming for me. It allows me to think, to process and distracts me from the constant worries motherhood can often bring. It’s sometimes hard with little ones to get outside but I always feel better after I do.” (You can read more about them here. There are chapters all over the nation.)

3.) It is stimulating:
The breeze shakes the leaves on the trees creating a soft rustling sound above. My boots smash leaves and pine-needles into the ground producing a “crunch, crunch, crunch” below. The wind picks up the scent of a freshly mowed cow pasture two miles away sending a distinct scent of earthiness (or is that just manure?) into the nostrils. A flock of hidden birds startles in the nearby tall grass and lifts off the ground all at once. These are things we may not notice when we go for a walk, but imagine how profound these actions must seem to someone who has never experienced any senses before. Babies begin exploring the second they are born. By taking your infant on a hike you are teaching the baby how to become aware of the environment.

An article published by the University of Cyprus references several benefits of outdoor play. That includes physical development, independence and  learning to care about the environment. The author also explains how a parent can help a newborn benefit from spending time outside.

“For children 0-3 months: Provide a blanket for the baby to lay on. Point out the leaves moving, let them feel the leaves or grass, and point out the nature sounds that they hear.”  (To read the UCY article in full click here.)

The nitty-gritty:
If you do a quick Google search for hiking and babies you will find websites that recommend leaving a newborn at home and only allowing an infant under six-months-old to join you on a short hike that lasts no longer than an hour or two. Of course, it is up to the mother and her doctors to decide what is comfortable for her and her baby. I took Konnor out for entire day hikes when he was just a couple of months old. He went on a 3-night backpacking trip with us when he was between 7-8 months old. It’s perfectly safe as long as you take smart precautions. Mothers should never go against their doctors orders. Hiking, depending on the terrain, can be extremely strenuous. You should avoid attempting anything even remotely difficult or outside your usual comfort level until you get that 6-week seal of approval from your doctor.

The same rings true for the baby. It is always a good idea to talk to your pediatrician beforehand. Don’t forget bug spray and sunscreen if your baby is old enough to wear it.  If you live in Florida, like me, the sweltering summer may mean you have to be choosier about which trails to hike during certain times of the day and year. Hats, long sleeves, and a carrier with a canopy cover are also wise choices if it is sunny or buggy.

I cannot imagine being too afraid to get outside with my baby. Lets teach our future trail blazers how to hike!hike 2

Dealing with Alligators: Tips from a Florida Girl

I’ve lived in Florida my entire life and have spent plenty of time in and around alligator infested waters. Below are my tips for avoiding an unwelcome encounter:

1.) Assume there is an alligator in the water.
They live pretty much everywhere. We have a small retention pond in our backyard. 90% of the time it is alligator-free, but since that 10% exists we have to keep an eye on it. Don’t think that big gators only live in big rivers. My husband once saw a 14-foot gator swimming in the Little Econlockhatchee. We’ve even seen gators swimming in salt water!

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I bet there’s a gator in there… (Black Bear Wilderness Area, Sanford)

2.) There’s a saying in Florida…
If you see one gator there are 10 more lurking right below the surface. I have no idea if there is any scientific proof to this saying, but it seems like a good rule to live by.

3.) Do not be afraid.
It is a good idea to be cautious and respectful of alligators. It is a bad idea to panic and make a big scene. If you are near the water and you see an alligator your best bet is to slowly walk away. If you are in the water and you see a gator do not splash or act distressed. Typically, they are more afraid of you than you are of them.

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Getting close to a gator in a controlled setting is best. (Midway Airboat Rides, Christmas, FL)

4.) Stay away from the grassy parts.
Every Floridian knows alligators nest in the grassy part of the water. Lilly pads, thick algae and debris make great cover. The water is usually full of tannins in those areas too which makes it difficult to see below the surface.

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The grassy parts… stay away from the grassy parts (Christmas, FL)

5.) Don’t go in if you’re not confident
I’ve been swimming in Florida waterways my entire life. I always weigh the risk before getting into the water. If its gator mating season or if I’m in a stretch of river known to be the home of an aggressive gator, I will not step foot in the water.

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Just chillin’ by the water’s edge at 30 weeks pregnant (Flagler Trail, Econ River)

6.) Do not swim at night
I would never swim or walk along the edge of a Florida waterway at night. (See number one if you are confused as to why.)

Forest Bathing? People are paying money to do something that’s totally free.

I read an article in the Washington Post this week about a new health trend called “forest bathing.” The article is talking about an ancient Japanese practice called Shinrin-Yoku. From what I can tell “forest bathing” and “Shinrin-Yoku” are just fancy, hipster names for “taking a walk in the woods.” The article claims this is different from hiking because a hike requires a destination. And it is different from walking on a nature trail because those require you to read signs. And walking in the city would not result in the same health benefits since cities are stressful. Experts in the field of Shinrin-Yoku claim it provides the same results as yoga or meditation.

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Kevin & I apparently “forest bathing” on the trail to Paintbrush Divide, Grand Teton Natl’l Park, Aug. 2014

People often think I’m crazy for enjoying a good hike. (I’m just going to call it hiking. I don’t do “forest bathing.”) But I agree with the concept of nature as therapy. Even if my body is physically exhausted from elevation change or distance, I feel relaxed in the woods. Hiking is about slowing down both physically and mentally, being forced to breathe deeply, forced to think about something other than the stresses of work and life at home. Hiking is still much better than, say, a day laying out by the pool with a frozen daiquiri in my hand (those days are great too) because hiking still provides a challenge. The day at the pool provides no stimulation and I find that at the end of that day I am even more stressed than I was before the relaxation because I feel like I didn’t accomplish anything. The day at the pool also leaves me sitting, stuck with my own thoughts. I’ll tend to reflect on the negative items that cause my stress instead of creating a new, positive memory. Hiking gives me that positive memory while providing opportunities for growth and education.

There are other activities that accomplish the same objective for me: canoeing or kayaking, horseback riding, snorkeling, car camping, traveling to a new destination. Notice almost my entire list involves the outdoors.

There’s a place in California that charges $30 for a three-and-a-half hour guided “forest therapy” walk. They move slowly. According to their website, they go a maximum of ¾ of a mile during that duration. That sounds like a great option for people who have money and are afraid to venture into the outdoors alone, but I recommend something else. Don’t be afraid to lace up some hiking boots and go on an adventure. Taking a “hike” doesn’t’ have to be something epic. You don’t have to traverse the entire AT or the PCT. In fact, ¾ of a mile is sometimes just the right distance. Better yet, don’t set a distance. Get out there and see how you feel. Maybe you’ll feel refreshed after ¾ of a mile. Maybe you’ll want to keep moving until it gets dark. I’m no expert, but I think many people in the hiking community would agree that “hiking” can mean many things. It can mean Shinrin-Yoku or “forest bathing” or it can mean bagging as many +10k-foot peeks as possible in one trip. Regardless, if it makes you feel healthier and happier, do it.

Though, perhaps at the end of your “forest bathing” adventure you may be ready for a real bath.

 

Backpacking with Baby

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The hardest part of backpacking with an 8-month-old is getting him to stop eating dirt!

 

blI  dreamt of taking Konnor backpacking since the day he was born, but life kept getting in the way. Last week we finally had the opportunity to live with him in the woods for a few days. It was a fantastic experience. I carried the baby while my husband carried most of our gear. Both of our packs ended up heavier than we anticipated, but we ended up using almost everything we brought with us. item004

Day 1: The first part of our trip included an 6.5 hour drive to F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain, GA. We chose this location because of the variety of trail options. We could hike as little or as much as we wanted to on any given day. We knew we wanted to keep our days short since our Florida legs haven’t hiked in the hills in over a year and we also had never backpacked with our baby. We opted for the Big Poplar Loop on the Pine Mountain Trail. The Park does require hikers to register their campsites. We arrived late the first night, about 6:00pm, which meant we only had a couple of hours to hike to camp and get set up before dark. The Park ranger recommended we stay in the Turtle Bluff campsite the first night since it was less than 2 miles from the trailhead.

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The trail itself is gorgeous. It’s nicely shaded and an easy hike with just a few hairy places. I’ll admit to getting nervous in the short sections of trail where there is a rock wall to the right and a rocky drop-off to the left with a narrow trail in the middle. Konnor likes to “dance” in his carrier, which makes my load uneven and my steps unsteady.

Day two was our biggest day of hiking. We hiked about 5.5 miles from Turtle Bluff to the Whiskey Still campsite. Whiskey Still is by far my favorite of the two sites. It is big (enough room for 3 tents), shaded, has a gorgeous stone firepit, and very private (we never saw or heard another soul while camping in this spot.) There is also a freshwater spring only 1/4 mile away. The water there was much tastier than the stream water we filtered at the Turtle Bluff site. Turtle Bluff is also less private. We, unfortunately, had a Boy Scout Troop as neighbors. They were respectful, but we could still see and hear them from Turtle Bluff.

Day three consisted of finishing the Poplar Loop and getting on the road again to part 2 of our adventure. The final part of the Poplar Loop is beautiful. The trail slopes up and down, across a beautiful stream that features a small waterfall. I spotted wildflowers and butterflies on my hike back to the car. It was the perfect ending to the “adventure” stage of our vacation.

What about the baby?
Konnor did great! I’m glad I never listened to all of the people who told me while I was pregnant, “Just you wait. Life will never be the same. You won’t be able to do that stuff once the baby arrives.” Lies! All lies! You can do anything with a baby that you can do without a baby, it just takes more work and becomes a different type of experience. For one, we had to carry more gear. In addition to our basic tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, food, cooking gear and clothing; we had to carry diapers, bottles, formula, baby clothes, bibs, and a baby first aid kit (because I would hate for something to happen to him and not be prepared.) The extra gear added extra strain on our bodies. Secondly, the danger factor becomes more severe. Before baby, if I got lost or fell it would’ve sucked but it probably wouldn’t have been the end of the world. I was incredibly nervous about slipping on the rocks or mud while carrying Konnor on my back. However, the biggest, and most important, thing that changed this trip is that baby takes a lot of the relaxation out of the vacation. Before baby, I’d look forward to arriving in camp and resting for a few minutes. Afterall, hiking the hills is hard work. I’d enjoy waking up in the morning and listening to the birds chirp while sipping tea. Instead, those moments are replaced with feedings, bottle cleanings, breast pumping and fussy time. This is no different than life at home. I really don’t know what I expected.

Overall, the trip was successful. We had a lot of fun and grew stronger as a family. I fell in love with small moments, like when Konnor would reach his hand out to my shoulder. My heart melted each time I felt those little fingers touching my back on the trail. I love his fascination with everything in nature, the way he cooed and squealed when I pointed out different types of plants, colors and shapes along the trail; the way he stared at his daddy when we could hike side-by-side. He’s an amazing little boy and I can’t help but believe we are already instilling in him a love of nature.

I’m going to get into specifics of our gear and our hikes later on in another post, but this is a start. Stay tuned for more.