Wild School – Winter Musings: Bears, Eagles, and Snow, Oh My!

This Winter in Santa Fe has brought our mountains bright and beautiful blessings of moisture! White gold for our desert. We have had many wonder-filled days playing outdoors, enjoying the snow – sledding, playing running games to stay warm, and learning about our local animals. Outdoor education is fun!

As we are traipsing around the mountains of Santa Fe this month and early into February, there may be some female Black Bears giving birth to a new generation of young cubs. Bears are incredible for many reasons, one of these is their ability to store enough ‘white’ fat and ‘brown’ fat in their bodies after summer and fall harvesting to last a good 4 to 5 months without eating. When you add suckling one or two cubs to that, I am in awe! – Such magic and mystery afoot!

Learn more about North American Black Bears here.

Stories are a guiding light in the inquiries our children hold and bring forth to explore. Last week Jaengus shared some lovely pieces of curiosity about the penguins in Antarctica so, naturally we pursued a sled trip through those cold, white lands. Ice fishing here, learning some snowboarding techniques there, finding safe places for eagles to perch, feed from and raise young, all the while pulling our expedition gear ourselves in sturdy sleds!

On Tuesday we furthered our understandings of Eagle behavior, how parent eagles look after and feed their young and of course, how they teach their young to perch, fly and catch prey on their own. Paloma was a wonderful eagle chick for Sevi and Giselle to hatch and raise.

Last Thursday took us to Aspen Vista where Alejandro, Liat and I got out on snow shoes in search of a place to make snow caves. We worked out that if you ‘quack’ while walking on snow shoes, you really do look like a duck with big feet waddling along! Such fun.

Our snow caves were still small when we left our special spot,  but we laid branches and tiles of crusty snow over them to create a place for snow to accumulate without filling the homes back up again. We’ll discover what has happened when we visit the spot again this coming week.  We love the always-changing conditions of our mountains, especially in a winter so rich in snow. It makes everyday a new adventure. 

Emerging from the Fog of Motherhood ~ Becoming a Mountain Mama

By Katie Macaulay ~ first appeared as an article in Tumbleweeds Spring 2018 Issue

Ever since I discovered the magic of morning fitness outside in the mountains, my life has changed.

I call it “Emerging From the Fog of Early Motherhood,” and you might be familiar with some of the symptoms:

• No time for self-care (always taking care of others needs first)
• No time for exercise (or a haphazard attempt)
• No time for connecting with other moms (without kids hanging off your leg)
• Feeling constantly frazzled and exhausted (even slightly depressed)

If you are familiar with one or more of these symptoms, you may be experiencing The Fog. My experience with The Fog and my emergence from it is the reason I am starting a new program called Mountain Mamas!

Before the Fog lifted for me, I experienced all of these symptoms. I was out of shape and did not feel good in my body after having two kids. Getting outside for a 10-minute walk felt like a huge achievement. My inertia was like that of a newborn, and my speed was only that required for chasing a toddler or teaching a 5-year-old to ride a bike. I likely experienced some mild, undiagnosed depression during those early years of the Fog.

As the kids got older, I found another symptom of the Fog was a lack of clarity. When my daughter started kindergarten I was disoriented. I spent the first few weeks of her kindergarten year in a daze, as if always walking from room to room to get something and forgetting what I was looking for. Where would I focus my energy now that both kids were in school? I had so many dreams of this time of newfound freedom, yet I was experiencing the lack-of-clarity Fog.

In the Fog, I also had the latent desire to get out into the mountains and exercise but did not know where to start. I envied the moms who “had the time” or the previous experience to run trails or skin up the mountain on a powder day. I had not done much of either, and with small children it certainly did not seem like the time to start.

Luckily, I found an antidote. It started with a group of other moms who were rising before dawn to run mountain trails and return home before kids were awake. Really? I had no idea that this was even an option. This sounded terrifying and impossible, yet intriguing (and only possible because my husband could stay at home with children).

Could I really get up that early? (I had never, ever been a morning person.) Could I really commit to regular exercise? (I had never had a regular exercise routine before.) Would my family accept this new behavior and roll with it? And would these mountain mamas really accept me, an out-of-shape, non-runner, into their group?

Despite my lack of experience, lack of confidence and lifetime subscription to the Non-Morning Person Club, I was desperate for change, so I gave it a try.

It didn’t take long for me to become addicted to this taste of me-time. My own objections were quickly overcome; my body clock adjusted to the new time frame. Going to bed early and rising before the sun felt like a gift to myself. Regular exercise made me feel like a whole new person, as I shed the extra pounds that had been weighing me down, mentally and physically. Plus I was feeling so good from exercise-induced endorphins that I was able to deal more constructively with many of my family’s expressions of discontent. I could pacify, and problem-solve, and not for a minute consider giving up my morning routine. Lastly, the other moms accepted me. They weren’t as hardcore as I had feared and I made new lifelong friends and a new lifelong habit of exercise.

The runs themselves were surprisingly energizing, and the early morning experience was surprisingly sublime for an anti-morning person. The quiet in our dark house was like a well-kept secret — just me, alone with my thoughts, uninterrupted. Pure heaven! Driving to the trailhead listening to the morning news made me feel like an intelligent grown-up again, a return to my formerly more informed self. (I had stopped listening to the news when my young son asked me what a death squad was.) Breathing in the fresh mountain air, witnessing spectacular sunrises and getting stronger each day felt like a spa treatment; glowing with endorphins I happily got the kids ready for school upon my return from the mountain trails. But really, the best part was connecting with the other mamas, sharing the joys and challenges of motherhood on the trail. The Fog lifted a little more with each early morning rise. I had newfound camaraderie, fitness and confidence.

As a bonus to all these other positives, my dog loved the new routine. She was getting more and better exercise than she ever had. My new motto became: “If Coover is happy, I am happy.”

After a while, we started training for and doing longer runs. I was amazed when I finished my first half-marathon. With a friend organizing a group run, I began to train for the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim — something I hadn’t dreamed possible barely a year earlier. My new feelings of well-being spilled over into all areas of my life. Not to mention that running the Grand Canyon itself was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life. (It was really a run/hike at more than 90 degrees in the bottom of the canyon.)

The next marathon for me, however, will be the realization of my long-held dream to share this idea — Mountain Mamas — with other women. I know there must be other mamas experiencing the Fog who could benefit from regular exercise and mama connection. Mamas who would like to:

• Get regular exercise in nature (through hikes, runs or bike rides)
• Connect with other women, sharing the joys and trials of motherhood
• Gain more clarity and confidence in all areas of life.

Are as you afraid as I was? Fear not! You do not have to be a hard-core early morning runner to participate. Mountain Mamas will offer hikes and mountain bike rides (after kid drop-off), in addition to early morning runs. All will be suitable for beginners and experienced athletes alike. With time, we will offer gourmet backpacking trips, photography and art workshops, creativity and clarity circles, and more.

The theme of Mountain Mamas will be connecting with nature and with each other, lifting each other up and getting clear. As women, we know how to encourage and support one another. Together we will hit the trail and climb mountains to find our own personal summit.

To learn more about becoming a Mountain Mama, look under Programs or email katie@sfmountainkids.com

Katie Macaulay is the founder and director of Mountain Kids!, a year-round outdoor adventure and education program, now entering its 10th year.

Thanksgiving Camp: Tuesday at Tsankawi

Wow! What a magical day! Not only were the kids amazing hikers and explorers, we were gifted with the experience of seeing thousands of sandhill cranes migrating above us. And I mean thousands!!

Once we heard them, we could no longer ignore the din of the bird calls above us. Group after group flew over us on their way to the Bosque del Apache, south of Albuquerque. We had so many questions, and then one large group proceeded to fly in a swarm above us, like they were doing a dance, or as one camper said “They are making a giant sandhill crane!” while another remarked “They are making a word!” It was mesmerizing.

Tsankawi (a part of Bandalier), is also a mesmerizing place. The deeply grooved trails and the caves are a magical place for the imagination to expand and dream of a life here, long ago. So much simpler and so much more difficult than our own. The pottery shards are too a reminder of their creative work and the necessities they created for their own survival.

The kids were fantastic hikers and we had the gift of my own mom and daughter joining us for the day. Lovely fun!

Thanksgiving Camp: Monday at Deer Creek

After a chilly start, we had a beautiful warm day exploring Deer Creek.

Before setting out on the trail, we assigned buddies and reviewed trail etiquette. We got going, and our first stop was the creek, of course! We practiced crossing it various ways, with the extra challenge to keep feet dry. Some collected dried horsetail while others went to “water a plant.”

As we walked and explored, kids pointed out scat, asking Carmen to collect it in her scat tins for later identification in our scat museum. (Coming to Winter Camp, soon!!) It is wonderful how little eyes, hands and feet notice everything in their environment. Plants, scat, insects, animals… kids notice everything on the trail.

After crossing the river, and walking for a bit, our next stop was an impressive rock, which could be accessed from the top, and made for a fun place to perch and an impressive photo. Milana and Max loved to challenge their physical skills by climbing rocks and jumping off those that were not too high! With adult guidance, these kids know how to challenge themselves just enough to build confidence and not get hurt. I do love seeing girls in princess outfits transform into strong and able climbers and hikers.

We found a nice sunny perch up on some great rocks with a view for lunch. After lunch the kids worked together to “making paint” by scraping rock on rock. There was merry art and paint making, accompanied by more rock climbing and jumping, before we set off for a little more adventure on our way back to the van. On our journey we explored several environments with rocks and grass and returned to the river where we learned hand games from two campers, playing until we were out of time to play anymore.

It was a beautiful, fun-filled day at Deer Creek! Click through photos to see campers in action below!

Winter Hikes in the Santa Fe Area

Original Article written for Tumbleweeds, a Quarterly Newspaper for Santa Fe families, by Katie Macaulay.
November 2017.

For even the most avid snow-sports enthusiasts, sometimes you just want a break from the snow in the winter. Or perhaps you are not a snow-lover in the first place, and you are waiting out winter in your house. Or maybe the kids are driving you crazy as they bounce between rowdy house play, spending too much time on their beloved screens, or tearing apart your living room to make forts. (Actually, fort building is one of my favorite indoor winter activities for kids, but I digress.)

If any of these scenarios ring true for you, I have a few favorite spots for winter fun to get everyone filled with nature-bliss endorphins and happily tired. These are places that are often too hot to enjoy in summer heat, but are perfect for winter outings when a little extra sun and warmth is key.

The first is Ghost Ranch, which is just over an hour from Santa Fe on highway 84. You can tell your kids that dinosaurs once lived here and that they might even get to see one! The Paleontology Museum is worth a stop (Open Mon-Sat 9-5 and Sunday 1-5) to get a get a glimpse of our State Fossil, the Celeophysis, found right at Ghost Ranch, and see some bones and a large dinorsaur diorama. On the way, be sure to stop at Bodes General Store in Abiquiu to pick up lunch for the trail – burritos and burgers are family favorites!

There are three awesome hikes/adventures to choose from at Ghost Ranch: Chimney Rock, Kitchen Mesa, and Box Canyon. In the winter there will be almost no one else here, so you can get your awe and solitude in one fell swoop. Stop in at the Welcome Centre to pay a fee and get a map of the hikes.

The trail to Chimney Rock is behind the museum, and is a steady climb up to a dramatic view of the towering orphaned rock. A steep section at the beginning of the trail gives way to a more gradual climb, with a few steeper sections on the way up to the mesa top. The view is spectacular, spanning the colorful rocks of Ghost Ranch, the Chama River valley, Abiquiu Lake and Pedernal Peak. While here you can also impress your friends, and possibly your kids, by telling them what the three layers of rock in this area are. (See the end of this article for the cheat sheet.)

One caveat is that there is a significant drop from the viewpoint, with no safety railings, and a plaque for someone who presumably lost his life here. (Current mythology is that he was trying to “climb down.”) My rule of thumb with Mountain Kids! and my own kids is to stay two body lengths away from the edge. You can use your judgment, but a minimum of one body length is recommended. If you don’t trust your kiddos to stay away from the edge, save this for another year, and choose Box Canyon instead. Chimney Rock is a challenging climb for little people, and an exciting challenge for older kids and adults wishing to get big views, a workout, and great rewards.

The Kitchen Mesa Hike is also not for the faint of heart, but so worth it if you are not afraid of heights. (My mother sat down in the middle of the climb up the mesa and refused to budge.)

That said, it is not mandatory to get up on top of the mesa to be in awe. The hike meanders amongst some profoundly massive red boulders with towering mesas on either side. If you are up for the climb to the top of Kitchen Mesa, the views are well worth it. It is exhilarating to explore this giant rock and take big cleansing breaths while on top of the world.

The Box Canyon hike is perfect for people who prefer to look up instead of down. It is relatively flat compared with the others, so great for little legs and feet. In the summer there is a creek flowing here, but in winter it is a dry riverbed. The trail begins on a dirt road and then crosses the riverbed and meanders upriver on rocky terrain. Just when your kids decide they are done, push a little bit farther to the box canyon, because it is so worth it.

You’ll know when you have arrived, as the giant semi-circle of overhanging rock is awe-inspiring. Your arrival will no doubt be accompanied by shouts of “Echo!” and a sudden surge in your child’s energy to scramble and explore the sloping rock. You might want to insist they eat and water themselves first. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a giant raptor nest on the cliff above the trail. I have seen adults and babies in these nests. It is quite awesome to witness their wingspan if you get lucky enough to see them fly.

If you want a shorter drive, Tsankawi is another awesome winter hike, only 45 minutes from Santa Fe via Hwy 84, 502 and 4. Tsankawi is the smaller, lesser known cousin of Bandelier National Monument without handrails and concrete steps. At Tsankawi you can pretend you are explorer discovering this place for the first time, with waist deep grooves in the paths and a myriad of caves to explore. Pick up a map for $1 at the entrance to learn more while you hike.

The loop trail involves a few ladders, so be prepared to navigate these. The first one is short (and can actually be avoided), the second can be missed entirely by taking a slot trail, and the third, at the far end of the mesa, is the longest, and unavoidable. I like to do the trail “backwards” with younger kids so they can climb up the ladder instead of down which is easier for them. To do it this way, stay right and walk along the edge when the arrow points up to the left. You will also avoid the second ladder this way. There is a drop-off on part of the trail, but the path is wide enough to avoid heart-palpitations, for the most part.

Once you reach the caves, be sure to stop and sit in one together. (Be careful to tread lightly, as it is easy to kick up dust inside, which makes sitting inside no fun.) In the cave, have a snack, tell a story, break out your long lost flute or recorder, or just imagine what life would have been like for the kids who lived here. Would your kids like to live here? Why? Why not? These are fun ideas to ponder with your kids and can provoke conversations for days and weeks to come. Next time you take away their screen time, they can pretend they live in a cave and need to find their own fun!

My last suggestion is the closest to Santa Fe – Diablo Canyon Recreation Area via 599, Camino La Tierra and Old Buckman Road. It is not far as the crow flies, but the washboard road makes driving slow and tedious (45 minutes or so). The wonderland of rocks, cliffs and sand make it worth it though, as you enter another world.

As you being your walk, you might see some little dots on the sheer rock cliff face above you. These dots are people who climb this behemoth of a rock: remarkable and inspiring, and for those of us who prefer to stay close to the ground, downright scary. Luckily, you will be on solid ground, and it makes climbing the big black boulders below seem very safe by comparison.

With little ones you will prefer to stay in the sandy, beach-like wash that navigates between the sheer face on your right and the pile of boulders on your left. The canyon narrows and then opens up, widening and eventually reaching the Rio Grande. You can walk down as far as you desire, which is often not too far with kids who love to create their own games and play, jumping off the big rocks.

If your kids are a little older and you have confidence scrambling over big rocks with them, you can walk up the black rocks on your left and go as far as you feel comfortable. I have been to the tippy-top of the mesa with some confident climbers in the 9-11 year-old range. If this is your cup of tea, it’s a blast – inspiring, confidence-boosting and memorable. If you are a nervous mom or dad, you may want to keep the kids on the down low.

I have seen rattlesnakes here and at Ghost Ranch, but that should not be a concern during the winter months.

So there you have it. You have no excuse now for not getting outside with your kids this winter. Even if you hate the cold, all of these places can be quite warm on sunny winter afternoon, and will inspire even the most-curmudgeonly hiker to get some nature-inspired endorphins pumping.
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Ghost Ranch Cheat Sheet

Red – Chinle layer, from the Triassic period about 220 MYA, full of dinosaur bones, including Celeophysis, our state fossil.
Yellow – Entrada layer – sandstone – these are petrified dunes from a vast desert, 161-165 MYA
White – Todilto layer – from a salty inland sea about 50 mya.

Tsankawi Cheat Sheet
The rock here was created when the Valles Caldera blew it’s top, and ash and lava flowed down to form what is now called volcanic tuff. It is a soft rock that the pueblo people dug into to make the caveates. Caveates are human made caves that were a part of the pueblo peoples settlement. (They built additional rooms outside of the caves. Look for holes in the rock that held beams for a roof.) Grab a map of Tsankawi for $1 at the trailhead and stop at the numbered markers to learn more!

Digging into the Past, Week 2: Arroyo Hondo (both groups)

We are so lucky to have such a wealth of knowledge in our community. Jay Shapiro is a retired archeologist who did his PhD thesis on the Arroyo Hondo site.  This the second year he has given our kids a private tour.  His comment about our campers is that “They ask better questions than adults do!”  He is always impressed with the level of engagement of our campers.  We found lots of pottery shards, several matates used for grinding corn, and a couple of arrow heads.

We learned that we never, ever take things from an archeological site, and that it is best to leave things where they are found, not collect them in one place.  By collecting them, they lose their value to archeologists, because the place they are found is a significant part of the story.

After our tour we had lots of time for lunch and play!  A great end to a fun week of digging into the past!

Digging into the Past, Week 2: Ghost Ranch (both groups)

Ghost Ranch is an amazing resource near Santa Fe, and Alex Downs, the now-retired Paleontologist, is a true gem!  He came out of retirement to spend time with the kids making plaster casts of dragons, T-rex teeth and claws. Afterwards he gave them a tour of the paleontology museum, answering their questions, sharing some of his wealth of knowledge, and showing them what a paleontoligist does. His great sense of humor and silliness combined with his knowledge provides the perfect recipe for engagement of the kids.

After lunch, some of the campers chose to go for a hike up to the dry river bed, while others did an archeology activity, painting their own miniature pottery replicas, followed by a scavenger hunt in the archeology museum.  The hikers came back covered in mud, as they had found a little bit of water in the river, while the others left with another sweet momento of our learning and fun-filled day at Ghost Ranch!