Get Ready for a Great Year Outdoors

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You can examine how shadows fall to help you determine which direction is north.
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Winter temperatures may be frightful, but don’t isolate yourself indoors all season long. Bundle up, take a hike and breathe in the crisp, cold air. You’ll be surprised at the wonders you encounter and how they lift your spirits.
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The taut-line hitch is one of the most useful and versatile knots.
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Grandfather Mountain in eastern North Carolina.
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Oxeye daisy. With the right guide, you can learn to identify wildflowers quickly.
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The Big Dipper over Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Plan ahead for your next National Park vacation, and you can take advantage of hands-on instructions in nature courses and workshops.

Winter: It has its wonders, no question. But let’s face it: In most regions, there are downsides — gray skies, chill winds and icy precipitation. As much as you enjoy the outdoors, you can expect to spend too many hours rained out, snowed in or otherwise cooped up this time of year.

But just because winter is the nature lover’s off-season doesn’t mean it has to be the season of the sofa. Here are some things you can do now to nurture your love of nature, feed your dreams of sunnier days and prepare for your best year ever exploring the great outdoors.

Fireside Reading

Sometimes all it takes is a good book to transport you beyond your confines and into the natural world. Curl up near a fire on a blustery winter’s day, open to page one, and presto — off you go, buoyed by the words of writers who have a knack for opening our eyes to the planet’s wonders.

I offer here a list of my own favorites, plus samples from a few of them; over the years I’ve come to consider these books good friends. Some are classics, some contemporary; some are well-known, others not so.

The Travels of William Bartram by William Bartram

The Journals of Lewis and Clark by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis

Broadsides From the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs by Sue Hubbell

Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Another Country by Christopher Camuto

On The Wild Edge by David Petersen

A Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie

The Night Country by Loren Eiseley

A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell

Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Swampwalker’s Journal by David M. Carroll

“Boulders swelled up from the turf like huge white puff balls, and there was a flash of lightning off to the south that lit for one blue, glistening instant a hundred miles of churning, shifting landscape. I have thought since that each stone, each tree, each ravine and crevice echoing and re-echoing with thunder tells us more at such an instant than any daytime vision of the road we travel.” — Loren Eiseley, The Night Country

“No matter what we do or do not see, hear, smell, or collect on a given outing, the result is always the same: when we are walking quietly in the woods alone, the weight and woes of our purely personal and human concerns fall away unnoticed. The walker is transported, expanded into the more-than-human world … where we all came from and, in our deepest heart of hearts, continue to belong.” — David Petersen, On The Wild Edge

“I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.” — Meriwether Lewis, The Journals of Lewis and Clark

Skill Building

Practice really does make perfect, so why not spend some off-season time sharpening skills and building know-how you can use to enjoy the outdoors more fully, and more safely?

First Aid First. You’ve been putting this off for too long, right? If you haven’t already, take at least a basic first-aid course and another in CPR. Contact your local Red Cross office for a schedule of community classes.

Some organizations, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Washington Trails Association, offer wilderness first-aid courses designed specifically for outdoor-related maladies — from sprains and blisters to broken limbs — and situations beyond the ready reach of ambulances and paramedics. Contact local hiking clubs and outdoor stores to find classes in your area.

Hiker’s Basic First Aid Kit

  • Moleskin or duct tape (for blisters)
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Adhesive bandage strips
  • Adhesive closure strips
  • Tweezers
  • Ibuprofen
  • Antihistamine
  • ACE bandage
  • Safety pins

Just Say “No” to Granny Knots. The common overhand or “granny” knot is great for tying shoes, but there are better knots for most outdoor (and, for that matter, household) purposes. Get yourself a 4-foot length of rope and use some idle time to learn and practice knots that really do the job. For starters master the bowline, square knot, clove hitch and taut-line hitch?–?those will cover a variety of applications. You’ll find dozens of good, illustrated knot-tying how-to sites on the Internet. Among the many books on the subject, I like The Complete Book of Knots by Geoffrey Budworth.

How to Tie the Taut-Line Hitch

The taut-line hitch is a terrific, versatile knot, and the knot to use on tent guy lines (or a clothesline), because you can slide it up or down to loosen or tighten the rope.

  1. Wrap the free end of the rope around the standing (not free) part twice, and pull it tight, keeping the turns neat.
  2. Bring the end over the standing part, slip it through the loop formed, and tighten enough so the knot grips the standing part, but not so tight that it can’t slide up and down.

Cultivate an Inner Compass. If you’ve ever been lost on a hike, or just experienced a few minutes of nagging worry that you might be lost, you know the value of basic navigation skills. Your local library or bookstore has books that’ll teach you how to use a map, compass or Global Positioning System device. But more importantly, try to nurture an inner sense of direction as you go about your daily business. Think in terms of the four compass points instead of right, left, forward and backward (a small key-chain compass can help you start). Observe how shadows lie as the day progresses. Note the directions of prevailing winds, and how the relative positions of the sun and landmarks change as you move from place to place. Practice finding the North Star (see sidebar, below) and learn the compass points of key constellations at different times of the year. Read Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, a classic on the subject.

Find the North Star and Determine North

  1. First, locate the Big Dipper. Three stars form the “handle” and four form the “cup.”
  2. Now find the pointer stars: the two stars on the cup’s front.
  3. Follow an imaginary straight line up from the pointer stars. The first star that the line directly intersects is Polaris, the North Star. It is a medium-bright star. (If you look closely, you’ll see that the North Star is at the end of another constellation, the Little Dipper.)
  4. Now trace an imaginary line from a point directly over your head to the North Star. That line points north.

Campfire Cookery. Too often the low point of an overnight camp out is scorched canned food or blah add-water-and-stir fare. I settle for dehydrated mixes stewed over a featherweight backpacking stove when I have to, but when the time and place are appropriate, I favor real, old-fashioned campfire cooking — a tricky but satisfying art. Once or twice a winter I declare our fireplace a “camp kitchen” and practice. The secret is maintaining consistent heat from the fire; good hardwood coals smoldering red-hot but blanketed by a layer of ash are ideal. Move the pan around as the fire changes.

Why not try it yourself? At the least, master good camp coffee and pan bread. The coffee is easy, once you get the hang of it: Bring water in a pot (ideally enamel) to a hard boil, take it off the fire, stir in the coffee (1 generous tablespoon per cup of water), and let it steep, tightly covered, for 10 minutes. To settle the grounds, tap the pot’s sides with a spoon several times and add a few drops of cold water. Ahhh … that’s good coffee.

Pan bread takes a bit more care, but even the “errors” of the trial-and-error process are usually tasty (just scrape off any scorched parts). Skillet corn bread is a traditional favorite, but I’m fond of a spiced version of bannock, a hearty sconelike treat.

Spiced Bannock from a Skillet

1 1?2 cups flour
1 1?2 tsp baking powder
1 1?2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 cup chopped nuts, and/or raisins and/or other dried fruit (optional)
Water (about 1 to 1 1?2 cups)

Combine the dry ingredients. (If you’re going camping, mix them at home beforehand.) Stir in water slowly until the batter is thicker than pancake batter, but not quite as thick as biscuit dough. Generously grease and heat a small skillet over a low fire. Spoon and spread batter into pan. Bake slowly on one side, checking to make sure it doesn’t burn, about 10 minutes. When bread is browning on bottom and firm enough to turn, flip over and bake the other side. Turn as necessary until both sides are crisp and golden-brown and the inside is no longer gooey. Cut into wedges and eat as-is with honey, syrup or jam.

Nature Knowledge

There’s no better nature knowledge than that gained firsthand outdoors. But the off-season is a great time to learn exactly how and what to look for in your ramblings.

Books and Software. Your library and Internet connection are doorways to tutorials on everything from basic ecology to the fine art of identifying insects. You’ll find scores of guides to birds, wildflowers, butterflies and almost any other life-form. Here are just a few:

Guide to Birds of North America. Produced in collaboration with the renowned Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, this computer field guide includes photos, videos, species profiles, range maps, regional lists and self-quizzes to help you learn about 925 species of birds in the United States and Canada.

The Mushroom Identification Trilogy by Taylor F. Lockwood. This DVD is a common-sense introduction to the diversity of mushrooms and their key identification characteristics. Next, get a good guide to the mushrooms of your regions and you’ll be on your way to a lifetime of ‘shrooming.

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. Never mind flipping through endless photos or trying to translate technical botany terms into plain language. Just answer the five questions this classic guide poses and flip to the flower you’re looking for. Study now and come spring you’ll be able to put names to nearly every wildflower you see.

Master Naturalist Programs. These programs combine classroom instruction and field study in ecology, biology, geology, and plant and animal identification, as well as in environmental education. Most programs take six to 12 months and result in certification as a master naturalist. In return, participants serve as volunteer interpreters at parks and schools. Check with your local or state agricultural extension, conservation and wildlife agencies to see if your state offers such a program. You can also find a listing of naturalist programs below.

Nature-study Classes and Schools. Would-be students of nature usually don’t have to look any farther than their own back yards for learning opportunities. In my area, one of our community colleges offers an evening class taught by a local wild-foods expert; a nearby university lists evening courses on wildlife photography, amateur astronomy and birdwatching. Check the offerings at educational institutions in your area. Some state and national parks also have great sources of expert instruction. Here are two of my favorites:

Smoky Mountain Field School. Every year, 9 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you ever might be one of them, now’s the time to check out courses jointly conducted by the park and the University of Tennessee. Most courses involve classroom and field time; some include an overnight stay. Here’s a sampling of topics: wildflowers, mosses, moths, animal tracks, traditional medicinals, fly fishing, orienteering and Cherokee history. Fees are reasonable; in many cases, less than $50 for a day-long course.

Yellowstone Association Institute. Imagine: Yellowstone National Park, one of America’s most spectacular, plus the opportunity to explore and learn in the field with experts. The workshops vary from a single day to a full week. A mere sampling of workshop titles is enough to get any nature lover’s heart pumping: “Raptors on the Wing,” “Behind the Scenes of Wolf Behavior and Ecology,” “Snow Tracking,” and “Silence and Solitude: Winter Photography.”

Find a Master Naturalist Program Near You

Colorado (Fort Collins)
Illinois (Rock Island Co.)
Michigan (send e-mail to inquire)
South Carolina
West Virginia
Woodland Owner Networks

Wish Books for Nature Lovers

Gardeners ward off cabin fever by turning to mail-order seed catalogs filled with titillating photos of shapely produce and exotic flowers. Nature lovers can feed their fantasies with catalogs and other informative think-spring materials, too.

One-stop Naturalist Shop. Check out Acorn Naturalists. What the Sears catalog used to be to store-starved rural Americans, the Acorn Naturalists catalog is to eager-to-learn science and nature enthusiasts. Their hefty 200-page catalog, free for the asking, is chock-full of hard-to-find tools, learning materials, books and field guides. Want an acid rain study kit? A replica of a grizzly bear skull? How about a pro-quality insect-collecting field net? Hand lenses and magnifiers? Acorn has it all — and then some. This is the place to look for nature-study materials of all sorts for all ages.

Habitat How-to. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has a Backyard Conservation program that teaches homeowners how to apply the tried-and-true stewardship techniques farmers use on a smaller scale. The Service offers free tip sheets and a 28-page booklet that outlines 10 practices or projects: backyard ponds, composting, water conservation, mulching, nutrient management, wildlife habitat, pest management, terracing, tree planting and backyard wetlands. You can order hard copies or download the materials online.

Dream Destinations. Maybe there’s a national park you’ve wanted to visit for years. Or a cavern, lake or forest. Now’s the time to send off for literature so you can plan ahead and make those dreams a reality. Start by contacting tourism departments. If you’re interested in a national park, check out the National Park Service’s Web site, then zero in on specific parks and download their brochures and other materials.

Get Out!

Not every winter’s day is a wintry day — and even those that are cold or snowy offer their own sort of beauty. So don’t let the winter blahs keep you from getting outside when weather permits. Bundle up (dress in layers that you can add or remove as needed to maintain a normal body temperature), bring along food and water or juice (staying nourished and hydrated helps prevent hypothermia), and take a hike! Don’t think for a minute that winter’s landscape is barren — even those leafless trees and lifeless “weeds” are wonders when you know what to look for. These fine field guides will help: Winter Weed Finder by Dorcas Miller; Winter Tree Finder by May and Tom Watts; and Wildflowers andWinter Weeds by Lauren Brown.

You can enjoy every winter’s day — inside and out.