We did it. That old map I’ve previously written about? For the first time ever we followed what used to be the trail that circled the entire swamp, returning to our Meeting Circle. It wasn’t easy and, frankly, wasn’t always entirely enjoyable, but it was an adventure!
At one point I became uncomfortably aware that I was leading an expedition not unlike some of the wild goose chases on which my dad used to take our family when I was younger… the sort of, “hikes,” that were punctuated by a lot of complaining, whining, agonizing over when we’d be there, and even crying, (mostly on my part, as I recall.) But these kids didn’t cry, not once. They remained stoic and engaged, even when boots were soaked through or filled with cold swamp water, despite the occasional trip-and-fall, random thorns, and tired leg muscles. (And all the while, the songs of the spring peepers kept us company!)
In fact, I wasn’t even the one doing the leading. E. took the lead as the oldest of the kids and she did so with great confidence. I don’t know if I can properly express my pride and affection as I now reflect on all that went into our expedition that day. The faith and trust the kids put in me and themselves as we left the trail and went wading through and around cattails, fallen trees, bushes and deepening muck… it fills my heart and brings a smile. I am visualizing little S. as she gamely struggled along, chattering most of the way, rarely asking me or anyone to help her. Her former default to learned helplessness is disappearing. Even with her boots soaked, (as we cross between needing to be warm to needing to be waterproof,) and her legs shorter than everyone else’s, she kept a smile on her face every time I checked on her. I was so proud.
O. was quickly saturated before we even left the trail, and though she exclaimed about being wet, she plowed on through the difficult terrain and I gently teased her about not being able to get any wetter. (Later, even in the parking lot, she jumped up and down in a puddle…) Her sense of humor kept her together when she was probably pretty uncomfortable by the end of the hike. We agreed that we wouldn’t do this particular route again and that it wasn’t as fun as getting to just wander in one area with the option of sitting down and resting on a log or standing still to look around. We had to keep moving or we would never make it back in time for parent pick-up time. And, as I have recently promised myself to do whatever I can to avoid rushing, hurrying, and that awful sense of not enough time, I was in full sympathy with her (and others’) need to stop and to take our time.
But we did it. They began the session with great curiosity about the old map, where the trail led, and whether we could get all the way around as it indicated. Now we know. As we picked up a deer trail through the swamp, spotted the Fairy Tree, and finally neared the familiar woods, “LAND, HO!” shouted D., one explorer expressed regret that we had done that hike. But I pointed out that if we hadn’t done it we would have always wondered if we could, if the old path remained, and now we knew it did not. Now we could spend our time doing what we know we love. Next week I predict we will wander the (Forgotten Forest? Hidden Forest? … it needs a name) which has charms and adventures enough to satisfy all explorers, minus the exhausting hike.
At the end I told all of the kids how proud I hoped they were of themselves. They worked hard, didn’t give up, and stayed together. They looked out for each other and tried something new. It was an unknown, physical challenge, not one that just anyone would take on. I couldn’t fully express all that I felt and thought when I looked at their muddy, bedraggled selves, but I hope they felt something good and strong inside. They earned it.
All of this week’s photos were taken prior to the hike due to the difficulty of terrain and need for both of my hands free. I am also having difficulty uploading photos at this time.
Regarding the week prior, I learned that the tiny, shrimp-like thing we found in the swamp is called a, “fairy shrimp,” and that they are common in swamps and vernal ponds this time of year. They are necessary food for many other creatures just waking up and hatching each spring.
I think the kids may have questioned my sanity last week in the swamp when I suddenly demanded their utter silence and stillness, followed by tilting my head and straining my ears just right to hear over or under the sound of passing cars while my face slowly spread into a huge and gleeful grin. I whispered, (okay, sort of a whisper-shriek,) “THE SPRING PEEPERS ARE BACK! Can you HEAR them?!? Listen! No! Listen hard; point your ears that way!” I was seriously so giddy with genuine excitement to hear the telltale calls of the spring peepers surrounding us out there.
Most of the kids knew what they were hearing, “They’re frogs!” they announced to each other in response to my slightly manic behavior. A couple of kids wondered what they were hearing, “Birds?” For those who were unfamiliar, I explained about the tiny frogs with the, “X,” on their backs who populate the wetlands each spring, singing their high pitched songs. I also mentioned chorus frogs but wasn’t exactly sure if they were both out at the same time. My husband and I plan to attend a FrogWatch session at John Ball Zoo soon so that we can learn about the various frog songs and start documenting and sharing what we hear with people who study and report out on these matters.
I could tell you that I am obsessed with the tiny peepers because amphibians are such an important indicator species. I could explain how their presence can indicate the health of the local air, water, and soil because they absorb so much through their skins. That would all be true, but honestly, I just LOVE those little critters and their songs have always meant that a warmer, more alive and vibrant time is at hand. I love to open my windows at night and go to sleep to the sounds of their calls.
Well, the kids were not as thrilled as I was but they were patient with me and gave me a little bit of silence in which to hear the frogs before setting off in hopes of actual visual confirmation. Soon we realized that wherever we stood, the frogs sounded like they were around the perimeter but not in the water at our feet. A few of us decided to sit on a log and and just patiently wait to see if any spring peepers showed themselves. Soon we became distracted and instead began sifting through the muck in search of anything of interest. We tried with our broken net but cast it aside in favor of our own hands.
I showed the kids who were with me just then how to do a dirt wash (muck wash, in this case,) to make our hands safe for any amphibians we might be handling. It is important to do this, the opposite of how we wash up before eating, before holding frogs, toads, or salamanders. Any residue left on our hands from hand sanitizer, soaps, lotions or oils can get into their skin and harm them. So we scoop up dirt, swamp water, or muck that is handy and rub it all over our hands. That way we have a nice, natural substance that won’t hurt the amphibian.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see or hold any frogs that day, though I have no doubt that we will soon! In the meantime, J and S discovered an affinity for digging down into the muck with their bare hands and allowing it to sift slowly through their fingers. We found a tiny, tiny snail-like shell and an even tinier wiggling shrimp-like creature. For a while J collected muck in one of the new buckets I brought and he became completely and silently absorbed in this process for quite a long time. I absolutely love watching kids explore freely in this way. There are so many benefits that come from this type of activity. Kids are such natural scientists with their open minds and willingness to just enjoy the process of something for no particular product. (If allowed to by their adults.)
K and I were happy to see the barest beginnings of fiddle-heads poking softly through the little fern islands. We gently touched their fuzzy curls and I described how they would now slowly push up taller each week, unfurling eventually into airy, graceful ferns that could grow taller than we are!
I loved watching O. and K. deftly leaping from fern hummock to hummock with their sturdy walking sticks in hand. They tested the depth and solidity of the swampiest areas and, in this way, showed some of the newer, younger members how it might be done. S noticed and right away wanted her own walking stick.
R. and I looked at some photos I brought of common, local birds. He knows many of them by name and we discussed the differences between the black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee. We were able to hear the distinctive, trilling call of the red-winged blackbird among the cattails where it will eventually make its nest.
It is just pure happiness to be out in the swamp when spring is just beginning. I can’t wait to share it with even more explorers in the weeks to come!
On a snowy day we kept a lookout for green moss, buds on trees, melting ice, and the trill of the red winged blackbird. Why? Because it is March in Michigan and the surprise party of Spring is slowly beginning, despite the winter white that continues to visit us.
The swamp was a bit treacherous as it was covered in deceptively solid looking snow. But this was an experienced group of explorers and they knew what lay beneath and stayed out of it, instead, leaping from island to island. The islands are actually ostrich fern hummocks where their rhizomes are waiting to create fiddleheads when spring actually decides to stay. I always smile when I see the kids developing and practicing all the skills that go along with navigating the swamp. Like most kids they want to move quickly, so they develop strategies for avoiding the muck below and the twiggy branches at face height. They aim, leap, and land, often balancing quickly before making the next move. They gracefully duck and turn, remembering to hold branches out of the way for the person behind. All the while they are chattering and laughing, calling out and noticing. They look for tracks already made by others and make quick decisions about which paths to follow when the path divides. If they have a specific location in mind, they are also making automatic adjustments as they look up for certain landmarks and evaluate their own progress while developing a sense of direction. For newer explorers they may move more slowly and sometimes inadvertently step in the muck, but they are all building self-awareness and confidence in what their bodies and minds can do. The social aspect for those who enjoy staying in a group also continues to be relevant and necessary practice.
We split off into several groups on Thursday and the girls with whom I traveled through the swamp were savvy enough to choose good sticks to test their footing before moving forward. They experimented with measuring the depth of the swamp with different sticks and this activity held their attention for quite some time. As usual, we used the Fairy Tree as our main landmark and I was remarking that I didn’t actually know for a fact that it was a white pine because I couldn’t get up in the tree to check the number of pine needles per cluster. Just then we came across a broken pine branch in our path and decided it must have come from the Fairy Tree since there were no other pines nearby. We counted the needles per cluster and, sure enough, it had 5 needles, which means it is a white pine! Tree type confirmed!
Meanwhile the other groups were back on land working on building and playing pretend. We joined them and we all went to the Secret Fort Tree where much self-challenging and determination were put into practice!
In any weather, outside is better!