The day was a beautiful 58 degrees. The breeze was gentle and the sun was bright. We were wandering around the Audubon Center at Chatfield State Park with our newest addition. Lewis, a 6-year-old chocolate lab rescue, has been with us for about a month. When you think of labs you think energy and goofiness. Lewis thinks he might actually be a cat. He doesn’t play with anything and seems to only be interested in how many people he can get to rub his belly. A few days ago I became strangely excited when he grabbed a ball of yarn (confirming his cat status) and started biting and pulling on it. He wasn’t just lying there anymore! He was doing something! It probably wasn’t very effective when I took it away with a huge smile on my face and some lovin.’ But that is neither here nor there.
Getting back to the trails at the Audubon, they are beautiful. They guide you through diverse habitats providing opportunities to spot a number of species. The kids enjoy wandering along one specific dirt path that dips under a gigantic Cottonwood. It veers north and requires you to squeeze through a narrow gap in the brush. If you follow the loop around the pond you encounter a floating boardwalk surrounded by cattails. Running along the floating boardwalk and spotting the hidden beaver dam is always a highlight. But, if you break off from the loop you’ll find one of the most relaxing trails. This one meanders along the South Platte River. It is lined with small offshoots, encouraging travelers to swing off and enjoy the Platte. Activities vary depending on the season but there are certainly things to do throughout the year. We’re in our in-between for winter and spring so let’s talk about those seasons.
During the winter the river sporadically freezes and if you bundle up and hike out after a fresh snowfall the sight can be simply riveting. White snow glistens on the undergrowth and lines each branch on every tree. Sunbeams bounce off the frozen river and make you wish for sunglasses. We have had moments where we are talking, joking and all-in-all walking extremely loudly. Then, we turn the bend and everyone, even the toddler, falls silent and simply takes everything in. Often the silence lasts longer than you would think possible with young children. And honestly, it is just as enjoyable watching their faces capture the awe of the landscape as enjoying that landscape for myself.
Winter is a wonderful time for tracking, especially if you head out after a fresh snowfall not allowing time for the prints to melt away. Grab a small field guide for tracks, hand it over to your kids and simply follow their lead. My daughter gets ridiculously excited when she finds tracks. I always laugh a little because she gets way more excited over tracks then gifts on Christmas morning. I think of it as a positive since we get to find tracks more than once a year.
In the spring the river runs high from snow melt. The long silence of winter is twittered away by birdsong. The first wild flowers are blooming and the kids still get excited to find color hidden intermittently along the trail. The green begins growing over the brown of winter. The leaves explode and the grass grows taller than my little ones running alongside the new growth.
Tracking can also be wonderfully fun in the spring. Dirt and mud can capture tracks beautifully so you can discuss more details with kids. Typically, kids are excited to talk about the tracks and make guesses as to what could have possibly made those tracks. Steel yourself from laughing, as it is fairly normal for the young, and not so young, kiddos to make outlandish guesses. My daughter has thrown out flamingos, elephants and unicorns as possibilities. She knows very well the animals that live in our area; I think it is the lure of possibility that grabs her… and the fact that she really wants to see wild flamingos, elephants, and unicorns.
So, the trails at the Audubon meander around, similar to this post, adding little discoveries along the way.
This adventure happened in late winter. As I mentioned it was a beautiful March day. We were walking one of our favorite trails without jackets and enjoying the feel of the sun on our skin. We ventured down one of the offshoots that provides access to the Platte and let Lewis off the leash. Lo and behold he bolted into the water! He swam and jumped and ran and simply had a glorious time. This caused two things to happen. First, my husband and I were ecstatic to see our sad rescue dog come alive! He was so happy! He would run in then out of the water and give us those leaning hugs that dogs give. Of course we would let our pants soak through with cold river water because how can you move away from a dog like Lewis? Second, my kiddos thought that if the dog got to go swimming they certainly should, too.
I think the natural response is to say, “No.” After all, it’s, technically, still winter and the water is cold. Even though it was a gorgeous day we did have snowfall a few days before. But, remember when you were a kid and you were told “no” to something like this? I figure two things could happen.
You could be the parent that has that elusive perfect child that all the other parents keep hearing about. Your child stares at you, rapt attention written all over their face, and they listen to every word you lovingly and intelligently communicate. Your child truly hears your well-meaning and sincere logic, perhaps even nodding in complete agreement. Your offspring understands the completely reasonable statement that the water is too cold. Then, their angelic little minds tuck that fact away and everything continues without a hitch.
Just in case you’re wondering this description does not describe my little cherubs.
Most likely you’re kiddos are like mine and every other kid I know. They see water and they want to go into the water. They’ll pout or nag until they chip away at our endless parental patience and make us yell at them. If you have the silent kiddos they may not nag but we all know that in their minds they are arguing that they can totally handle that water. If you have the rational kid who wants to discuss every choice, my daughter, they’ll make a very logical comment in a calm voice.
I realize that as parents we have to make many choices for our kids. But there are also times where we must recognize when they can make the choice. It allows kids to practice decision-making, gives them a sense of responsibility and independence and, perhaps most importantly, each decision teaches them a lesson. I decided that this was one of those times. After all, the water was shallow. If they stumbled and fell they wouldn’t get completely drenched, just enough to make the quick walk back to the car this side of miserable. I did have a towel in my “diaper” bag (see Pants Not Required) as I learned early on that a towel was as necessary as first aid and diapers for our outings. I smiled at my little ones and said, “Sure! But you might want to start with your feet since we didn’t bring bathing suits.”
If you’ve ever waded into a body of water in the middle of winter, or a mountain stream in the middle of summer, you know there is a huge difference between being told that the water is too cold and actually feeling your feet go numb, sometimes instantaneously, as you step into the water. My kiddos were about to learn this lesson. And letting them learn it on their own saved me the energy of discussing the reasons we don’t go swimming in rivers in March.
My children yanked their shoes and socks off with a speed I yearn for them to use at home. I pulled of my little boy’s pants just in case his 3-year-old footing wasn’t up to the challenge of freezing toes on slippery rocks. And my kids waded into the river. Shockingly, they didn’t last long. Over the next ten minutes they would go in the water and then jump back out to climb one section of the dirt shore. They probably spent more time with their bare feet on the shore than in the water but they learned a little more about their world that day.
They learned what a cold winter river feels like on bare feet. They learned what their personal limits were when dealing with cold water in nature. My little girl lasted longer than my son but she’s also the one who, if she wakes to fresh fallen snow, runs outside in her pjs and bare feet. She might be nuts… or she’s training for the Polar Bear Plunge. They learned about different textures on the bottom of a river as they stepped from small gravel to soft sand to moss covered rocks. They practiced balance and getting up when you fall down. They explored physics as they threw rocks and watched the adults skip them. They honed problem-solving skills as they tried to get their own rocks to skip, attempting to throw differently and use different shaped rocks. They learned that nature is fun and, if you’re decently prepared, you can explore all parts of nature no matter the weather.
When they wanted shoes back on I got to plop them on our towel and dry off their cold little toes. I got to see their happy smiles and listen to them talk about how cold the water was. They put their cold little feet in their shoes and hopped back up so we could head to their favorite climbing tree. They were happy and healthy and a little bit wiser as we wandered away from the shore of the Platte because we let nature be their teacher.