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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

F&M Great Swamp FallAs we walk into the forest, we see all the different types trees, and we know, somehow, that they all have a purpose in life, just like we do. We notice many have lost their leaves this time of year, and the forest looks completely different—kind of empty because you can see so far, and it is very open. However, that is just the surface; let’s look closer.

The conifers take center stage with their deep green and contrast to the snow; while they do shed their needles, they are primarily green all year, which is why they are called “evergreens.”

Using touch—reach out and feel the needles

hemlock branchWhen we reach out and feel the needles, and when we rubbed them in our hands and smell, there is that amazing pine scent reminiscent of a Christmas tree—that strong aroma that can remind us of the holidays.

Visual things to watch for

As we look even closer, we notice really short needles (less than an inch) that are flat and on the underside, there are distinct white lines like racing stripes; this is an excellent identification characteristic. It also has the tiniest little stem you can barely see. In botanical terms, when you look it up in your field guide, this is called a “petiole.”

Feel the texture of the bark

These trees have really smooth bark when very young, and as they get older, it becomes stiff and deeply furrowed (creating indented grooves). Look at many different trees—young and old—and compare the feeling of the bark, and how the young ones are really tender and the older ones are like a rock.

hemlock 2Natural history viewing our past

In the 1800s, Eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadenses) was used heavily; these trees would be anywhere from 250 to 800 years old. They were harvested in great numbers and were sought after for a special quality they possess: great amounts of tannic acid—up to 12%—used for tanning hides and preserving leather; the outer bark was used and soaked. Some of the hides were kept in vats (barrels of soaking tannins) for up to six months in order for them to turn the dark tea color and create a preserve and coloring for the produced leather. Hemlock tanneries were all over the Northeast, and they shipped the hides from here all over the world.

What I have personally seen, and you can too!

hemlock 1In the picture, you can see the needles and the bark. You can see underneath the very outer light brown bark, there is a dark purple color; this is a great characteristic for being able to identify Eastern hemlock.

What use are these trees now? They are a tremendous resource for wildlife: the needles create shade to give animals and birds cover. So they are used for nesting, denning and protection from the elements.

I often find many deer and moose in these areas…tracks, signs and tons of “browse” (feeding sign). This is where deer “yard up” (all stay in same area communally); this helps create safety in numbers and helps avoid being surprised by coyotes. It also makes it easier for them to move, because they pack down the snow to conserve their energy during these hard winter months.

I’ve also found coyotes’ beds, which look like circles; the heat from the coyote’s body melts out the impression of its nose where he/she is melting snow with the breath.

Outdoor challenge and scavenger hunt you can do with your children

See if you can find the interior bark that is purple. Hint: When you look around at the base of the tree, you can see the flakey bark chips; look under there.

Tracks and sign: if you look on the very tops of the branches, close to the trunk, you will often see squirrel territorial teeth marking sign, or going up a mature tree, you can see the claw marks and sometime bite marks of our black bears climbing since they use Eastern hemlock as babysitter trees (mama sends her cubs up them in times of danger or when she is away for long periods).

And at the bottom of the hemlocks, underneath the dense needles protecting from the wind and elements, you can find deer, fox, moose and bear beds. Let’s not forget the calling cards of raccoon and porcupine too—scat!

If you find little holes and black powder on the ground and through the roots, it’s possible you have found Truffles (fungus).

Can you find the little Hemlock cones that look like little tiny pine cones—about ½ inch. Can you find the racing stripes on the underside of the needles?

Exploring a Vernal Pool

By Arianna & Frank Grindrod

Yellow Spotted Salamander 1

Yellow Spotted Salamander

Spring is in the air; in the yellow spotted salamander’s feet marching across the snow; in the trill of the Spring Peeper announcing his space and his availability as a mate; and the quiet patience of the Fairy Shrimp waiting between the mud and ice for their home to thaw.

What Is a Vernal Pool?

A vernal pool is a small woodland wetland that is created by melting snow in an earthen depression which has no inlet or outlet; basically a “wicked big puddle”. These “puddles” are nurseries for several species including mole salamanders such as the yellow-spotted salamander, wood frogs, spring peepers, fairy shrimp, and fingernail clams. Vernal pools are usually temporary and dry up as the season progresses. For the animals who them as a nursery, it is essentially a race against time for the babies to grow up enough to be out the pool before the water is gone. Some pools are semi-permanent but that is not a guarantee so ether way, the salamanders and frogs are crawling or hopping away come summer. The invertebrates, those who cannot fly or crawl away, but are obligate to the pools such as the fingernail clams and fairy shrimp must squiggle down into the mud and wait until next spring to emerge again.

Who Might you Meet at a Vernal Pool?

Mole salamanders live underground which is why you don’t tend to see them any other time of year…except for the Marbled Salamander who lays her eggs in the fall in autumnal/vernal pools. She hoovers over her eggs until the rains fall and then she leaves them. These little ones are the first to hatch and will eat other species of mole salamander eggs in the spring when the pool has then been filled with Jefferson, Yellow-Spotted and Blue-Spotted Salamander eggs. All mole salamander species eat invertebrates and will use mole-excavated tunnels, hence why they are called mole salamanders. In the Spring, when the first rains tickle the ground and when above ground temperature reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the Yellow-Spotted, Blue-Spotted, and Jefferson all come on down to their home pools. The males arrive first, forming what is called “congress”, a group of salamanders. They may travel up to a half mile away from their upland forest underground homes to mate in these vernal pools. After they mate they return to their woodland homes. Watch for them on rainy spring evenings as they cross the road.

Spring Peeper in driveway

Spring Peeper

If you live near a vernal pool you may hear a din of sound that is caused by two vernal pool visitors – the Wood Frog and the Spring Peeper. The Wood Frog is one of our black-masked bandits (can you guess the other two? One is a mammal and the other is bird.); a woodland, territorial amphibian that has a very distinctive call – the singing males, who are calling out to alert everyone in the vicinity that this is their space make a “qua-ack” sound, vaguely reminiscent of duck. The Spring Peeper is a very tiny tree frog who bears an “X” on his/her back. The callings males make a high-pitched “ree-deep” sound.

Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp

Fairy Shrimp

There are a host of invertebrates that you can find in a vernal pool – from Predaceous Diving Beetles and Whirligig Beetles to Damselflies to Backswimmers and Water Boatmen to Mayflies to Amphipods, Isopods, Daphnia and Copepods to Fairy Shrimp to Fingernail Clams to Caddisfly larvae. These are species worth getting down and dirty with as each sport their own unique adaptations of locomotion, feeding and general survival. For example, Whirligigs have split eyes so they can see up and down at the same time; handy when watching for predators. Mayflies have fanlike gills on their abdomen to take in oxygen from the water. Predaceous Diving Beetles have their own scuba gear so to speak; they carry an air bubble at the base of their abdomen as they swim through the water. Caddisfly larvae make their mobile homes from debris they find in the pool and their silk. They have a little hook on the end of their abdomen so they really do hitch up to their home and crawl along the bottom of the pool. They keeps their soft bodies protected and camouflaged.

Exploring a Vernal Pool

Vernal Pool 2 2004You and your youngster can gently explore these nurseries using a simple dip net and a holding pan. Fill the pan with water from the pool being careful to obtain the clearest water so that your temporary holding container is not muddy. Now gently slide your net through the pool and along the edges to catch a critter. Gently put it in the pan using a plastic spoon. If you have a magnifying lens and an identification guide book so much the better. Watch how the creature moves. It is recommended not to place predators and prey species in the same holding container at the same time else you will be setting the stage for the prey to be on the losing side of the chase. Please also do NOT collect eggs as this action may destroy the embryos.

When you are through studying these amazing creatures please return them to their home in the pool. To emphasize to your young naturalist the importance of respecting wildlife you can end with a simple “repeat-after-me” releasing ceremony such as this one that I (Arianna) learned from Kim Noyes at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center many years ago.

“Run away, crawl away, swim away, hop! You are free to go. I am not going to stop you from living your life. You deserve to be free; but thank you for spending this time with me.”

Suggested Field Guide: A Guide to the Animals of Vernal Pools by Leo Kenny & Matthew Burne.

Amphibian Etiquette
Amphibians, including frogs, toads and salamanders, breathe through their skin. Their skin is very sensitive to many things (salt, chemical toxins, soap, bug repellant, chlorine in our drinking water, sunscreen, etc.) When handling our wild friends, please remember to create a micro-habitat between you and them. Create this layer by putting your hands in their water source (vernal pool, pond, bog, stream, etc.) if they are aquatic or by using soil and leaves if they are terrestrial. When holding an amphibian make sure you keep them low to the ground and be mindful that the temperature of your hands can raise theirs, and this can create stress for them. Always return them where you found them. Or, if you are helping them cross a road, always remember their direction of travel and place them on the proper side of the road according to their direction of travel.

Fun Outdoor Activities for Kids While Creating ADVENTURES in the Winter Wilderness!

tracking familyThe winter is such a fun time—sledding, skiing, building snow forts and taking wanders in the woods.

The winter wilderness holds so much mystery. From that first moment that each unique snowflake drifts down from the sky, there is a certain awakening that happens…an inspiration that we have as we are curious of what’s happening outside of our walls. There is a pull—as one of my mentors, Joseph Campbell, would say: “A call to Adventure!” As we venture out of our comfort and embark on that calling, we leave the house—whether it is to go for a walk or even more daring, heading for the trails in wild nature.

As a family moving through the land, we hear the snow crunching under our feet and we see our own tracks, and we cannot help but think of the wild animals leaving clues of where they have been traveling, hunting, playing and sleeping and ultimately, surviving. So, as we continue on our way, we notice that first break in the pure white glistening expanse of snow and excitedly approach our first set of animal tracks.

As we get closer and see the trail left behind, we wonder what it is. There is a primal spark growing in us, and this connects us to our ancestors who lived close to the earth. This is like being a detective and we have our first clue.

mentoring tracking snowWhen the children of the indigenous cultures in the far north (like the Sami people who live their lives by the Caribou and take care of the herd) see a set of tracks, the Elders would not tell them what they saw. They would mentor them by helping to foster a relationship with the animals by asking questions and getting them in their senses. “What do you see?” the Elder might ask. The child might say, “Animal tracks.” The Elder would then kneel down and look closer and say, “Hmm.” The child would then copy and also kneel down. Then the Elder would say, “How many toes do you see?” The child might answer, “Four.” The Elder continues, “Are there any claws visible in these tracks?” Child would then reply, “Oh yeah, right there!” (pointing) Elder, “Can you point which direction it is heading?” Child points and says “That way!” Elder, “What direction is that?” Child, “North…?” (questioning)

This is an example of a similar dialogue I often have with my students. This is so they put the “quest” back into “question” and build upon the knowledge they have, not only as trackers but in their lives.

Let’s look closer at this. The Elder does not GIVE answers; they are earned. There is a place for children to have their own unique self expression and for them to think outside of themselves, which creates deeper knowledge. The Elder then may explain the depth of what they saw. “This wolf is traveling alone early this morning, and you see here, where the tracks are slightly melted out, it stood here to gather information, and then headed north in a faster gait of a trot. There is a herd of Caribou that was crossing the open plains up there about a quarter of a mile north.”

The Elder knows the land intimately; his/her survival depends on it in the home of the wilderness. He is bestowing the wisdom to this child so that he, when he grows up, can contribute to the health and well-being of the land, the herd and his family. This also creates self confidence and understanding of how life is around him and their deep nature connection.

So, as we go back to our wilderness adventure, we want to ask important questions to create an “experience.” Experiential education is one of the highest forms of engagement…of learning—not rote memorization of what we think someone might want to hear, but actually reaching down and picking up the snow, looking at the tracks and allowing our imagination to dance with our physical reality.

The best way to do this is to build your own skills to start learning together and be able to take someone from the edge of his/her knowledge further. This is the ultimate goal of a mentor through self empowerment and self awareness; we ALL grow in our experiences and what we can contribute in our lives.

See you on the trail,
Frank and Arianna Grindrod

How to Be a Mentor for a Child’s Immersion in Nature

Just Add Kids and Nature

leave shelterThe first thing you want to keep in mind is that you want to create a safe learning environment for your child or students to interact with their surroundings. It is important that children have ample opportunities to be stimulated by direct experience. This is a special place that you visit over and over for continuity, so you develop a relationship with that place.

leave shelter young girl

Examples include sitting near your backyard birdfeeder, a place on a hill with a good lookout so you can see animals moving if you’re still and quiet, bury them in leaf piles, stick forts and sculptures to allow the imagination to express itself, a stream to explore. Maybe bring to a beaver pond to see nature’s engineers. Immerse your children in Nature. Spend a few hours (or all day!) outside on a hike, in playful exploration.

group of kids in leaves

Explore the 5 Senses

Once you’re out there in the fields and woods, allow yourself and your children to take in all the sights and sounds and smells. Pause. Take a deep slow breath. What do you smell on the wind? What does the wind feel like on your face? What do you hear? What do you see?

goose tracks

Surrounded by the birds and insects or the trees or the leaves or the snow or whatever the elements of Nature provide, there is sure to be a bounty of ways that children can reach out and engage with the great outdoors.

Ask your children to share what they are seeing. What does the landscape look like? Do they know whether they are near a wetland? How do they know? Can they feel they are going uphill? Would they like to roll down it?

It is really important to have them to full engage their senses as they explore. Touch, smell, look, listen, taste. All those different senses are the doorway to connection.

The Gift of the Present

Be in the present moment, allowing them and yourself to be completely in the “here and now.” Let those pesky thoughts of “what are we doing for dinner?” or “I need to make time for homework” or “when are they having a play date with so-and-so?” – whatever the brain clutter is—pass. By creating a space to experience Nature in the present moment; you are gifting yourself and your children. You are opening up a moment to just be a “human being” rather than “human doing.” This is incredibly healing as well as healthy to teach our children how to be in the world.

Ask Questions

making a fire on snowA mentor does not need to have all the answers. In fact, you actually don’t even need to have any of the answers. Some of most powerful experiences people have are stimulated by questions. For example, when they hear a bird, stop, listen, look. Ask, “Do you hear that sound? Where is it coming from?” Pause. Allow your child the time to listen and look around. Then add, “Can you point to that sound?” This engages your child in an adventure, in a quest of being able to find that sound. “Can you copy the sound?” Take turns attempting to mimic the sound; this opens up a space for deep listening. The same thing that can be done for animal tracks. “What is that? Is it bigger or smaller than your hand? Where did it come from?” Get down on the ground close to the tracks. “Can you tell which way the tracks are going? Can you see how many digits are in the track?” This also opens the door for using resources. Take a picture. When you get back, you can look through resources to find out who made those tracks.

Your Intention, Their Passion

Discover what your children are jazzed about. What excites them? Listen to their stories and listen for clues so that you can better facilitate experiences to further their learning in their areas of interest.


Consider, what is your intention? What do you hope for them to get out of this experience when you take them into the woods? Begin with the end in mind. Your goal as a mentor is for your children to find their own place of discovery. Create that for them. Help them feel connected. Help them to understand that they are connected to something that is beyond words and beyond them. Provide an outlet for them to feel a sense of peacefulness in nature and sense of belonging.

As you discover your children’s passions, it is time to look down the road at what other experiences you can put in front of them to engage in. Each activity helps them to work the edge of their knowledge to bring them deeper into engagement.

Work Your Edge

Create your own learning environment to continue your studies in your areas of interest. Explore the woods on your own. Have access to a library of resources. Have something to share. For example, the other day, I was walking within six feet of a moose. I was so silent; the moose walked right up to me and didn’t even know I was there. Now I can ask the kids, “Can you tell how far six feet is? Do you know how big a moose is? Do you know where you might find a moose?”

Remember, it is your own inspiring stories that inspire your children to share theirs. Now listen.

Until next time, enjoy your journey into the outdoors

An Introduction to Tracking: Seeing through the Eyes of the Forest

Welcome Winter!

There are always amazing things happening in the outdoors, and all of them leave stories. This is an amazing way to learn: it puts the QUEST back into question and the SEARCH back into research. It also helps to engage all the senses: touching the tracks, listening to the birds, and letting the listeners know if the animal is still around them.

“Let’s follow an animal. We see some footprints in snow.” We all gather around, making sure not to step on the tracks; this is harder than it sounds with the excitement of everyone. Then we get close and reach out with our eyes like we are mountain climbing and we have shrunk ourselves down to climb in the track. We see that it looks pretty deep.

We start to measure and discover it is about an inch. Then Chris says, “I think it is a wolf!” We ask why? “I picture a wolf walking. We are reading a story about a wolf at home, and I would love to see one…” This is a gift; their imaginations are brimming, the tracks are coming alive, and the excitement builds!

Who’s got their journal? “Oh I do; it’s right here,” say several of the kids. They whip out their backpacks and start to make a sketch right there on the spot. Now the one measuring is working with the ones who are sketching.

There have been no answers given yet. We are in the brainstorming stage of tracking where everybody is sharing their direct observations, thoughts and feelings. There is a real magic at this point; an energy that flows throughout the group.

I ask some questions: “How many toes are there? Any claw marks?” There is a silence while everyone begins to get closer to the tracks. “I think this is a toe and this is another.” We all agree there are two huge toes that are about 3.5 inches long, and the width is 2.5 inches. I ask, “What shape is the overall track? A circle? Square? What do you see?” One of the girls says, “I see a heart.” “Me too!” agrees Maya. “Oh yeah, it is a heart,” confirms another.

I fuel their passion by reflecting back to them–“You are becoming great trackers.” “Now does anyone see the line right down the middle of it?” Someone exclaims “I see it! It is down by the bottom of the heart of the track.” I suggest an idea: “Why doesn’t everybody point which direction the animal is moving…on 3; ready…1…2…3!” Most of the students point where the mystery animal is headed. “Awesome! Way to trust your intuition!” I praise.

“Let’s look deeper. Did anyone bring any tracking guides?” A couple kids bring them out as I do. We all huddle around the guides looking for the tracks. It is now a matching game. “Are these fox tracks?” “No,” the group answers together. “These are way too big.” I ask one of them to make a track right next to our mystery track. He starts, and everybody watches. “Try to make it as deep as that one and feel how much weight–a lot or a little–it takes.” “Whoa! I am putting all my weight down, and it is just barely the same.” I ask, “Is this a light or heavy animal?” A resounding “heavy!!” is the reply.

Sometimes it is more important to have more questions than answers, like assigning a name. A lot of times I have noticed when I just share an answer of what I know, then the curiosity and mystery ends, and sometimes the experience as well as the discovery part of the need to know stops. I hope you can watch for it next time you are sharing or teaching.

Back to woods!

The kids start to guess certain animals and are showing and asking each other “do you think this is it? what about that?” This is a great example of how peers teach peers; they are mentoring each other!

Maya Tracking winter

We researched coyote, fox, otter and deer. There is a reason that I have them go through their guides; this is called coyote teaching–deepening the experience for them so they know what they know and they are learning how to learn when we, as a parent or teacher, are not there.

About the field guides: these guides are respected and revered as modern day elders with extreme knowledge and life experience. They have thousands of field hours in them. Lots of times there are also personal stories in them along with facts of behavior and measurements, etc.

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