Welcome to Green Gal's blog, where you'll find stories, recipes, gardening updates, and green tips related to nature, adventure, placemaking, and food systems. This blog is written by a young woman entrepreneur who is also a beginning farmer-gardener and seasoned sustainability educator who loves to grow, cook, ferment, and eat local and ecologically happy food.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Observing Ridge Runners

Six and seven-year-olds up to their necks in creek water, exercising control over their vocal cords to keep the scene as naturally-serene as possible. Bug nets swooping through algae-filled creek water, searching for water bugs to find out how healthy the creek water really was. Munching on sandwiches and snacks under the oak trees, surrounded by the beauty of green foliage and yellow meadows. This is Ridge Runners camp.Eric Nicholas, City of Pleasanton naturalist, runs this summer camp with a philosophy that incorporates his adventurous childhood into a fun, engaging camp that teaches the value, beauty, and wonder of nature to children ages 6-11. As a child, Nicholas's parents would send him outside to play after school, a locked screen door keeping him out. He chose to explore the natural world around him. When he was older, he spent three years living in various wilderness settings. He'd learn how to survive in different environments from elders at Indian reservations and put their advice into practice, living off of the land based on what he'd been taught. Once he felt comfortable with the methods, he'd return to the same reservations to teach the children about their environment and how their ancestors had lived there. It's no wonder he knows so much about the natural world. Beyond merely knowing, though, he has a passion for teaching others. He also realizes there is a disconnection today between children and nature due to the fundamentally-changed society that causes worry when children explore unsupervised (check out Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods), and also understands that there is a reason parents fear letting their children out. But more importantly, he understands that children need nature for healthy development--and for a healthy perspective on the natural world. His camp is a way for kids to get out and see a world that is not always easily available to them--one that opens their eyes to the very world we originate from--but with supervision that keeps parents from worrying.

Nicholas asked me to write an article on the day camp, so one Thursday I drove to Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness, part of the East Bay Regional Park District. The day started off at 8:45 at a picnic area within the park, shaded by oak trees. I met the 6 teen counselors when my mom dropped me off and noticed that each wore a decorated t-shirt with their name and a certain animal. Each counselor had a group: dragon flies, tree frogs, hawks, gray foxes, songbirds, and hummingbirds. Parents dropped their kids off during the next 15 minutes, and once a large enough group had accumulated, the counselors began a game. Each kid would think of a living thing. When the counselor said an attribute that the kid's living thing had, they would try to make it across the picnic area without being tagged. The kids had a blast, and it was neat to see which things they'd pick and how much they'd know about particular animals or plants. Once that game was tired out, they sang some songs they all knew and then everyone stood in a circle and played "down by the banks." Each time the rhyme ended, someone got out and stood inside the "pond." When the pond got too full of kids, some of them would "migrate" and allow more space inside the shrinking "pond." Those kids were sure having fun.

Eric Nicholas arrived and rounded everyone up. It was time to grab a snack and water bottle and head out to the visitor center. After a bathroom break, a snack break, and an reminder on being polite guests, everyone headed into the green two-roomed building that is the Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness visitor center.The first room housed glass boxes filled with various animals found in the park. Snakes (California king, North Pacific (Western) rattlesnake), frogs, a Western pond turtle, a black widow spider, a tarantula—all the creepy crawlies that kids love to look at. Along one wall, nature books and visitor center knickknacks sat upon a shelf and along another, pamphlets about safety and the different animals in the area. A glass display cabinet held a stuffed owl and an owl pellet, arrowheads and other artifacts from the Ohlone Indians who once inhabited the surrounding land. I'd like to visit again sometime and look through the books and pamphlets.

The Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness naturalist Anthony Fisher brought everyone into the other room, which was decorated with cow skulls and a large magnetic illustration of a creek. He sat on a small stool beside the creek mural and asked the children, now seated on the floor, to tell him what they had seen that week at camp. Nine-year-old Maddy raised her hand and said they had seen mama and baby Mallard ducks. Fisher told the kids that ducks lay about 12 eggs and that as they hatch and begin spending time with their mom, each day there are less and less ducklings. So the baby duckling they saw was one of many--the only one who had survived. Poor ducklings.Another kid told Fisher that they had seen mating dragonflies. Fisher pulled out two of the magnets and slapped them onto the board above where the water was. One was a dragonfly, the other a damselfly. He asked the kids which they had seen. Damselfly, they said. He told them that damselflies inject their eggs into plant stems and that the baby damselflies crawl out of the plant when they're hatched. Dragonflies, he said, suck water up through their back end and then shoot it out quickly to move through the water.
(Above is a dragonfly. Below is a damselfly.)The kids had also seen deer bones (Fisher took this opportunity to make a joke: "Sounds like the beginning of a letter, 'Dear Bones, I saw you in the park. Some of you were missing...'" He got a laugh at that one.), and a hare. Fisher asked if the campers knew the difference between a hare and a rabbit. "Hares are born with their eyes open and are ready to go in a few hours, while rabbits are born with their eyes closed and they take a little bit before they're ready to get moving," he explained. In scientific terms, hares are precocial and rabbits are altricial. The kids also said they saw a turtle with a silver shell. While of course Fisher knew what they meant, that it wasn't really made of silver, that it only looked silver, he asked how it could swim with such a heavy shell. He said they should have melted it down since silver is so valuable. Funny guy--he definitely made the lesson interesting.
Hare or rabbit?

He then went into the different bugs that live in the creek that they were going to be catching in a few minutes. Which insect species are surviving in the creek can show the health of the creek water. If it is polluted and warm, only certain species can survive there. Too many of those and not enough of those who require cool, clean water show that the creek's unhealthy. We walked out to the creek behind the visitor center, each child toting a net after being told not to smash the bugs or leave rocks overturned (You don't want to fry those little guys that live under rocks, Fisher said.). We spotted a rock with some cupules ground into it, a sign of where acorns were once ground by Native American Indians (see Acorn Harvesting). Kids began at the creek's edge, afraid to get wet. But once one brave soul waded through the algae-filled waters, most of them trod in, soaking their tennis shoes and swiping their nets, looking for insects. We spotted little frogs hopping through the water, but they weren't supposed to catch amphibians or minnows--just the invertebrates.

A few buckets on the rocky bank began to fill up with water bugs: damselflies, snails, toe-biters and skeletons of toe-biters. Once there were enough bugs to fill the observation boxes, Fisher had everyone gather in a big circle and look at the different bugs. A toe-biter was eating a damselfly. Crawdads, mayflies, giant water bugs, and an awesome caddis fly that had built its own home were hanging out in the little magnifying-glass containers that were passed around. I turned to the little girl sitting next to me, Lindsay, and asked her if she likes bugs. She does. "My mom used to study bugs," she told me, and she says she maybe wants to study bugs when she grows up. According to Fisher's chart, 17-22 is good stream quality. Based on the bugs they'd found, the creek was doing well.

Nicholas had asked me to interview some of the campers for the article, so on the way back to the picnic tables for lunch, I spoke with Catherine, whose father, interestingly enough, had been my world history teacher two years ago. It's Catherine's first year at Ridge Runners. "I decided I want to do it again and again and again!" she told me, jumping up and down in her High School Musical t-shirt. (According to her, she's High School Musical's biggest fan.)

After some lunch, I sat down with blonde-haired Maddy, the girl who'd told Anthony Fisher about the Mallard ducks. This is her third year at Ridge Runners, and she can't wait until she's 12 so she can become a Counselor in Training (CIT). You have to be 15 1/2 to become a counselor (and you don't have to be a CIT beforehand). I asked her why she wants to be a counselor when she's old enough, and she told me it's because she likes playing with kids. Her favorite camp day is Thursday because she likes to go in the creek and catch bugs.

Paige, whose been coming to Ridge Runners for four years, likes Thursday the best because of what comes after lunch--a hike through, yes through, the creek. She wants to be a counselor so she can teach kids about animals because she wants to become a naturalist like Eric when she grows up (and I don't blame her--it's a cool job!).

So after everyone's bellies were full and their water bottles were in hand, we sat on a picnic table to listen to Nicholas discussing safety and rules for hiking the creek. Aside from the normal safety precautions--don't step on large rocks because they're slippery, don't touch the saw grass because it cuts your hand--Nicholas told the kids not to talk. At all. He wanted the creek to be as serene and natural as possible. He separated those who he knew would talk and asked that counselors keep the campers quiet. He also told kids not to step on water animals ("Frogs frown on having people's feet on their heads."). And finally, he asked what the most dangerous animal in the creek today would be. The answer was us. We could cause the most harm, so it was important to remember not to damage the animals and plants. After everyone picked up three pieces of trash and Nicholas tied Maddy's stuffed animal seal to his backpack so he could come along, too, we set off up the dirt trail.

We crossed a shallow creek, forcing us all to get our shoes nice and squishy wet. Then up a hill and down again until we cut through some grass to the part where we'd go into the creek. I had left my notebook and backpack at the picnic area, so as I saw things I wanted to remember, I needed a way to keep track of them all. A cattail leaf looked just right for inscribing on. I used my fingernail to write letters to remind me of what I was seeing. A - ants. There were tons of ants crawling all over a set of fallen, dried cattails. B - barnacles. Strange barnacle-looking things were attached to rocks in shallow waters. I wondered what they were. C - cattails. They were everywhere! I love cattails--they're so beautifully shaped. D - damselflies. Nicholas showed us a stem that a newborn damselfly had crawled out of. There were damselflies all around us, some mating, others just flying around. F - flowers. Floating on top of the water were these lovely pink flowers. I wish I could give them a better name, but I don't know what they were. M - mint. Mint plants were EVERYWHERE! Eventually I had to pick one little leaf and crush it between my hands. It smelled so good! P - pink plant. There was some sort of pink weedy plant that was flattened beneath the water. It was almost grassy how it flowed with the water. I have no idea what it was. The cattail leaf is now dry and stiff and the letters are hard to read, but you can discern some indentations. I definitely would not have remembered all of those little things without it.

I was at the back of the line most of the way so I could observe things at a slower pace. I only slipped once or twice and at the deepest point, the water went to a little above my belly-button. For some of the kids, like little Clare with her rainbow hat, it reached to their collar bones. At a wading pool near the end of the hike, all the campers dunked their heads. I was fine being only partially drenched and kept my head above water.

The hike finished around 3 o'clock and as we rounded the bend back to the picnic tables, we could see parents waiting for their little campers, who were all dripping wet and grinning.

Aside from the fact that these kids got to have fun by dunking their heads in water and wading through a creek, they also learned about nature's ways and were able to explore just beyond their safety zone enough to have adventure. Luka, age 9, put it this way: "Eric shows you all of this stuff you wouldn't have noticed before...you get to see wildlife and get exercise--it's better than sitting in a building." I agree, and I sure wish my mom had signed me up for this camp when I was a kid.

Long Overdue Update

Hey everyone, sorry for the absence. My sister is home from the hospital and doing great so I finally have a chance to update my blog!

I spent some time at my aunt's house in the country. She helped me figure out some tasty, simple vegan recipes that I can make for dinner at home. I tried out new things, like making tortilla chips and seasoning tofu ground beef with taco sauce for making tacos (a major staple for me--I eat tacos all the time because they're so easy!). I also had breakfast burritos with tofu sausages and hash browns and ate frosting-less strawberry Pop Tarts. At this point, I'm relying on substitutes for meat for a lot of meals because it's a lot easier than making vegetables with rice or other grains for every meal. And it makes it more normal for me to eat with a group--like up at the cabin with the entire family.
Here are some great vegan foods that I've tried and enjoy:
- Morning Star Farms® Hickory BBQ Riblets (great for when your non-vegan friends are eating steak)
- Original Vegan Boca Burgers (they even sort of taste like meat)
- Lightlife Smart Links sausage (taste good with other things--like in a burrito)
- Strawberry Pop Tarts (no frosting) (yes, you miss the frosting, but toast it and slather on some Earth Balance buttery spread or Organic Smart Balance for a delicious morning snack...Organic Smart Balance is vegan but some of the other flavors of Smart Balance are not so check the labels!)
- stir fry chow mein noodles with teriyaki or soy sauce are great in place of rice; add some veggies like broccoli for added flavor
- Amy's Medium Chili (it's not too spicy, but tastes good with bread to reduce the heat)
- Amy's Rice Crust Spinach Pizza
- Amy's Roasted Vegetable Pizza
- Spanish rice made with white rice and salsa is so easy and tastes great with tacos! I did experiment with tofu and have yet to perfect it. We tried barbecuing and it turned out a little dry (we didn't marinate long enough). I had some delicious sweet and sour tofu at a little Chinese restaurant in Hercules...would love to learn how to perfect that.


While I was staying with my aunt, she picked some potatoes and onions from her garden. We put the onions in a kabob with some other veggies. Here are some pictures:---

Now for some recipes with pictures!

Delicious vegan tacos made by my Aunt Diane and me
- white rice
- oil
- salsa (making your own from scratch would be even better, of course!)
- vegan refried beans
- black beans
- vegan cheese
- avocados for guacamole
- corn or flour tortillas

1. Cook the white rice according to instructions on bag or however you usually do. Add salsa and stir once rice is fully cooked.
2. Cook the beans.3. Mash up some avocados into guacamole.4. Shred some vegan cheese onto a plate.5. Heat some your tortilla in a pan to desired warmth. Pile the ingredients onto the tortilla, fold one end, and roll it. Enjoy!

I found this recipe for Hasselback potatoes and had to try them. They are delicious! I cooked them in a toaster oven for a little over an hour. My mom also made an organic salad with kidney beans, onions, and cherry tomatoes and some corn on the cob. What a nice dinner to welcome home my sister from the hospital!

One last thing--I know this post is long, but I've been gone for so long and have a lot to say. It's been about 8 weeks since I stopped using shampoo. My hair never got visibly oil, but it did feel greasy to the touch. It's getting better, although it still feels a little oily. However, now my hair doesn't get tangled! The natural balance of oils in my hair must keep it from getting knotty. And it used to be quite unruly! I'll let you know when it's back to normal :)

Thanks for reading,
Green Gal


Time you enjoyed wasting was not wasted.
-- John Lennon

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