Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Best Places for Kids to Learn to Ski in Pittsburgh

Beautiful day at Seven Springs
Skiing has been a great thing for my family. It gets us outside, keeps us active in winter and we do it together. But while my husband came to this party with some serious skiing skills, the rest of us are having to learn. We’ve found plenty of ways to get a family started skiing in Western Pennsylvania, where we live. Here’s a rundown.

Hidden Valley Resort is my family’s favorite place, and I’ve heard a lot of families of young children say the same. It has a variety of beginner and intermediate slopes that are nice for those of us in the greenish-blue zone --- ready to move past the easy trails but still getting butterflies at the top of steep terrain. Even when busy, the slopes rarely feel jam packed and you’ll see a lot of other kids with their parents.
Along with sister resort Seven Springs, Hidden Valley offers “Fun-Based Learning.” The beginner area is shaped into banked turns and rises that allow a new skier or snowboarder to get a non-scary feel for slowing and turning.  Lift tickets are $63 on weekend days for adults, $51 for kids 6 and up. At Hidden Valley and Seven Springs, kids under 6 are free!  Click here for information on group and private lessons as well as ski school for kids ages 3 to 12. 

Seven Springs is a close second for us. It offers a variety of trails and slopes for all abilities, especially when the challenging North Face slopes are open. My kids love the Arctic Blast terrain park with zany features that even early skiers can handle. We spent a lot of time the first few years of skiing in the sculpted FBL zones and beginner areas and had a blast, without worrying about my sons losing control and getting hurt (we don’t use harnesses).  
You pay more for the 33 slopes and trails, at $81 for adults on weekend days, $63 for kids 6 and up. The big downer for us is the resort can get crowded on a busy weekend, and a party crowd starts to appear around 3 p.m.  We’ve never had any problems and the resort staff works to keep things clean – I observed an employee dressing down a young man for his rough language. But we often spot fresh beer cans dropped beneath the lifts on Sunday morning. I’m not sure which bugs me more, drunk skiing or littering. Not everyone avoids the evenings – I met a father and son on the lift who Go hear for information about getting around the mountain, here for more about lessons and ski school for ages 4 and up. 
were excited to ski after dark under the lights. We prefer to ski early in the day. 

We’ve never tried it, but Mystic Mountain at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is another popular ski spot for families.  It’s quite a bit smaller with just seven slopes, but our friends who ski it say it’s just right for young children. The price is nice: $43 for an adult lift ticket, $35 for kids 6 to 11, $25 for 5 and under. Getting a season pass before Dec. 15 makes it even more affordable if you plan to visit more than three times. Go here for details on lessons, ski school and special deals. 

Boyce Park in Monroeville can be the best place to learn to ski, or the absolute worst, depending completely on the weather. It doesn’t get the heavier snows or colder temperatures of the Laurel Highlands, so you just never know what you are going to get. You can’t beat the $22 weekend lift ticket for adults, $16 for kids 6 and up, $8 for 5 and under. Those prices, coupled with avoiding a trek on the PA turnpike, might make up for lousy conditions, or a day on the slopes that just doesn’t go well, as is apt to happen at times with young kiddos. The trouble is that ice, slush or mud spots are harder to ski. Before heading out, call the park first, at 724-733-4665. 

More to know:

1.       Renting equipment from the resorts is convenient, but you might deal with higher prices and crowded rental centers. Lower prices can be found at independent rental shops outside the ski areas.
2.       Check out first experience packages, which include equipment rental, lift ticket and lesson.
3.       Keep an eye out for discounts as the winter progresses. If you can ski mid-week, you’ll find lower prices and smaller crowds.
4.       A good lesson is worth the splurge.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Learning to love winter

friend of mine who prefers golfing in Florida to winter’s chill inspired this post. Her face still tan from a recent southern excursion, she accused me of being “Someone Who Loves Winter.” She meant it as friendly teasing, but there was in her tone a bit of what is wrong with you?! I was wearing snow pants over my regular "mom" jeans, had just hauled sleds out of the back of our car so the kids could play in between their music lessons. I'm excited by snow and sub-zero temps (we can freeze bubbles!) So yeah, I'm cool with winter. It’s so much better than simply enduring it. 
How do you get on the good side of winter? I just so happened to have started reading, “Exploring Nature in Winter: A Guide to Activities, Adventures and Projects for the Winter Naturalist,” by Alan M. Cvancara. A section of the opening chapter is titled, “Learning to Like Winter.”  Perfect. A university professor and past resident of North Dakota, where it can be as cold as negative 60 degrees, Cvancara knows what he is talking about.

“The wintry environment will not always be entertaining to you,” writes Cvancara. “You must mentally meet it part way.”  You get ready to “meet” winter by accepting the cold and dressing warmly. He suggests conducting an “awareness experiment”  to notice how being cold and uncomfortable takes us out of the present moment, causing us to miss interesting things like rabbit footprints or the smell of earth in the morning, which he says might mean snowfall is on its way (wow, didn't know that.)
The whole book is about being curious and active in winter, even if you don’t do snow sports. Chapters cover forecasting the weather yourself, observing wildlife and plants, winter astronomy and outdoor photography. The take-away message: Get out into the winter!  Because the season isn’t really about dates on a calendar or new episodes of Downton Abbey.
I have a few tips of my own to add:
1.       Be outside every day. It helps that my family enjoys skiing, as well as sledding and skating. But even when there is no snow, and especially when it is very cold, we try to get outdoors every day.  We get used to it, and then it never feels “too cold.”
2.       Keep moving. It’s the best way to stay warm, after dressing right. If we aren’t doing a sport or sledding, then I try to get us walking, involved in a chore or playing an active game.
3.       Learn from other People Who Love Winter.  Check in with outdoor-loving families to find out about great gear, new winter toys, ideas for building a backyard tubing track, the fun you can have on your own temporary ice skating rink, the skinny on sledding hills, etc. etc. I always get the best ideas from our friends who are already out there.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Winter Activity for Kids: Salt and Snow

What is that blue stuff all over the sidewalk?

I've been explaining to Younger Son for years that the blue crystals and stains on sidewalks in cold weather are salt that help melt the ice. But it’s taken lots of experimenting with salt for him to get how that could possibly be so. The other day he asked for some salt to take outside and was at it again. We used two types of salt to see if one melted faster (the sea salt did seem a wee bit faster). Next time we will test out sugar, which also lowers the freezing temperature of water.

What you need:

  • ¼ cup of sea salt
  • ¼ cup of table salt
  • ¼ cup of sugar
  • Let your child pick out some other things around the kitchen to test (Pepper? Cinnamon? Hot cocoa mix? Meat seasoning?)
  • 4 or more ice blocks (made ahead of time by filling food storage containers with water and setting in freezer or outdoors overnight)
  • Smooth surface for a work area (we used a sled)

1.       Loosen the blocks of ice and let your child examine them. It’s okay to break them up into pieces.
2.       When you are ready to start the activity, set each piece of ice on work surface with at least a few inches in between.
3.       Sprinkle each substance on a different piece of ice.
4.       Leave one piece of ice untouched as a control.
5.       Go and play while you wait! Check back frequently.
6.       Discuss your results. This activity is more for fun than scientific study, although it’s a little of both. Lots of things can affect the rate at which the ice melts – the size of the ice, the amount of salt or sugar added, the temperature of the substance put onto the ice, etc.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: Winter Lightning Snow Sled by Flexible Flyer

It was like a dream come true, those first few runs on our new Flexible Flyer Winter Lightning sleds. They were fast and lightweight. They made us almost forget about our beloved Torpedo. And then they broke.

I’m not talking cracks or chips. Big pieces fell out of the bottom of two of the three brand new sleds. The first break happened on the very first day we took them out. I was ready to chalk it up to a bit of bad luck, or to maybe unnecessarily rough usage by Older Son who was sledding with his friends. But then the next day, on a fairly modest hill in our back yard, a second sled cracked apart in the same way.

To its credit, Flexible Flyer customer service promptly responded to my e-mailed complaint and offered to replace the broken sleds. In the meantime, the third, orange-colored sled is holding strong. So perhaps it was a bad batch of plastic, or something strange happened to the blue and green sleds that made them unusually brittle, like, I don’t know, alien radiation that didn't affect the orange sled because the color reflected more of the Earth Sun's light creating a protective shield? Did that sound like a Supergirl episode? Because that's what I was aiming for.

I really don’t want to pan this sled. Because, as I said, we were thrilled with the Winter Lightning performance. It was fast through untouched snow, faster still once the kids had smoothed down a track. It was maneuverable and really lightweight, making for an easy carry up the hill, even for Younger Son.

In a previous post, I shared my family’s search to replace our cracked Torpedo sled, which lasted almost seven years without a break.  We have since pulled it from the garbage bin while we continue our search for a durable replacement.

(Blogger's Note: This post has been edited to correct the name of the sled to Winter Lightning. A previous version of this post called it something else and then erred in poking fun at that incorrect name. No, the writer was not drinking white lightning at the time.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My search for the world's best sled

Ready for the snow!
My family's all-time favorite sled suffered a big crack last winter, and I've been looking everywhere to replace it. After weeks of no luck, I dusted off the old journalism skills, determined to locate a new plastic Torpedo sled, preferably in red. Today, I hit a major dead end. Thinking I had dialed the number of a sledding manufacturer, I found myself listening to a recorded message offering a variety of phone "romance" experiences.

This is a family friendly website, so use your imagination to figure out what I mean by phone “romance.”

It was an old number from a 2005 press release. Still, I was confused when I heard an absurdly alluring female voice inviting me to join her and her "friends" in a string of double entendres and innuendo, only about half of which I think I got. I listened for a while, waiting for her to say, “if you are calling for snow sleds, dial the pound key.”  She didn't.

Our old sled is red plastic speed, the fastest sled we’ve owned. We affectionately call it "The Torpedo," mostly because it has "Torpedo" imprinted across the top. It can be steered, has two holes in the top for a tow rope and endured almost seven years of hard wear and tear before its nose was crushed in a snowman collision.

We've tried other plastic sleds. We've tried sleds with fancy steering, seats and foot rests, decorated with crazy graphics and with far-out names, but they just aren't as good. The hardware store where I purchased the original is no longer is business. Searches on Amazon and eBay pulled up wooden Torpedo sleds with steel rails, but nothing of the cheap, plastic variety.

I thought it might have been made by Flexible Flyer, which sells a very similar looking sled called the Winter Lightening. Santa brought three, because he got a great deal online. But no. Once home, I could tell they weren't the same. (It hasn't yet snowed enough to try them out, so more on their performance later.)

Customer service at Paricon, maker of the Flexible Flyer sleds, helpfully informed me by e-mail that the Torpedo manufacturer had gone out of business. The news reporter in me just couldn't let it go at that. What if I uncovered that another manufacturer was building the Torpedo design! My family would be so happy! And maybe my blog post about it would earn a bunch of new sledding-enthusiast readers!

After an evening and morning of online searching, I thought I’d pieced together a trail of acquisitions and bankruptcy filings leading me to the ultimate owner of the best snow sled design ever. And that’s when I connected with Ms. Join-Me-And-My-Inappropriate-Friends.  I think I’m done now.

So kids, get out the duct tape, time to fix up The Torpedo. Doesn’t look like we’ll be getting a new one anytime soon.

Anybody else have suggestions for great, inexpensive sleds? And if you see a Torpedo out there, I'd love to know about it. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Winter day's walk

My boy on a log. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Spending holiday break outdoors in Pittsburgh

Oh, ho, ho. Holiday break will soon be upon us. That means 11 straight days of no school or regular activities. I'm hoping for skiing, sledding and lots of time for the kids to play outside with their buds. But in case we find ourselves drawn too strongly to the screens and sofa, I've made a backup plan. Not counting Christmas, New Year's Day or their eves, here are outside ideas for every other day of the season.

Saturday, December 26

Annual Christmas Bird Count

If you’re like my family and usually spend this day lounging around in jammies nursing a cookie hangover, here’s a better idea: Join in the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s annual Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count. Contact the ASWP ahead of time to connect with a local organizer.

Sunday, December 27

Ice Skating at PPG Place/Market Square

The tree will still be up, and you can enjoy Christmas in Downtown Pittsburgh without the hustle bustle part. Hours for Sunday Dec. 27 are noon to 8 p.m., skate rental is available. The rink will remain open for evenings through Jan. 3, click here for more information.

Monday, December 28

Christmas light walk

The moon will just be past full, and the Christmas decor will still be blazing. No school tomorrow, so we can wait for hubby to get home from work and walk through our neighborhood as a family.

Tuesday December 29

Visit the Pittsburgh Zoo

Winter is one of my family’s favorite times to visit the zoo. It’s not crowded and some of the animals are more active in cool weather. The zoo is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 31, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting on Jan. 2 .

Wednesday Dec. 30

Playground day

The playground in winter is a treat. If you haven’t been there in a while, it’s like visiting an old friend. And it will look different, especially if it has snowed. Invite a friend along, because you might be the only ones there.

Saturday, Jan. 2

Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

We have never visited the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in Oakdale, and this seems like a great time to go. Walking trails are open Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Click here for fees and weekday hours. 

Sunday Jan. 3

Try out a new trail

The last day of holiday break. Back to school tomorrow. We will definitely need a family walk. I’ve always wanted to check out Mt.Washington’s Emerald View Park. Or maybe we’ll just try a new path through our community.