Category Archives: Natural History

A Winter Walk

What was that?  A large bird with a bright red crest flew through the woods in the distance, making quite a racket with it’s cawing sound.  A Pileated Woodpecker! You know, the big woodpecker that Woody Woodpecker was modeled after, the one that looks similar to the now extinct Ivory Billed Woodpecker! I maybe see one every five years.  What more could one ask for on a cold winter day?

Hidden Valley Park January 2016

Perhaps a flock of Bluebirds feasting on yellow berries in a sunny field?  A Red-headed Woodpecker  searching the side of a tree for goodies.  Two White-tailed Deer bounding across the trail?  I could have been inside grousing about the weather but Bill and I had decided to check out a park that we had never visited in the northern part of our city.  We were being paid back for our effort with a mostly clear sky, dark winter branches against the blue, our warming bodies from the exertion, and some very fun creatures crossing our path.

One of the nice great things about being retired is that you can decide to go for a walk in the woods on a January morning.  You can bundle up with long underwear, a warm coat, and head out with your honey or a friend to check out a nearby natural area.  It might be 18 degrees out but the sun is shining, the woodpeckers are flitting about and there’s a frozen silver river winding down a deep ravine.

I’ve been trying to walk 7,500 steps daily even though it is pretty chilly in January in Kansas City. My doctor wants me to walk for my bones and I sleep better when I do.  In my neighborhood there are a few hardy runners out in the evenings and the dog walkers are hurrying their pets around the small park behind our house.  There’s even a Mom or two with the jogging stroller and their little one under a pile of blankets.  But mostly people are rushing from house to car to destination.  Time to be a contrarian!

The park we decided on is about a half hour drive from home – Hidden Valley Park.  Sounds fun doesn’t it?  We had a little trouble finding an entrance to the hiking trails in the natural area of the park which is managed by a combination of Kansas City Parks and the Missouri Department of Conservation.  We found a parking lot near a shelter house and crossed the road, walked through a field.  There was the trail – maintained, but not otherwise marked.  In the winter it is easy to see the lay of the land and the hidden valley consisted of some incredible deep ravines with a frozen creek carving its way to the Missouri River, not so far away.

Walking outside has so many advantages.  Uneven ground causes you to use all sorts of interesting muscles.  While a lot of people worry about falling, research is telling us that practice at maintaining your balance is protective.  You lose your abilities if you don’t use them.

What other advantages? – vitamin D from the sun, better sleep, and interesting things to see.  But best of all, I always feel happy after a walk in the woods.

Hidden Valley Park  January 2016

Some places to read more about it:

Hidden Valley Park Natural Area

The Pileated Woodpecker at “All About Birds”  from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Richard Louv’s blog about the importance of nature in our lives.

Nature:  science shows it’s good for the body and mind.  AARP Bulletin



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I don’t do winter camping – well maybe in a heated yurt

A few of you may have read about the cold night I spent in Queen Wilhelmena State Park last March.  I have one rule when it comes to camping.  I don’t camp in the winter.  So how did I get from that firm stance to a yurtlet in Yellowstone National Park in February?

It started with Bill getting laid off.  That wasn’t in our plan.  Bill was going to work another year or two, partly for the money but mostly because he loved what he did and felt that he contributed to society by teaching math to teens.  But tax revenues for public schools were down. The possibility of a layoff hung over us for several months.  The day Bill got the word, he sent me an email, “Book that trip to cross country ski in Yellowstone.”

We thought this was cool!

Skiing in Colorado

Cross country skiing in Yellowstone is one of those things that I always thought would be really cool.  But it just never worked out.  Bill’s time off never fell during the right time for a winter trip to Yellowstone. The park roads are closed during spring break to clear the snow and we like to share Christmases with our kids.  We looked but it just didn’t happen.

Now, in the grand tradition of making lemonade from lemons, we began to plan our trip.  We did some research and found a Road Scholar program that was reasonably priced, included some education on the area’s ecology and geology and promised to take us to areas that we might not be able to get to on our own.  We signed up.  Unfortunately no one else did.  The program was cancelled.

Bill did some web searching and found a Yurt camp right in the park that is run by a small company, Yellowstone Expeditions.  Heated dining yurt, heated sleeping yurtlets, heated outhouses.  You see the problem here, don’t you?  Bill kept telling me how gorgeous the stars would be while walking to the outhouse.  I said, “No, I don’t do winter camping.” 

A naturalist friend suggested the Yellowstone Institute.  They have programs with great educational aspects, skiing, and snow shoeing and you get to stay in the lodges.  Check out the videos on their web pages!  I called to make a reservation.  This time everyone had signed up.  There were no openings!

We reviewed some other ideas.  Vermont would be fun but not the experience we had been planning.  A trip to Grand Teton National Park had a level of skiing that looked wimpy, even for us.  We thought about just getting some lodging and going on our own but knew that we wouldn’t have the same experience as with local guides.

I went back and looked at the program with the Yurts.  I looked at the pictures.  Wow.  How can you pass that up?  After some back and forth emails involving comfort minded questions and a review of how our modest skills would fit with their program, we were signed up!  Four nights in a heated yurtlet!  Five days of skiing!  Snow encrusted bison, trumpeter swans in thermal pools, stars in the pitch dark night, canyons, and sulfur springs!  We’re going in February.  So much for, “no winter camping”. 

What about you?  Has retirement freed you to do things that you dreamed of – or some you never dreamed of?   Have you let go of some limitations to try something new?


Filed under activities, Adventures, Natural History

Outdoors in the Midwest – Cuivre River State Park, Missouri – or having time to do what you love

There are nature people and there are people who don’t do nature.  Though I don’t understand the people who don’t do nature, I will forgive them if they want to skip this post, because it is all about my love for nature. 

One of the absolutely best parts of being semi-retired (or fully retired, though I wouldn’t know by first hand experience) is the chance to pursue interests that I wouldn’t otherwise have much time for. Nature/natural history/outdoor and active travel is one of mine.  We don’t live near the mountains or the oceans or large National Parks so we fill this interest on vacations and in less dramatic ways by volunteering with nature organizations and visiting state parks and other more modest but equally delightful outdoor locations. 

This past weekend our Master Naturalist group met for a state conference at Cuivre River State Park in Missouri.  I had never visited this state park on the Eastern side of the state.  In a state with some great state parks, this is one of the best.  Though the park is North of the Missouri River it has a landscape more like the Ozark Hills.  I took mini-classes on insect interactions with plants, invasive diseases and insects that threaten some of our most gorgeous forest trees, and big river ecosystems.  We camped in the state park, popped corn over the campfire with friends, and met lots of other nature nerds.  

October is usually one of the best months in this part of the country.  It is cool enough that mosquitoes and humidity are not a problem but usually warm enough to be comfortable.  The leaves are changing colors.  It could have been cold and rainy.  But it wasn’t.  It was perfect! 

We joined this organization four years ago and I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned.  And how much there is to learn. 

What are we encouraged to do in order to stay healthy and happy as we age?  Exercising, learning new things, and building social networks.  How lucky I am to have an avocation that fills all three.  Exercise doesn’t feel like a chore when you are trooping through the woods looking for interesting mushrooms.  Learning about birds from avid bird watchers is a hoot – especially if it involves owls.  And sharing interests is a great way to make new friends.

What else? – dancing to a blue grass band in the open air – even convincing Bill to join me, walking around camp in the moonlight, the constellation Orion in the early morning, getting to learn from experts who love sharing… 

What passions are you exploring in your retirement?  What new things have you learned?  How do you share it?

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Retirement Quests

Our friend, Tom has a retirement quest.  He wants to ride his bicycle across the U.S.  Not all at once, but in installments.  And though he is riding from West to East, he isn’t riding the segments in order.  Three years ago, with us along, he rode across Minnesota and then down the Mississippi River into Iowa.  The next year he and Bill headed out to Washington and began the western leg of the trip, ending in Montana.  One year ago, surgery kept Tom off the bicycle.

This year we joined Tom, picking up in northern Iowa, continuing down the Mississippi River, grown wide and deep compared to the trickle we first cris-crossed in Minnesota, and then headed into Illinois.  We stopped for a beer at a microbrewery in Potosi Wisconsin, learned that Abe Lincoln gave a speech in Galena Illinois, once a thriving river port,  and felt the scaleless skin of a sturgeon in the Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque.    We talked with a couple of past and current farmers about how farming has changed.  We ate in downtown diners and had the world’s best rootbeer floats while looking out over a river lock in Guttenburg Iowa. 

A quest like Tom’s  is certainly one way of approaching the “what will I do?” question.  It also has the potential to start your retirement in a good direction.  A high school friend of Bill’s was overweight and out of shape when he retired.  He decided to walk the Appalachian Trail – all of it.  He dealt with the logistics, bought the equipment and began carrying a backpack on walks around the neighborhood.  He did walk the trail and had a great time.  He is now leaner and healthier than he’s been in years.   

Quests take many directions.  Often they involve a passion which has been difficult to pursue during decades of full time work.  Our Missouri Master Naturalist group includes several retirees with a passion for nature.  They give many hours of work to local conservation groups and nature centers.  This past Thursday a couple of us helped teach canoeing to urban fourth graders.  Most of these kids had never been in a canoe. There was some chaos and a few tears while canoes spun in circles or girls and boys desperately paddled forward further lodging their aluminum boat into a marshy bank.  At the end of the day, we were exhausted and hoarse from yelling instructions across the water – “paddle on the left, no the other left!”.  It was incredibly gratifying.  Watching someone find delight in swooping dragonflies and croaking frogs for the first time is a hoot.   Sharing my love of the outdoors with a new generation of kids that are grateful for the experience is positive feedback that I generally don’t get from my paid job. 

Downhill is nice

Sometimes a quest just lasts a year.  I know a man who retired, thinking that he would hunt and fish every day for the rest of his life.  He did that for a year and had a great time.  But at that point he decided he wanted more structure.  He found a job with less stress than his former job and still hunts and fishes on vacations but chooses to combine that with work. 

Perhaps that is the purpose of a quest, to give structure to your life.  It is possible that Tom will not finish his bicycle ride across the country.  But he’ll sure have some good stories to tell. 

Like the one about the hill in the river bluffs that two of us walked up, pushing our bicycles.  And the woman in a big pickup truck at the top who told us that some days her truck can’t make it up that hill. 

I’d love to hear from you.  Did you have a goal or quest for your retirement?  Have you been able to pursue it?  Did you change your mind? 

Some additional resources on retirement passions and quests: 

I love this series of Jane Pauley interviews with people reinventing themselves in later life. 

Adventure Cycling has some great articles about bicycling quests.


Filed under activities, Adventures, Natural History, retirement

Why are you retiring? What will you do?

Five years ago I saw only the same old House Sparrows at my bird feeders.  Then last fall I noticed some White Throated Sparrows pecking the ground under the feeders. This spring there’s a sweet little sparrow with a rust colored cap.  My bird guide tells me it’s a Chipping Sparrow. These birds have most likely visited my yard in the past but I didn’t see them.  I was too busy. 

A lot of people ask, “How much money will I need to retire?”  and “when can I retire?”  You can find piles of books, web sites, and financial calculators on these questions.   But few people tackle the question, “Why should I retire?”  Yes, most everyone wants more control of their lives, but to what purpose?  There are those who have some grand goal or cause and save to free themselves for this reason.  Benjamin Franklin is one of those early retirees who went on to greater things, like being a founder of our country.  Great second act, Ben. 

Purple Coneflower

When I decided to switch from full time to half time work I didn’t  ask why.  I was just plain tired.  I had been a single working Mom, then juggled the complexities of remarriage while working and still raising a child.  I got a promotion at work, giving me more responsibility but not much say over how things were done.  I never felt that I had time to really enjoy a book or pursue my interests in the out of doors or to try some new hobbies like knitting or gardening.  I wanted to become a better writer.  With only the smallest of exceptions I’ve worked full time or gone to school while working part time since I was 14.  My house felt disorganized.  My life felt disorganized. 

So four years ago, after talking it over with my husband, I asked my boss if there was a way that I could switch to part time work. I didn’t really see it as retiring though many of my acquaintances did.  Anyway, my boss said, “yes”.

my homespun

 And four years later, I find myself wondering, what have I done with that extra time?  My house is perhaps marginally more organized but not much cleaner.  I’m definitely less tired and less stressed.  I don’t read  more but I absorb more of what I do read.  I took some online and continuing ed writing classes.  I learned to knit and then to spin.  I volunteer with a local nature center and other conservation organizations.  I took a master naturalist course and met some new friends.  I’ve been working on the yard and planting a small vegetable garden.  I’m not exercising more.

Some of that extra time is spent doing things that I would pay to have done if I were working:  cleaning house, cooking at home more than going out, painting or scraping wallpaper or acting as a contractor for some work that needs to be done.  I spend more time being a careful shopper and watching how my money is spent, all necessary with my reduced wages.

All of these activities leave me feeling somewhat dissipated.  I haven’t written anything that I want to submit for publication.  I knit some gifts and make a few vests, socks, mittens and hats.  I’m basically an advanced beginner or intermediate at most of these things.  No great mastery of any of it.  At work I feel that I’m just moving ahead on a project but then get pulled away because I’m not there full time. 

I hope I don’t sound as if I’m complaining.  I have a very lovely life.  If I really want to do something I can find the time, something I didn’t feel so much when I was working full time.  I can more easily join my husband on all of those trips he wants to take in the summers.  I can play back-up for him while he deals with his folk’s declining health.  I feel blessed.  But I do sometimes ask myself if I couldn’t use that time better, if I don’t fritter a fair amount of it away.  Maybe that is ok.  I have a more relaxed pace, a less hurried and tired life.  I see more, enjoy more. There is more than one kind of sparrow in my backyard.

So the questions are, Should I be more focused?  Is there something that I want to do that I’m not making the time for?  Do I want to get really good at something or do lots of things but be just ok at them?  Can I manage my time better so that I get more of what I want done?  There’s a part of me that thinks things are ok the way they are,  that I don’t have to be an expert at things,  that pursuing these hobbies at this pace is just fine.  And there is a part of me that wants to enjoy accomplishing more, being better at things, learning more. 

How about you?  Why do you want to retire?  How have you handled extra time when cutting work hours or retiring?  Are you getting what you hoped to from the change?

Some other people I’ve found who are talking about this topic:

–           Syd at Retirement:  a fulltime job

–          Early Retirement by Phillup Greenspun

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Filed under activities, Natural History, retirement, Time management