A few weeks ago, I explained how we appreciate the little forests within our city. During our Thanksgiving trip, Nicholas (almost seven years old) and I found a much larger forest to explore–in a place where we never knew there was a forest.
Cousin Mike hosts Thanksgiving in his home near Albany, New York. I’ve been there many times over the past 15 years. It’s in a very suburban area, on a loop of roads lined with houses about 20 years old; the loop connects to a highway that leads to many similar residential developments and some businesses, but typically you have to drive several miles to do any errand. His house is far enough from the highway that you can’t hear traffic. Vehicles pass by only rarely. There are no streetlights or curbs. It feels rather remote to us city mice–but on the other hand, from every window of Mike’s house you can see at least one other house, so it is an obviously human-settled area.
Friday afternoon, Nicholas became restless in a way I recall very well from my childhood: The holiday festivities were over, all but one of the other kids either had gone home already or was napping, and although Nicholas had had some fun with the one remaining kid, he (the cousin) was in a full leg cast so couldn’t play in any way that burns up the physical energy Nicholas was feeling after a day of tabletop play, conversation, movie-watching, and computer games.
His grandmother Elsa wisely suggested that we take a walk, and she had a destination in mind: a dead-end street that crosses a small creek. I had never seen this creek, never known it was there until this visit when I used Google Maps to double-check the directions from our hotel to Mike’s house and noticed the creek in the satellite photo. It runs behind the houses across the street.
Nicholas and Elsa and I walked over to the dead-end street and looked at the creek. It was narrow and shallow this day, but looking at the banks we could tell that it sometimes runs much higher. Exposed roots created little caves that reminded me of The Story of the Root Children, a book whose illustrations captivated me in kindergarten. Nicholas enjoyed dropping in some leaves and watching them float downstream.
Nicholas told Grandma about the many creeks, ponds, and waterfalls we saw alongside the New York State Thruway on our trip. We wondered whether this creek originates on the other side of the highway and flows through a culvert under the road. We decided to go and see.
I don’t think I’d ever before walked from Mike’s house all the way out to the highway! It feels like a very short drive, but it took at least ten minutes to walk. From the shoulder of the highway, we could not see the water, but we could see the trees that cluster thickly around it, beginning several houses away from the highway. We found that the creek’s origin is a large puddle between two houses. I realized it may not be a naturally occurring creek at all but a drainage ditch, carrying runoff from the lawns through the lowest land in the neighborhood.
Nicholas then wanted to find the other end of the creek! He wanted to walk through people’s back yards, skirting the edge of the forest, until we found the point where the creek either dries up or empties into the river. I reminded him it is rude to walk through people’s yards without permission. But I thought maybe we could walk through the forest–somebody owns that land, but in most places where mowed yards border on a more wild area, people don’t really mind occasional hikers passing through the wild area.
Elsa was tired and went back to the house, while Nicholas and I crossed the creek on the dead-end street and then stepped into the forest. We could see the backs of houses on another street at the far edge.
This forest appeared to have been untouched by human beings for decades. We saw no paths, no shoe prints, no trash, no initials carved in trees, no interference with the growth of underbrush (although it wasn’t especially thick; we were able to walk fairly easily, meandering around obstacles) or the natural decay of fallen trees. We did see the tracks and droppings of deer and rabbits.
It was a beautiful place to hike just before sunset, as the sky filled with pink and blue clouds. The band of forest widened as the land sloped downward and the creek went into an elaborate squiggle of switchbacks. Soon we could not see any houses. It was very quiet. We were alone with the trees.
After twenty minutes of hiking, we concluded that we would not be able to find the end of the creek before dark. Nicholas was concerned that it would take so long to hike back to where we’d entered the forest that we might get lost in the dark. I reminded him that the creek is approximately parallel to Cousin Mike’s street, so if we crossed the creek and went straight that way, we ought to be able to come out between houses.
“We could cross the creek on a fallen tree!” exclaimed Nicholas. “Like people in an adventure!” I agreed that this was possible (we’d passed several trees fallen across the creek) but pointed out that another way to cross a shallow creek like this one is to step on stones that poke up from the water. We would cross at the first place that offered a good set-up for one of these methods.
We came to a fallen tree. “Let’s see if this is a safe one,” was all I had to say to trigger Nicholas (who has good instincts about safety) to begin an appropriate evaluation: “It has lots on the bank on that end, but this end is pretty close to the edge. [kicking it] Ooh, it’s squishy. Let’s look for a different one.”
Moving on, we came to a place where a tributary flowed into the creek, blocking our path. We crossed it stepping on stones. The bank on the other side was high, so I went first and swung up my knee onto it to climb up, and then I crouched and held Nick’s hands while he walked up the bluff.
The third or fourth fallen tree we found passed our safety inspection: It was not too rotten, did not shake when kicked, and was not so thickly covered in moss as to be slippery. Nicholas worried that it was too round to balance on while walking across. I explained that it’s safer to sit straddling the log and bounce along pushing with your hands. Nicholas had not done this before and was very amused. He was hardly scared at all once I pointed out that the water was so shallow (inches) and the log so near the ground (about 4 feet at the highest point) that, even if we fell in, we wouldn’t get hurt and would get only partly wet or muddy. Once across, he was thrilled to have had this very special adventure!!
We still could not see any houses from this point. I said, “If we just go up this slope, I think we’ll be able to see them.” Nicholas was very relieved when this turned out to be true. We had to go around a big cluster of brambles at the top of the hill, but then we wended our way past the first signs of civilization (a stack of firewood, a wading pool stored leaning against a tree) and kept to the back edge of someone’s lawn before emerging between their driveway and the neighbor’s.
We were three houses up the street from Mike’s house. Our long hike had brought us not quite all the way back! It’s amazing how much longer it takes to walk through a pathless forest than along asphalt!
We returned to the house and told the relatives all about our adventure. Mike’s son (who was already in college when his parents moved to this house) said, basically, “I didn’t know that was a forest!” Despite visiting the area regularly for 20 years, he’d never thought to explore over there.
It made me think of holidays with my own family (this was my partner‘s family), when my dad often rounded up the restless kids for an Adventure. Sometimes we’d go someplace really crazy, like an island with an abandoned hydraulic power plant. Sometimes we’d go to an established park or hiking trail. Sometimes we’d just go into the nearest thing to a wilderness and see what we could find to do there. We always found something of interest (even if it was only 7 different kinds of burrs clinging to one sock!) and some fun and exercise. That’s where I learned my safety and exploration skills–and I don’t mean that my dad directly taught me a lot of specific rules; it was more a matter of showing me how adventuring is done and finding opportunities for me to figure out a skill for myself. I have always been inclined to have the occasional Adventure myself, and now I can show my child how it’s done!