Category Archives: Family Fun

Cake Trees And Clermont

“Can we plant a cake tree?”

The question caught me off guard.

“You know, like a cake tree. Or a cheese tree.”

It’s a chilly afternoon in mid-April several years ago, one of those sunny days that invites you out into the garden, but then leaves you shivering. It had been warm standing next to the bus as the Harvesting History Club disembarked at Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown, Columbia County, but soon we were in the dirt, one with the Earth, as spring arrived. Doing the digging were a dozen or so elementary school students, our garden educator Leslie, and me.

I was assisting one of the youngest students as she methodically planted her tiny seedlings and asked me questions. I handed her another seedling, a cool-weather vegetable she’d planted in a tray weeks earlier. Just like her, before the new semester began I knew next to nothing about plant. But I did know that cakes and cheese did not grow on trees.

“Oh,” her lips pursed at my answer. She took the kale and gently patted it into the dirt.

 “But,” I continued, “I know we have strawberries. You can use strawberries in cake.”

“OH!” she brightened. “Where are they?!”

I pointed to a wild tangle of leaves and vines, already vying for dominance in the far corner of the garden. The strawberries wouldn’t be ready until June, which she wasn’t thrilled about. But she perked up moments later, when another student discovered a cool bug and everyone ran to see it.

Two campers show off their gardening and nature journals.

Clermont has a centuries-old garden history. The mansion has stood since colonial times — when growing and harvesting was an essential part of life. One of the wealthiest families in early America, the Livingstons of Clermont grew most of their own food and took in significant farm contributions from their tenant farmers. Clermont Livingston (yes, they named their son after the house) kept weather journals detailing growing and harvesting on the manor from the 1840s through the 1890s.

Clermont in the 1890s.

Through the early 20th century, most of the mid-Hudson Valley was agrarian, with vast farms, orchards, dairies, and kitchen gardens populating the landscape.

Today, most people in the area are living on land that was farmed within the last century. With all of this in mind, it’s a little startling how many of us live so close to nature but are so disconnected from it.

To help reintroduce and reestablish that tie, Harvesting History began at Clermont in 2014, spearheaded by Site Manager Susan Boudreau and Garden Educator Leslie Reed. The purpose of the program is to connect Hudson Valley kids with their history and engage them hands-on by working in the garden. As they learn about seeds, plantings, and garden care, they also learn about healthy eating, the history of their home, and the natural world.

It’s amazing how many students start the program with no knowledge of where their food comes from or how it’s made. It’s not just young kids, like the little girl and the cake trees, but teenagers and young adults. I was 23 when I started working with the program and had no concept of growing seasons or how to plant something.

Two young gardeners help harvest Swiss chard.

It’s a blind spot that our parents and grandparents would not recognize, brought on by refrigerated trucks and supermarkets where you can buy tomatoes and avocados at any time of the year. By planting heirloom vegetables in the chilly spring air, students don’t just begin to understand the seasons, they begin to understand meteorology, biodiversity, and entomology. 

Students use nets to capture insects and magnifying glasses to identify potential garden pests.

Harvesting History has become quite popular. When I was first out in the garden in 2014, talking about cake trees and planting kale, we were serving 100 students annually. In 2018, we served 800 and we had even more students in 2019. The program is often on the road, visiting after-school programs, libraries, and schools, working on their own gardens and learning about healthy eating.

We do garden crafts, like making your own weather journal.

We even have this amazing bike blender we use to chop up herbs and veggies. Bike blender salsa is my absolute favorite way to make salsa now. 

After getting a demonstration, campers try their hands – or in this case, their feet – at making bike blender salsa.

This last spring, our little kitchen garden was expanded to 2,500 square feet, allowing for more students to visit and experience some hands-on history.

And to dream more dreams of cake trees.


Post by Emily Robinson, School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, Clermont State Historic Site.

All photographs provided by New York State Parks

Snakes in Snow at Native American Winter Games

One of the oldest outdoor winter games in North America is again coming to the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Ontario County.

Already centuries old when Europeans first arrived in this country, the game of “snow snake” will be featured at our family-friendly annual Native American Winter Games on February 22.

Earlier that week from February 18 to 21, there also will be a variety of wintertime activities for visitors at Ganondagan, the state’s only historic site dedicated to Native American history and the only representation of a Seneca town in the United States.

Our winter activities will include making a miniature wooden bow from ash, as well as Native American storytelling, Iroquois social dancing, and a variety of outdoor activities including snow shoeing, dog sled demonstrations, and the snow snake. All events are weather permitting, of course.

And not to worry, any first-timers. The game does not involve an actual snake…

Rather, this traditional game once widely played by the Iroquois and many other Native American tribes across North America uses a long smooth stick – known as a gawasa – that is thrown down a trough cut into the snow. The hardwood stick has a tapered head to help it clear potential obstructions, giving it a snakelike appearance as it slides and shimmies down the track.

Snow snakes can be six feet long or more. Smaller versions called “mud cats” are about half that long.

Examples of snow snakes at Ganondagan State Historic Site (Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Historically, the track was made by dragging a log through the snow, sometimes a half a mile or more. Called a gawan’go, the U-shaped trough could be level or on gently downward sloping terrain, and different types of sticks were used, depending on whether the condition of the snow was wet, dry, icy, powdery or something else.

Players also used mixtures of special waxes, tallows and oils on their snakes to get them to slide easier, and those mixes were closely-guarded secrets, as a well-tossed snake could travel a great distance. If it is fresh snow, wet snow, or icy conditions the snow snake will slide faster when it is properly waxed for the conditions. Today, ski wax might be part of the mix.

This 1909 published account by New York State Museum official Arthur C. Parker who witnessed the contests described the action as a player “grasps his snake by the tail, his thumb and middle-finger grasping the sides two or three inches from the end, and his index-finger bent and tightly pressed against the grooved end. The palm of the hand of course is turned upward. Dashing forward with every trained muscle in play, he hurls the snake into the trough, using all his skill to throw accurately and steadily.”

Illustration in the 1909 report by New York State Museum official Arthur C. Parker, “Snow Snake as Played by the Seneca-Iroquois.” American Anthropologist, vol. 11, no. 2, 1909, pp. 250-256. JSTOR, www.jstore.org/stable/659466

Competitors tended to be boisterous, and could use what now is called “trash talk,” shouting derision and discouragement as a player drew back for throw, according to this account. If a throw was successful, the snake would move rapidly down the track, with Parker writing, “In its swift passage through the trough, the flexible stick twists and bends in truly snake-like fashion, its upturned head adding greatly to the resemblance.”

Teams could compete for points, and often times, wagers were made on the outcome, so players kept their own special materials and techniques as closely-guarded secrets. Prized snakes were carefully preserved and stored for use year after year.

Per Parker:

“Snow snakes are made of various kinds of hardwood, such as maple and walnut, it being believed that some woods are better adapted to certain kinds of snow. This special knowledge is kept secret by the various experts in the art of snow-snakery.”

During the traditional midwinter festival, Ganayusta, two rival brotherhoods or clans seek to outdo each other in the game, he wrote. Assistants for each team would select the snow snakes to be used, and rub them with various substances “to overcome the peculiar kind of friction exerted by various kinds of snow.”

Once the snake came to a stop, it could either be left in place to be possibly pushed aside or even cracked by a rival’s oncoming snake, or removed after its location has been marked. A good player could throw a snake on a level track from 300 to 400 yards, or even further if the track sloped downward enough, Parker wrote.

But woe to the player who made a poor throw, as they came in for some serious ribbing from other players and onlookers, according to Parker.

“If the (snake) is not thrown at the proper angle, its head may run into the snow when it strikes the track, that is, “spear the track.” This accident brings forth many sarcastic jests, such as, “Are you afraid the trough will get away?” “What’s the matter? Trying to nail down the snow?” or “Thinks he is spearing fish!”

At our winter festival, people are going to be a lot more encouraging to those who will throw the snake, whether they are experienced or first-timers who can start out by throwing the smaller mud cat. So, come to Ganondagan and try your hand at a very ancient way of wintertime fun!

Snow Snake teacher Snooky Brooks describes throwing technique. (Photo Credit- David Mitchell)
A player at Ganondagan throws the snow snake at the head of the track. (Photo Credit- David Mitchell)

Post by Peter Jemison, park manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer


Cover Photo: Snow Snake teacher Snooky Brooks speaks at a demonstration at Ganondagan. Photo Credit- David Mitchell

Sources:

Parker, Arthur C. “Snow-Snake as Played by the Seneca-Iroquois.” American Anthropologist, vol. 11, no. 2, 1909, pp. 250–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/659466.

Read a 2016 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the snow snake demonstration at Ganondagan.

This account in the Syracuse Post Standard describes a demonstration at the Onondaga Nation School in 2014.

Read an account of the snow snake competition at the 2016 Ojibwe Winter Games (Ojibweg Bibooni-Ataadiiwin) in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin.

Watch this Youtube video of a snow snake contest at the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. The Onedia were once residents of New York State.

First Day Hikes 2020

Many New Yorkers thrive in winter and are eager for falling temperatures and consistent snowfalls. To these hardy adventurers, a few extra layers of gear combined with the snowy terrain of parklands is a winning recipe for fitness, togetherness and outdoor fun.

Welcome the new decade, enjoy the winter landscapes, and unwind after a hectic holiday season by joining a First Day Hike on January 1, 2020.

First Day Hike

There are more than 75 such hikes planned at state parks, historic sites, wildlife areas, trails and public lands across the state as part of the 9th annual First Day Hikes program. This map can help find one near you…

Hikes are being offered at more than 50 state parks and historic sites (with some facilities offering multiple hikes for different age groups, skill levels and destinations within the park) and 21 state lands, wildlife areas, Forest Preserve trails and environmental education centers run by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Staff from State Parks and DEC, along with volunteers and partners at many sites, will lead these family-friendly walks and hikes, which range from one to five miles depending on the location and conditions. Remember to dress appropriately and keep this old Scandinavian saying in mind: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

First Day hikers at Taughannock Falls State Park.

A sample of this year’s programs feature a seal walk, walking history tour, snowshoe waterfall hike, pet-friendly treks, gorge walks, fire towers, and more. If weather conditions permit, some First Day Hikes may include snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Many host sites will be offering refreshments and giveaways.

Participants are encouraged to contact the park for information and pre-registration where noted.

Never too young to go out for a hike.

And know that you are part of something that is happening all across America. First Day Hikes, which started in Massachusetts in 1992, are now a national event taking place in all 50 states.

Last year nearly 55,000 people rang in the New Year, collectively hiking over 133,000 miles throughout the country on the guided hikes.  Numerous others hiked state park trails throughout the day.

If you’ve never been on a First Day Hike, 2020 is the year!


Cover photo: First Day hikers at a DEC fire tower. These hikers are wearing traction gear on their boots, which is important in steep or icy conditions.

Post by NYS Parks Staff

Ice, Ice Baby at Chenango Valley State Park

The Ice Age, which helped form Chenango Valley State Park in the Southern Tier about 12,000 years ago, is back in a big way.

After leaves are off the trees, but before the snow flies, park crews will create what is possibly the largest refrigerated outdoor ice rink in North America. And when they build it, hockey players young and old will come. 

At 24,200 square feet, this mechanically-generated ice sheet is more than 40 percent larger than the temporary outdoor facilities set up by the National Hockey League, which plays a handful of its contests outside each year.

Behold the frozen home of the Binghamton Pond Festival (called Pond Fest for short), a series of outdoor amateur hockey tournaments and youth events in the park that started in 2016, and now is drawing hundreds of youth and adult players to Broome County in January from as far away as California and Texas.

Teams compete at the Binghamton Pond Fest last year. Larger than an NHL rink, the Pond Fest refrigerated rink is divided into four sections.
Young skaters take to the ice.
A youth team member gets her game face on.

This year’s fest starts January 11 and again benefits the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier and its programs focused on youth suicide prevention and youth mental health awareness.

Pond Fest owes it creation and growing success to two men — Tytus Haller, its founder, and Mike Boyle, manager at Chenango Valley State Park — and to the reliability of mechanical refrigeration to create and keep ice even when Mother Nature is not cooperating.

“Our first two years, in 2016 and 2017, we were running the tournament on the lake. We’d be out there checking the ice all the time,” said Haller.

And both years, unusually warm weather during the tournament left the ice in poor condition, which reduced the appeal to potential players. Said Haller, “The first couple of years, it was mainly a local crowd.”

Tytus Haller, founder and executive director of Binghamton Pond Fest, and his wife, Libbie.

But that all changed when Haller — the assistant director of the SUNY Broome Ice Center in nearby Binghamton — decided if winter was going to be unreliable, it was time to free Pond Fest from the weather with a mechanical refrigeration system.

Such systems use glycol, tubes, pumps, and “chiller” machines to drop the temperature of refrigerated tubing beneath a rink into the mid-teens. This forms an ice sheet that can be maintained even in warm weather.

All Haller had to do was figure out a way to get the equipment, which was going to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars.

With the help of state Sen. Fred Askhar, who got a $150,000 grant to help Chenango Valley buy much of the rink system, the 2018 tournament was the first played played on refrigerated ice.

“Things really took off then and in 2019, when word got out what we had and what we were doing,” Haller said. “I have not found anyone else in North America that has a refrigerated outdoor rink as large as ours.”

Now, the tournament in the park is drawing youth and adult teams from states beyond New York including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and California.

One of those coming in with a youth team in 2020 is Dallas resident Seth Turner. He has ties to Haller and the region after attending and playing hockey at Broome Community College some two decades ago.

He attended the initial Pond Fests without refrigeration, and saw how it all changed once the equipment was added. Now a youth hockey coach in Dallas, Turner pitched the idea of a January trip to upstate new York to local families, and eight are taking on the expense to send their kids to Pond Fest.

“Having refrigeration is the pitch,” Turner said. “I was able to tell parents that their kids would be playing, no matter what, whether it was raining, or sunny, or snowing. And that we would be playing in a beautiful park, in the woods. That made it an easy sell.”

Hockey is an increasingly popular sport in Dallas, he said, due to the presence of the city’s NHL team, the Stars. Local interest is even stronger now that the NHL will play its outside “Winter Classic” on a refrigerated ice sheet in that city’s Cotton Bowl in January.

At Pond Fest, adults have three-on-three and four-on-four tournaments. Youth teams have six and 16 players for a weekend of hockey and other fun in the park. Pond Fest also hosts a skills and skating clinic and will now offer private rentals of the ice sheet.

Fireworks reflect off the ice at Pond Fest.

Boyle said the festival draws fans and families into the 1,137-acre park along the Chenango River, which also features sledding and cross-country skiing in the winter. The park’s two lakes – Chenango and Lily – were formed as glaciers retreated at the end of the most recent Ice Age.

“We love this event,” Boyle said. “We hope this keeps going for years and years to come.”

The park has added a fire hydrant near the rink, to make it easier to spray water on the rink mat system. Water has to be sprayed repeatedly in thin layers to freeze in order to make the strongest ice, a process that can take about a week to get the proper thickness on such a large ice sheet.

“Our crew here at Chenango Valley State Park has been fantastic. We have learned a lot about making an ice rink,” said Boyle. “We could build an ice rink in Florida now, if we had to.”

An electrical power upgrade is also in the works, which will reduce the need for portable electric generators that Haller has been bringing to power his multiple chiller units and pumps that move the 2,750 gallons of chilled glycol through the rink’s tubing system. His not-for-profit organization, Broome Winterworks, devotes about $25,000 annually to cover equipment rental, which is just a small part of the expenses that go into the event.

The rink refrigeration system set up before layers of water are sprayed inside to form the ice sheet. The freezing process takes about a week.
The finished rink.

Haller said the tournament in the park has turned into an economic benefit for the county, as visitors need lodging and meals.

“There are not a lot of outdoor tournaments that have a refrigerated system like we do. We are getting visitors coming up here from southern states, because they know we are going to have ice, even if it is 60 degrees and sunny,” he said. “It is no different than when people from New York State go south to the beaches during the winter. We have something here that they want and many of our players refer to the Binghamton area as a hidden gem.”

In addition to creating the wintertime fun, the multi-weekend event donates money to various youth programs including more than $23,000 so far to fight youth suicide, said Joanne Weir, development director of the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier. The money supports the association’s DFID (Do It For Daron) program, named after a 14-year-old who died by suicide.

“We are thankful for the awareness that is provided to our association by this amazing event,” said Weir. “The Binghamton Pond Festival has continued to grow each year, and so have the conversations. Every step that we can take at breaking down the stigma associated with mental illness is a win – on or off the ice!”

Film and television star (and amateur hockey player) Steve Carell gets a look at a Pond Fest 2018 winner’s trophy with members of a women’s team from California after their return home.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks.


All photos courtesty of Binghamton Pond Festival

Have a team interested in playing at Pond Fest? Registration information is available here.

Interested in ice skating available at other State Parks this winter? Check out this list.

Get Out and Explore … The Palisades Region

With autumn leaves now turned, hiking in the Palisades region of State Parks offers spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills to go with a fascinating history that includes an outlaw’s lair, the state’s early iron industry, and a traitor’s secret meeting place.

Located on the west side of the Hudson River, this region between the Capital Region and New York City stretches through Rockland, Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, and contains 23 parks and seven historic sites.

As with all hikes, there are few things to remember beyond carrying a mobile phone. Wear sturdy yet comfortable shoes or boots, bring water and snacks, and perhaps carry a camera, to capture what you see. Be mindful of hikes on steep terrain or that go near cliff tops. Having a small first-aid kit available in case of emergency is never a bad idea

Hiking poles are useful, and can transfer some of the stress of hiking from your knees and legs to your arms and back. And use a trail map, which is available online at each park website at https://parks.ny.gov/ and at the main office at each park. Check the park’s individual website to see if its maps can be downloaded to your iOS Apple or Android device, but a paper map is a good backup in the event of device failure.

These maps include Park facilities such as parking, park offices, nature centers, campsites, and boat launches in addition to the location, name and distance of each designated trail in the park. For some facilities, data is available as a Google Earth KML file or a map is available to download to your iOS Apple and Android mobile devices in the free PDF-Maps app. Learn more

For the Palisades region, more information on hikes is also available online from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, and at the bookstore near Exit 17 on the Palisades Interstate Parkway.

It’s smart to know how long a trail is and how long it ought to take to finish. Since daylight is not an unlimited resource, especially in fall as days grow shorter, tossing a flashlight or headlamp into your backpack is a good form of insurance, should you unexpectedly find yourself on the trail as dusk approaches.

And, as the incidents of tick-borne diseases surge in the state, it is always important to check yourself for ticks after being outside, even if it is only time spent in your own backyard.

Rockland County

Rockland Lake State Park, 299 Rockland Lake Road, Valley Cottage, (845) 268-3020: The Nyack River Trail runs along the western short of the Hudson River between Haverstraw Beach State Park and Nyack Beach State Park. About five miles long, the level trail offers excellent river views. It is lined with crushed stone, and so is easy on the knees for a run, and also makes for an excellent bike ride or walk with a dog (must be leashed per NYS Parks rules). This trail also passes a county historical marker for the infamous “Treason Site,” where during the American Revolution in 1780 American General Benedict Arnold meet secretly with British spy Major John Andre to hand over plans for the capture of the strategic Patriot fortress at West Point. Thankfully, the plot was thwarted, with Arnold becoming one of the fledgling nation’s most despised figures.

Find a trail map here

Strolling along the Nyack River Trail.
A historical marker for the Treason Site erected by the Rockland County Historical Society (Photo from Wikipedia Commons.)

Harriman State Park, Seven Lakes Drive/Bear Mountain Circle, Ramapo, (845) 947-2444: At more than 47,500 acres, the second-largest State Park has more than 200 miles of hiking trails. At its northeastern edge, it borders Bear Mountain State Park as well as the U.S. Military Academy’s forest reserve. To the southwest lies the 18,000-acre Sterling Forest State Park. This vast park includes a large rocky shelter that was the remote hideout for a bandit named Claudius Smith, who led a gang of pro-British marauders during the American Revolution, known at the time by terrified local residents as “Cowboys.” To find it, go to the parking lot at the end of Old Johnstown Road, and look for the Blue Trail. Follow this steep trail to the top of Dater Mountain for its views, and then continue until you reach the rocky den, which had enough room to shelter both the gang and their horses. After taking in the panoramic views, which allowed the gang to see anyone coming, head down on the Tuxedo-Mount Ivy Trail to return to the parking lot. The hike is a five-mile trip, with one very steep section.

Find a trail map here

A vintage photograph of hikers exploring Claudius Smith’s Den.

Ulster County

Minnewaska State Park Preserve, 5281 Route 44-55, Kerhonkson, (845) 255-0752: Take in Catskills from atop the Stony Kills Falls at the northwestern edge of the park on this short, but challenging one-mile hike. Start at the parking area at the end of Shaft 2A Road and follow the gravel trail that crosses two wooden bridges on its way to the base of the 78-foot waterfall. Follow a set of stone stairs upward, using iron hand holds and railings for safety, to reach the top of the falls and its sweeping northerly views. You can either backtrack to the parking lot, or connect to the Stony Kill Falls carriage road atop the Shawangunk escarpment to make a longer hike.

Find a trail map here

Taking in the view at Stony Kills Falls.

Orange County

Bear Mountain State Park, Palisades Parkway or Route 9W North, Bear Mountain, (845) 786-2701: Take in the view of four states and even glimpse the Manhattan skyline from the Perkins Memorial Tower atop 1,289-foot Bear Mountain. Take the completely rebuilt Appalachian Trail, which features about 1,000 stone steps along a steep granite face. It took crews, including members of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, seven years of arduous labor to renovate the 1.5 mile trail up to the top. There is a new wooden bench at one of the lookouts for those who might find themselves in need of a breather on the way up.

The view from the top.

Also at Harriman, photographers will enjoy the trail to West Mountain that starts at the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area. Start on the Fawn Trail to the Timp-Torn Trail, which takes you to the mountain ridge to the West Mountain Shelter. From there, return using Timp-Torn to the intersection of the Appalachian Trail westbound, which will lead to Beechy Bottom Road that returns to the main parking area. The moderate hike is about five miles.

Find a trail map here

Looking out from the West Mountain Shelter.

Sterling Forest State Park, 116 Old Forge Road, Tuxedo, (845) 351-5907: For larger groups or school trips, there is the Lakeville Ironworks Trail Loop, which takes in the remains of an iron industry that once dominated the area. At about a mile long, the easy loop includes views of Sterling Furnace, the Lake Mine, and other mining remnants. This trail is among more than 30 trails, including the Appalachian Trail, within a 21,935-acre park in the midst of the nation’s most densely populated areas.

Find a trail map here

The former cable house at the ironworks.

Cover Photo of West Mountain summit view by Abigail Leo Parry, manager of Beaver Pond Campground at Harriman State Park.

All photos from NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.


Post by Brian Nearing, deputy public information officer at NYS Parks