Thursday, November 20, 2014

Are We Still the Best?

By Mike Layne

I consider myself a patriot.  Always have!  I love my country.  I love its vibrant and tumultuous past.  I love its stories, its art, its mythology.   The fabric of our nation was not weaved from black and white thread.  It is an astounding tapestry of shades and colors, imagery and experiences.   Some will tell you we have a great need to cultivate diversity.  I say we've always had diversity.  Our story spans 238 years and our accomplishments far outpace our years; our successes outpace our failures.  I am, and always will be an American.

I've always had a special affinity for the great inspirational quotes from American history.   Nathan Hale’s last words “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country”, Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago” delivered at Gettysburg, and my personal favorite, Patrick Henry’s 1775 “give me liberty or give me death” address to the Virginia Convention.   All three quotes were delivered by men with an unshakable commitment to the concept and continuation of our country, at times when that continuation was not guaranteed -- far from it.  Henry and Hale had few reasons to be confident that a break from Britain would be successful and the Civil War was far from won when Lincoln spoke. Today the battle of Gettysburg is accepted as a turning point in the war.  In November of 1863 that conclusion was still 16 months and a half a million casualties away.   These men inspire me because they believed despite the odds.  Their love of country was not skin deep.  It defined them as men, and as human beings.

Fast forward now, past gold rushes and wagon trains, cowboys, Indians and the page of a century turned, past T.R.’s rough riders, prohibition and two World Wars, "nothing to fear but fear itself, “ask not what your country can do for you”, the cold war, Vietnam, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, two towers, a five sided building and a lonely field in Pennsylvania.  Since Mr. Lincoln spoke in another Pennsylvania field 151 years ago our country has moved from restless adolescence into a mature and powerful nation.   Loved by some and hated by others, we've known biter failure and tremendous success.  

I've heard it said lately that we are no longer the greatest country on earth.  Really?  I’ve watched videos online and heard disturbing statistics that place us behind other countries in math, science and literacy and ahead of most in obesity and adult incarceration.  I’ve read long lists of comments bemoaning the state of the nation.  There is a rising tide of people who believe our best days are behind us.   Are they right, or are we still the greatest country in the world?

We do have problems.  We give money to those who don’t deserve it and sometimes fail to help those who do.   Health care costs too much.  Our politicians lie to us, our education system is undoubtedly broken and obesity is out of control.  The list is long.  Indeed, we have our share of dumb dumbs, bad politicians, moochers and round-waisted people.  If you are one, I make no apologies.  Read a book, take a class, put down the Ho Hos and run a mile.  This country was built on the ability of the common person to better their situation.  Better yours!  America offers opportunity and assistance in spades.   If you fail in life, that’s on you.

Do you think George Washington ran the numbers before he crossed the Delaware?  Did MacArthur weigh the odds before he said “I came through and I shall return”?  This country was not built on statistics, but in spite of them.  We’ve been the underdog and we’ve been the hometown favorite and we have always prevailed.  Not because we checked the polls, but because we came together and we believed; in God, in family, in freedom, in a moral code and a way of life that set us apart from the rest of the world.  We are a shinning city on a hill.  Let me say unequivocally that I will never stop believing in these things, never!  Because to stop believing is to give in to the darkness and surrender.  And to surrender is to utterly desecrate the memory of the men and women who have died to ensure our way of life survives.  We must never let that happen.  Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and yes, by the way, we are still the greatest country on earth.

 “It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

-       Abraham Lincoln, November 1863

Friday, November 14, 2014

Life is a CrossFit Chipper

My wife Loreal and I jumped feet first (literally) into CrossFit back in the spring and have never looked back.  We love it.  Like the stereotypical CrossFit devotees, we've molded our lives around our addiction.  We arrange our schedules around workouts, we strive for a clean Paleo diet, our social media is dominated by CrossFit related posts and we talk about it at home all the time.  It’s not strange for the last thing we say before “I love you, good night” to be “hey, did they post tomorrow’s WOD yet”?

So we’re CrossFit people, simple as that.  I could devote volumes to telling you how wonderful the culture is.  How the people make the experience and how a community of like-minded people drive each other to be better versions of ourselves.  I could talk about the physical changes we've seen after a short 6 months and how we've abandoned counting pounds on the scale for counting the weight we can lift and the speed of our workouts.  Those are all positive parts of the sport we love.  But if I had to boil the CrossFit experience down to the one element I believe is the most important, it would be the mental focus and commitment it requires.  These workouts are tough.  Tough beyond what most people are prepared to imagine.   They strip away all the comforts of our modern society and pit you against heavy bars of steel and your own body weight.  Ten minutes into a twenty minute workout of constant heavy movement, you’re breathing so hard your lungs burn, your arms and legs feel like they are made of whipped cream, you’re drenched in sweat and everything in you is screaming stop.  What does it take to keep going?  What internal fortitude must a person possess to force them to gut out the second half of the workout, and more importantly, why does it matter?  It matters because life is a Chipper.

For the uninitiated, the Chipper is a CrossFit workout that is long and grueling.  It typically consists of a high number of repetitions of a high number of exercises.  For example, it might include 50 reps of 12 different exercises ranging from push ups and pull ups to jump rope and Olympic lifts.   Chippers hurt.  Chippers can be demoralizing if you let them.  Chippers drain you of every ounce of energy you can muster and you’ll finish on fumes, and sometimes tears.  Luckily there is a secret to completing a Chipper…  Are you ready?  You do them one exercise at a time, one rep at a time.  That’s it.  Like any other enormous problem in life, if you force your mind to take it in all at once it will overwhelm you.  If you spend your time worrying about the exercise that’s coming up, you may talk yourself out of doing the one you’re on now.  Learning to tough through Chippers teaches us a lot about who we are and about living life in an unpredictable world full of big problems.
  •  Eat the elephant one bite at a time.  Big problems are only big if you let them be big.  Chunk them down into pieces you can manage and tackle them one bite at a time.
  •  Tackle every problem with a positive can do attitude.  If you tell yourself from the start that you can’t do something, the odds are very good that you’ll be right.  Believe in yourself.  You’re capable of way more than you know.
  • It’s normal to want to quit something that is causing you enormous discomfort.  It’s extraordinary to be able to set your mind to something and complete it despite the pain.  You can be normal or extraordinary.  You choose, but choose wisely.  The decision you make will dictate the trajectory of your entire life!

And that’s why we’re CrossFit people.  Not just because our ‘Box’, Ronnin Fitness, is full of great people with great attitudes, and iron sharpens iron.  Not just because a healthy lifestyle gives us our best chance of living a long active life with our children.  We’re CrossFit people because the basics of CrossFit are the basics of life.  If you have what it takes to be good at CrossFit, then you have what it takes to be good at life, and who doesn't want to be good at life?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Stuff of Life

Let me start by saying I totally ripped this post off.  I didn't write this.  It's from an email a friend sent, but it does reflect my core belief in the importance of slowing down and smelling the roses.  The truth is I haven't hiked or posted nearly as much as I've wanted to.  It's been a busy summer.  I discovered Spencer hates hiking in his carrier in the heat, so we didn't get out much in the hot months.  I didn't do any of the camping trips I had planned.  Our intention was to hike more in the fall and now the fall is slipping away to winter.  When I read this email it reminded me of a previous post of mine titled Finding the Beautiful and I felt compelled to share this thought -- Time will fly by you if you let it.  Don't let it go by without wringing it for every ounce of beauty and happiness you can, and sharing it with others.

How much do we notice as we go through a day? 

Lisa Beamer is the wife of Todd Beamer who said 'Let's Roll!' and helped take down the plane over Pennsylvania that was heading for Washington, DC back on 9/11.  On Good Morning America recently she said it's the little things that she misses most about Todd, such as hearing the garage door open as he came home, and her children running to meet him.  Lisa recalled this story:

"I had a very special teacher in high school many years ago whose husband died suddenly of a heart attack. About a week after his death, she shared some of her insight with a classroom of students. As the late afternoon sunlight came streaming in through the
classroom windows and the class was nearly over, she moved a few things aside on the edge of her desk and sat down there. With a gentle look of reflection on her face, she paused and said, 'Class is over; I would like to share with all of you, a thought that is unrelated to class, but which I feel Is very important. Each of us is put here on earth to learn, share, love, appreciate and give of ourselves. None of us knows when this fantastic experience will end. It can be taken away at any moment.

Perhaps this is God's way of telling us that we must make the most out of every single day. Her eyes beginning to water, she went on, So I would like you all to 
make me a promise. From now on, on your way to school, or on your way home, find something beautiful to notice. It doesn't have to be something you see, it could be a scent, perhaps of freshly baked bread wafting out of someone's house, or it could be the sound of the breeze slightly rustling the leaves in the trees, or the way the morning light catches one autumn leaf as it falls gently to the ground. Please look for these things, and cherish them. For, although it may sound trite to some, these things are the "stuff" of life. The little things we are put here on earth to enjoy. The things we often take for granted.

The class was completely quiet. We all picked up our books and filed out of the room silently. That afternoon, I noticed more things on my way home from school than I had that whole semester. Every once in a while, I think of that teacher and remember what an impression she made on all of us, and I try to appreciate all of those things that sometimes we all overlook.  

Take notice of something special you see on your lunch hour today. Go barefoot. Walk on the beach at sunset. Stop off on the way home tonight to get a double dip ice cream cone. For as we get older, it is not the things we did that we often regret, but the things we didn't do.

If you like this, please pass it on to a friend. If not, just delete it and go on with your life! Life is measured many ways.  None are as important as the number of moments that leave us in absolute awe of our universe and it's creator.  Make a point to seek these moments out.

Have a wonderful day!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

5 Easy Ways to Take Better Outdoor Photographs

By Mike Layne

When it come to taking outdoor photos, people tend to fall into two categories.  At one end of the spectrum are the amateur hobbyist and professional photographers.  They use words like aperture, white balance, ISO, shutter speed and F-Stop. They use tri-pods, wear vests, have large full-frame cameras and they take stunning photographs, causing the rest of us no small amount of photo-envy.  On the other end are the rest of us.  We typically have a medium to high end point-and-click camera or a low to mid range DSLR (the one you can change lenses on).  Because the terminology of photography can be intimidating, some folks shy away from using anything but the 'Automatic Mode' on their cameras.  One easy way to upgrade the quality of your outdoor photography, without learning what ISO, F-Stop and Aperture really mean, is to learn, in layman's terms, when to use the other modes built into your camera.  Here are five modes and when and how to use them.

Portrait Mode - The key to understanding portrait mode is to think about what is in focus and what is not.  When photographing a person your photo will be more dramatic if the person is in focus and the background is slightly out of focus.  This naturally draws your eyes to the subject of the photograph and eliminates distractions in the photo by keeping the background out of focus.  Note that this works best if you have one subject.  For a group of people, be careful the range of focus does not put some of the people in the photo out of focus.  If in doubt, take a few photos in portrait and a few in auto mode.

Macro Mode - This is excellent for taking photos very close up.  As you might have guessed from the icon, flowers are a good example of this.  Where portrait mode narrows your range of focus slightly, making your background go out of focus, macro mode narrows the range of focus even smaller, so much so that you need to be careful what is in and out of focus or it can produce unwanted results.  You can also play around with this mode for taking close-in shots of peoples faces.  Playing with what is in and out of focus in your photos is an easy way to create photos that stand out from the everyday snap shots produced by automatic mode.

Landscape Mode - Where both portrait and macro mode seek to narrow your range of focus, landscape mode does the opposite.  When you are photographing a landscape you typically want as much of the photo to be in focus as possible.  You'll hear this referred to by photographers as depth-of-field.  The larger the depth of field, the more of your photograph will be in focus.

Sports Mode - While portrait, macro and landscape mode are primarily concerned with what is in and out of focus, sports mode is concerned with stopping action.  It does this by speeding up the shutter speed of your camera.  The faster your shutter opens and closes, the better it can capture and stop motion with out blur.

Night Mode - Sports mode speeds up the shutter speed to stop motion.  Night mode is not concerned with stopping motion, it's concerned with letting in enough light to produce good photographs in the dark.  This is one of my personal favorites and the only mode I use a tri-pod for.  If you understand that a fast shutter speed stops motion, you'll understand that a slow shutter speed is very susceptible to any kind of motion, which will show up as a blur in the photo.  If you are using night mode, either use a tri-pod or rest your camera and body against something solid to prevent as much motion as possible.  The photo below was taken with a point and click Nikon off the rail of a cruise ship in harbor at St. Thomas.

Have any photography tips you'd like to share, or questions you'd like to ask?  If so, tell us in the comments below.  We'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Finding the Beautiful

Main Street, Clarksburg, WV
By Mike Layne

In a photography class in college, and in books I've read since, the idea of looking for beauty in the mundane has always struck me.   To look at an ordinary every-day landscape and turn one unique angle into a stunning photograph is an ability I admire.  I'm no photographer myself.  I take well meaning snapshots and occasionally stumble across one that captures the scene the way I intended.  What strikes me as magic about great photography is that everyone looks at the same scenes, but a photographer sees something the rest of us don't.  Photographers see the beautiful in the midst of the ordinary.  What a great euphemism for life.   What if we all looked at life the way a photographer looks at landscapes?  Because the beautiful is there if we look for it, in landscapes and in people.  We can choose to see the bad, the mundane, the ordinary.  Or, we can look past all that the way a photographer does and choose to find the beautiful.

I was thinking along these lines this morning as Spencer and I set out on a hike through Clarksburg and up Lowndes Hill to the Civil War trenches.  I run this route sometimes in the evenings.  It's a moderate 3 mile round trip with around 350 feet in elevation gain.  The views of the city of Clarksburg are decent from the top, but compared to a stunning waterfall or a massive rock formation, it is a little on the mundane side.  Rain was in the forecast for the afternoon so a State Park trip was out.  With only about an hour to spare before the weather changed, we needed something close and a three mile round trip
Rays of Sunlight
from door step to door step is as close as it gets.  I was a little worried how Spencer would do in the child carrier on a more urban hike.  I normally try to set him down every 20-30 minutes for play time.  We'd be on public highway all the way so no place to set down if he got antsy.  This turned out to be fine.  Today I was again struck by the notion that kids have things to teach us.  Spencer didn't see the aging buildings or vacant lots.  Nor did he care much about the litter of beer cans and even an old couch at one point.  Spencer saw a chance to get outside and explore.  He was as happy on my back going down main street as he was in the natural beauty of Coopers Rock State Forest last weekend. We made our way through town and up Lowndes Hill as the sky continued to darken.  Beyond the beer cans and the couch, we also saw 8 deer cross the road 50 feet in front of us.  This is not an unusual occurrence in West Virginia and I've always suppressed a little amusement when tourist ouuu and awww about deer.  But to a two year old child the experience was new and as exciting as if a bengle tiger had crossed in front of us.  We made it too the Civil War trenches after 30 minutes of hiking, snapped some shots and turned around.  On our way
Sleepy Little Boy
back down, just for a few minutes, the clouds broke and rays of sunlight spread out across the valley below us silhouetting the tree line.  I snapped a few quick shots, the clouds closed in again and we continued down the hill.

A few minutes later Spencer went to sleep.  We finished the hike home and, as the rains set in, came inside for some breakfast.  As I'm typing now the weather outside is nasty.  The wind is blowing rain against the windows, the sky is grey and I hear we can expect this to change to snow in the AM.  Sometimes when life makes it easy to see the ugly side of things, we have to remind ourselves to look a little harder.  Sometimes it's all in how you frame it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Old Dogs, Children and Trains

By Mike Layne

There comes a point in our lives when, despite our best efforts to ignore the evidence, we're forced to admit that we are in fact getting a little older.  A gray hair here, a wrinkle there and before you know it we're saying things like "well, back when I was a kid" and "darn kids these days".   When we think about the ways we've changed over the years, it's convenient to say things like 'wisdom comes with age', but in reality what happens is more subtle.  We become more aware of the passing of time, of things lost and lessons learned.  Successes and failures mold us into older wiser versions of the children we once were, and yet somewhere along the way something important is lost.   Lately I've been thinking about the difference between things in life that are real and things that are not.  That's a lot to tackle in one blog post, I realize, but stay with me.

In our super-connected world of information and globalization, it's ironic that our society is in danger of loosing our connection with the things in life that really matter.   Every hour of every day we receive a relentless barrage of marketing and political propaganda.   So much in fact, that the lines anchoring us to reality become stretched and frayed.  Relevant things are pushed aside to make room for progress, change and the other stories they tell us.  Marketers want us to believe nine out of ten dentists really do prefer the latest tooth paste.   That adding batteries to a regular razor gives you a closer shave and last summer’s colors are simply not fashionable this year.   Politicians want us to believe in phrases like ‘too big to fail’ and that it takes a 4 trillion dollar budget to keep America running.  The common denominator is this; none of it is real.  Economies are built on perceptions of value and can crumble in the time it takes us to eat our breakfast.  Marketers will stretch the limits of credulity, enshrining consumerism in the pursuit of profit.  And in this sea of fabricated realities, or if you prefer 'lies', what becomes of the the things that are real?  Do we remember what they are, what they look like, the way they make us feel?  How will we show them to our children?  Here’s what I think.
Sunset in St. Thomas
Sunset in St. Thomas

Real things are timeless, immeasurable.  Their value transcends material worth.  They are things we can touch and things we cannot.  They inspire us to dream, to think, to feel, and if we let them, they impact our lives in profound and lasting ways we only truly understand as we grow older.  A few examples, so we know how to recognize real things when we see them.

The wispy way steam rises off the water at daybreak, with the earthy scents of moss and pine needles thick in the air.  The rush of cool air that sometimes comes just before dawn.  Birds in the background mix songs with the sound of running water and sunlight slides slowly down the trunks of trees.  These things are real.

Sunrise and sunset, an introduction and a farewell, they’re the bookends that hold the contents of our
days.  They are a quiet time made for contemplation and coffee, for romance and reflection.  They smell like tobacco and old leather or candles and home cooked breakfast.  They come every day, and how many times do we really slow down to see them?  We should make a point to because they are real.

Campfires are real.  The smell of wood smoke, the flickering flames.  They touch some primitive thing deep inside us that whispers of warmth and survival, of caves and hearth fires.  The smoke pulls us in and the embers in-trance us in a way nothing else can.

Railroad tracks at Valley Falls State Park
Railroad tracks at Valley Falls State Park
Trains are real.  As real as cowboys and cattle cars, Colt 45s and Kentucky Bourbon.  Has any other mechanical thing fueled the imagination of so many generations?  Trains connected our coasts, built our economy, enabled our wars and carried our families. Their rails are the backbone our nation was built on, their whistles cry a song of history and freedom.

Old dogs are real.  Growing up in Pocahontas County, we lived next door to my sister and her family.  They had a basset hound named Sam.  Sam was, in the truest sense of the phrase, a ‘community dog’.  For more than 15 years Sam walked a daily route through our neighborhood.   Everyone knew him, everyone fed him and everyone loved him.  You can still see his paths worn into the dirt.  It’s been close to 15 years now since Sam left us and to this day people still tell stories about him with a nostalgic smile.  Old dogs hold a wisdom in their eyes far beyond their years and they teach us the value of loyalty. 

Children are perhaps the realest of all things real.  Born with no prejudice, no preconceived notions and only two natural fears, children love unconditionally.  They represent us at our very best.   If we let them, they’ll teach us to see through the eyes of children again, to experience the wonders and joys that come so natural to them.

So pet an old dog today.  Ride a train or watch the sun as it sets behind the hills.  Teach your children and let them teach you and together we'll all move a little closer to the things in life that are real.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hiking Coopers Rock State Forest

By Mike Layne

The view of Coopers Rock State Forest Overlook
The Overlook
Coopers Rock is a 12,747 acre state forest in Monongalia and Preston counties of West Virginia.  It’s southern edge boarders against Cheat Lake and the canyon section of Cheat River, which is popular as an Eastern US destination for white water rafting.  

According to legend, a fugitive from the law, a cooper by trade, hid out from authorities near what is now the overlook.  The legend says he lived and worked here for many years, continuing to build barrels in his mountain hideout.  In the thirties and forties (1936-1942) Coopers Rock was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Many of their structures, including rustic picnic shelters made of American chestnut, are still standing today and are registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Spencer Layne Hiking at Coopers Rock State Forest in West Virginia
Spencer Layne
A simple Google search for Coopers Rock Hiking produces pretty good results.  As with all state parks and forests in West Virginia, they have a basic Trail Map .pdf file you can view online or download and print. The state page also has a short piece labeled 'Things to Do' that covers the basics.  Hiking/biking, climbing, picnicking, trading post, and, of particular interest to me, playgrounds in the campsites and at various picnic areas.  On the state site, the page I found the most useful is 'Hiking/Biking Trails page'.  Each trail on the map is listed
along with trail length, walking time, blaze, difficulty and a short description.   They could improve this page by making an easily printable version, or by adding it as a second page to the trail map pdf, but it’s fairly easy to print the whole thing and take it as a companion to the map. You can see a brochure pdf online as well, but its basically the same information on the website.    Something I’m having a hard time finding on state websites, it’s especially noticeable because we are planning an early spring trip here, is a good list of what is available during the off season.  Having never been here before, it would be great to know ahead of time if there is a gate, if it is unlocked in the winter and early fall and what time it is locked at night, if at all.  Anything that would make it easier to plan a trip outside of the standard summer season would be helpful.  
We left the house Saturday around 11 a.m.  This was a strategic decision, not a slow start.  We planned to drop Braxton (our 3 month old) of with his Grandma around 11:30 and drive the hour up I-79 to arrive around 12:30.  The reason; this is prime nap time!!
Parent Tip: For day hikes, try to plan drive time around nap time.  The last thing you want to do is take a cranky toddler out of a confined car seat and try to put him into a child carrier.  If they can get their regular nap in on the way, they are more likely to enjoy the carrier ride and hike. 

Day Parking Lot at Coopers Rock State Forest
Day Parking Lot 
We exited the interstate and the first impression I got was that the road is nice new pavement with crisp painted lines.  This may seem like a silly first impression, but with 90% of WV roads in shambles following a horrible winter, it's refreshing to see new pavement.  The Day Use parking lot is less than 1/2 mile from the interstate.  It has restroom facilities and, according to the sign, it's open 8 a.m. to dark.  You can see the parking lot was less than half full when we arrived.  By the time we left there were cars covering every inch of parkable real estate, lining the road all the way our toward the interstate.  So impression two was, if you are in search of solitude, at least on the first real day of spring, this is not your ideal day trip.  But to stay on the positive side, the area is very well kept up.  The trail heads are well marked and later in
Day Parking Lot at Coopers Rock State Forest
Day Parking
our day we discovered large maps posted at a kiosk between day parking and the overlook.  I should say upfront that we never made it to the overlook.  Our main objective on this trip was to see as much of the trail system as possible and taking the time to hike to the overlook, since you cannot drive past the gate at day parking, would have used up too much trail time. My recurring pet peeve with state parks and forests during the off season is that it is very hard to find out what is and isn't open in terms of gates and main areas.  I assumed you would be able to drive all the way to the lookout area, but that is not the case.  It would have been roughly a three mile hike taking the Road Side Trail.  That confusion aside, the park is clean and well kept.  We only encountered two places on the trails we hiked where there was an obstruction that needed to be circumvented.  That's not such a big deal when you're hiking solo or with grown ups, but with a toddler on your back, you're much more aware of hazards off trails.  
Parent Tip: If you don't normally hike with a walking stick or trekking poles and you plan to carry a toddler on in a child carrier, consider trekking poles.  I'm not currently using them, but I found myself wishing a few times that I was.  

The trail head of Scotts Run Trail at Coopers Rock State Forest
Scotts Run Trail Head
Having said what I've already said about the large crowd, we took the Scott's Run Trail on the north side of the road and found solitude.  We picked this trail because it appears to take you the furthest from the main park proper.  This assumption turned out to be correct.  We only saw one other person while on this trail.  The trail itself runs more or less down hill for the first mile, following its namesake Scott's Run as the stream increases in size with the addition of small tributaries.  The creek isn't much to look at when you first see it, but it beauty factor increases exponentially as it increases in size.  For the first mile or so, the surrounding forest scenery is just so-so as well.  Don't misunderstand, it's still 20 times better than walking on pavement, just not a stunning view.  Be prepared for regular good ole' forest scenes with some low growing briers and scrubby brush.  At roughly a mile in, the path turns away from Scott's Run and into a
Scotts Run Trail
quarter-mile or so of steady uphill climbing.  Very gradual, but it certainly reminds you that Junior is on your back.  At the end of the climbing you come back out on the main road through the park.  If you don't have a map this can look a little confusing because you can take the road three different directions.  Luckily this is where the kiosk with the large map is located.  And right next to the road is the Road Side Trail.  We took this to our right headed back toward the parking lot.  A few hundred yards past the large green water tower, we'd been on the Road Side Trail for less than a 1/4 mile and passed no less than 30 people headed toward the overlook, we took a left on what looked more like a gravel road than a trail.  This took us past the power lines and down to the Reservoir Ski Trail.  We took this all the way to the
Toddler picking up rocks while hiking at Coopers Rock State Forest
Spencer discovers rocks
Advanced Ski Trail, took a right and came back out at the parking lot.  I will say that this side of the trail system was much prettier than the other side.  The undergrowth was much thinner, giving way to tall straight hardwood trees, moss covered rocks and ferns.  The lack of undergrowth opens the forest up and gives a more spacious feel to the surrounding woods.   It was long about this time that Spencer discovered the joys associated with picking up and throwing rocks.  We set down in a wide spot for Cheezets and a diaper change, meet a family with three large friendly dogs, at whom Spencer grinned and growled several times.  In the next 30 minutes we advanced roughly 100 yards of trail, as picking up every rock under 20lbs does tend to slow progress.  But Spencer had an absolute ball and this was one of my favorite parts of the hike.
Ready to hike at Coopers Rock State Forest
Spencer having fun
Parent Tip: Hiking with toddlers is not like hiking solo or with 'big' people.  If you are going to keep them interested you have to keep them engaged.  Stop every 20-30 minutes for snacks and play time.  When they want to throw rocks, let them until their heart's content.  I make it a point to show Spencer the different tree bark and move him close enough so he can touch it. He likes this and will ask for it from time to time.  Anything to keep them engaged, learning and having fun.
After rock play time, the rest of the hike was uneventful.  We made it back to the parking lot roughly 2.5 hours after leaving.

Closing thoughts
We will definitely be back during 'open season' to see the overlook.  We may come back and
hike out and back, but the road side trail is exactly what is says it is, 'roadside' and very crowded.  Not really what I'm looking for in a hike.  Other than that, I really liked our visit to Coopers Rock.  There are a number of trails on the north side of the in interstate that are part of the state forest system.  These look like they may be more remote than the south side, which appeals to me, so we may try this side next time out.  Let us know your impressions of the trails.  What did you like and dislike?  Which trails should we try next.  Until next time, happy trails. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Watters Smith Memorial State Park

An old homestead in Watters Smith State Park in Harrison County West VirginiaBy Mike Layne

Hidden along a small stream named Duck Creek, on a road of the same name, Watters Smith is 7 miles off of Interstate 79 in Harrison County.   Until spring 2014 I wasn’t even aware this park was here.  We have visited Watters Smith twice now, both times in the off season, so we haven’t had a chance to experience the park while it’s open.  I can tell you that, for what I was looking for, solitude, Watters Smith in the off season was perfect.   A 532 acre historical park and national historic district, Watters features a pioneer homestead, museum, horseback riding, guided tours and swimming pool in the summer months.   In the off season the park can still be accessed for hiking and biking.  We visited first on March 8th, 2014.  The following week we returned to hike the north portion of the park.

Watters Smith Memorial State Park may be reached by taking Exit 110 off I-79 (Lost Creek exit) and following the directional signs to West Milford, left on Duck Creek Road to Watters Smith State Park (approximately 7 miles). Visitors traveling US 19 should turn off at West Milford and follow signs three miles to the park.
TRAVEL NOTE: Duck Creek road turns left just before you cross a bridge going into West Milford. Coming from the interstate, there is no sign pointing you toward the Watters Smith State Park like you would expect. If you go into West Milford (like we did) you’ll see the sign on your way back toward the interstate.
TRAVEL NOTE: Google directions will tell you to get off exit 105, take US19 for 5.3 miles and follow Hackers Creek Road to the park. I don’t know if road signs have been stolen, but there is no sign for a Hackers Creek road on this stretch of 19. There is a Hidden Valley Road and I believe this is what they are pointing you to, but there are not signs on this road that let you know you are headed for the park

This is pulled from the State Park website. It’s a pretty comprehensive short history, so I didn't feel the need to re-write it. Watters Smith, the son of Thomas Smith of England, was himself born in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 15, 1767. In 1793 he married Elizabeth Davisson, a first cousin and neighbor of his father. His father owned a 1,000-acre tract of land in Harrison County, then in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Smith purchased 112 acres adjoining his father's for the sum of $266 in 1792, but the lingering threat of Indians prevented him from moving to the area immediately with his new bride.
In 1796, he and his wife moved to their future farm on Duck Creek and began clearing the land, planting crops and building a cabin. His tools were made by hand and necessitated the construction of a blacksmith and a carpenter shop. The goods that could not be grown or handmade were obtained from distant urban areas over "roads" that were mere wide, hazardous trails cut through the wilderness.  Watters and Elizabeth Smith had eight children, and Charles, their second, was the first white child born on Duck Creek. The youngest child, Watters Smith, Jr., eventually inherited the property. He, in turn, gave it to his son John, who passed it on to his son Alexander, who was born in 1847. In 1876, Alexander, better known as "Uncle Doc", had a home constructed to replace the original hand-hewn log Smith cabin. Today, this home is used as one of two museums on the park and is open to the public.

The farm was operated as a business for four generations, and the implements seen in the museums and in the barns and sheds were used to keep it running. Thanks to the foresight and generosity of Burr Smith, the farm now stands as a lasting tribute to a family who carved a life out of the wilderness and preserves for us a view of frontier life from 1796 to the early 1900s.

We mostly used the state park website to plan our visit.  We made the mistake of using Google directions to plan our approach and ended up doing a little unnecessary back road touring off of exit 105.  This is probably a fine way into the park, it just lacks usable signage.  My experience with state parks thus far has been that they do not do a good job of telling you what is available during the off season.  My wife and I are off season kind of folks.  We're not crazy about big crowds, long lines or paying full price for anything.  Here is what I found to be available off season:
  • Duck Creek road runs through the middle of the park and is fully accessible and a public road.  (no gates on this road)
  • There are gates leading into the park at a few points that were closed and locked.
  • There was one gate leading into the park that was open, but no sign to let you know when it closed, so we were afraid to park inside for fear of being shut in if we were late getting out.  
  • We parked on the side of Duck Creek road in a wide spot and had no problems accessing all the hiking/biking trails from there.
  • Because hiking is what we are primarily interested in this time of year, we were not disappointed, but no other facilities appeared to be open.
  • Click Here for a good Canadian blog that addresses the joys of off-season trips

On the drive into Watters Smith, it was hard at first to get the impression you were headed for a little secluded spot of wilderness.  Back roads in West Virginia look remarkably alike and the lack of signage coming from the interstate makes the problem worse.  However, once you pass the sign that announces the park, the impression changes quickly.  The fields are well kept, the homestead buildings are visible from the road and signage on the park is good.  Duck Creek is also visible from the road and is a very nice little stream. 

Trails are all well marked with blazes of identifying colors.  They correspond to the online PDF Trail Map.  They are all well maintained.  Even in the off season there was evidence of recent clearing of fallen trees.  Click below to read more about each of two visits so far.

Closing thoughts
Watters Smith is close to my home in Clarksburg, WV.  A short 20 minute drive, so we will be making many return trips.  I’m anxious to see the goings on at the park in the summer.  They advertise night hikes and programs that sound fun and I’m sure the pool is a hit in the summer months.  All in all, this is a splendid example of the kind of place a family can easily take advantage of to get the kids outdoors.  Mountain Biking seems to be the thing here, with tire tracks on every trail we hiked.  We saw a few bikers at the wash racks near a small playground.  We’ll keep you posted on our return trips.  Do you have any experience with Watters Smith?  Share your stories with us, or submit a guest blog for consideration.  Thanks for reading and happy trails.

Deuter Kid Comfort II Review

By Mike Layne

Before purchasing our Deuter, we borrowed a Kelty Journey 2.0 Child Frame Carrier from friends   This is a great option for a child carrier and we may review it at some point. It's well worth looking into if you're already a Kelty fan.  We made our decision to go with the Deuter Kid Comfort II Backpack/ Child Carrier for two reasons.

1. Tons of great online reviews. So many in fact, that I'm not going to make this review longer than it needs to be. My real goal is to let you know that we use it, we love it and we highly recommend it.  I'll provide some links to other great reviews at the end.
 2. We have an absolutely love the Deuter Aircontact 75+10 Backpacking Pack.  The Aircontact support system, shared by the Kid Comfort II, is by far one of the best we've used.  Fully adjustable to fit a wide range of torso sizes, it is built with heavy loads and long hauls in mind.  My only note of caution here is that this is not for light weight back packing.  Coming in at 7lbs, this is one of the heavier options out there.  We will be reviewing the pack in full soon.
The choice to go with the Kid Comfort II from Deuter has proved, for us at least, to be a great purchase.  You can get carriers for less, but the comfort and design Deuter puts into their products is worth the extra money for us.  Features we like include:
  • Very easy to get your child in and out of this pack.  Compared to the Kelty we tried, the Deuter is much easier.  The side straps on the left side of the pack release and the pack pivots apart to allow side entry.  For smaller children this may not be a big deal, but for our nearly 2 year old son it is much easier to load him from the side than from the top.
  • Lots of storage space.  In fairness to Kelty, the Journey 2.0 had plenty of space as well.  Both packs provide multiple zippered storage spaces.  The Deuter also provides mesh pouches on both sides and a zippered pocket on the waist belt.  (this comes in handy for storing snacks to pass back to your child in case of a hunger emergency)
  • The hip belt and pads distribute weight very well and the shoulder straps are fully adjustable to fit a wide range of torso sizes.  
It's easy to see why so many people give this child carrier such great reviews.  Deuter has great craftmanship and attention to detail. Their gear does what they say it does.  It's rugged, durable, comfortable and fun to use.  
Other Great reviews and videos
Please feel free to contact us with your questions.  Just post a comment below and we'll respond to it, or email us if you prefer at

Thursday, March 20, 2014

40 Years Outdoors - Lessons I've Learned

By Mike Layne

Last night I was sitting in my son’s room watching him flip and flop, pulling and tugging blankets as he wound down for sleep.  Spencer is 22 months old.  He recently transitioned to the ‘big boy’ toddler bed about the same time he discovered the magic of turning door handles, so he requires a little ‘watching’ as he goes to sleep, just to make sure he stays in his bed.  Maybe that’s just me trying to preserve that golden piece of time when he needed me to rock him to sleep every night.  Even writing about it now, it stuns and saddens me how quickly these precious phases of life pass by us.  Like mile markers on the interstate, take your eye off them for a minutes and you've missed a few before you know it.   I was thinking of this as I watched him wind down.  At the same time I thought about all the adventures we have in front of us, on trails, around camp fires, wadding through cold mountain streams.  This made me think of all the times I've spent outdoors with my dad and of all the lessons I've learned.  Here are a few lessons that have made me smile more than once over the years.

  • Sandstone rocks explode in the fire - For an 11 year old kid in Boy Scout camp this is a discovery on par with nuclear fusion.  28 years later, from a parent’s perspective, I see now what all the fuss was about.  I plan to make up a huge scary lie about a kid who lost one eye and most of one of his ears pulling a similar stunt.
  • Don’t use bug spray to paint your name on the ceiling of a canvas tent – while it is indeed neat to see the sunlight come through your name during the day, it’s worth noting that at night the rain also comes through.  If you happen to have painted directly over your head you’re in for a treat. (another 11 year old stunt)
  • Parents, play the game ‘freeze’ with your kids – after many false alarms also referred to as ‘practice’, one day “freeze” really did mean there was a large black rattlesnake laying directly in my path.  Talk about a little boy grateful for all the ‘practice’.
  • Don’t try to pour water out of a rubber boot while you’re wearing it - One day, 3 miles down a trail in the pouring rain, a little boy had water in his gum boots (don’t ask me why I was hiking in gum boots) after stepping where he was told not to step.  To save time the boot was turned upside down with the foot still in it.  You can imagine where the water went.  I think it may have been a lesson in following directions.  The best lessons are the ones that stick with us.
  • If you take your dog backpacking and leave camp to go fishing without him, don’t tie him off to anything connected to your tent.  If you choose to ignore this lesson, pack duct tape!
  • Don’t pack a container of fishing worms in your bag and forget about them… enough said!
  • Parents, if you plan to clean fish and slice apples on the same day, consider carrying two pocket knives.  There is a real possibility that doing both with the same knife will gross your kids out.
  • Dad says: “stop pulling the line, I’m trying to detangle it”.  Son says:” I’m not pulling the line”. Dad says:   “I can’t detangle this while you’re pulling on it”.  Son says: “I’m not pulling on it”.  Repeat, repeat, repeat… The lesson – consider the possibly that a fish might be pulling on the line. (because it was)
  • Kids, the look on your dads face will be priceless if, 2 days into a 5 day backpacking trip, he wakes to find you down to three matches (three empty boxes on the ground) trying to start the morning fire by yourself.  He’ll be proud of you for trying to help all by yourself and in the end you’ll learn the valuable lesson of how to start a camp fire with just one match.
  • Number one lesson learned, parents, take your kids outside and do something with them every chance you get.  You’ll never get these years back and they will fly by you like mile markers on the highway if you’re not careful.  Time goes a little slower outdoors and it seems to me that lessons learned outdoors just stick better.  Mine certainly have

Sunday, March 16, 2014

One More Winter Day

Momma Layne
By Mike Layne

With the clocks set forward and March half over, everyone is understandably sick of old man winter and I'm no exception.  With subzero temperatures, snow storms, road-ice and biting wind, 2013-14 has been the winter that just won't let go.  But soon enough we'll all be hot, sticky and muggy-miserable.  So when it doesn't seem fair that we're once again watching the beautiful blue skies of Saturday turn to the bleak snow fields of Sunday, I try to remind myself that our unpredictability of seasons is part of the charm that is West Virginia.  More than anywhere else I know of, West Virginia is the embodiment of four separate distinct seasons.  Icy subzero winters give
way to the lush green hills of regenerated life and beauty that is springtime in the mountain state.  Hot dry summers invite pool parties, barbecues and long days on the lake. And before long we all find ourselves longing for the cool crisp air and patchwork beauty of autumn.
Look what I found Dad
So on days like this, with the mercury falling faster than the snowflakes and our patience with winter wearing thin, it's worth the effort to get off the couch and play in the snow one more time.  If you've forgotten how to enjoy the sight of fresh falling snow, take a child outside.  They will remind you.  After all, God only gives us so many beautiful winter days to enjoy.  Best not to take them for granted.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Back to Watters Smith - A Saturday Hike with Spencer

By Mike Layne

Back to Watters Smith today.  The weather was a little cooler this than last week, but still sunny and a great
day for a hike.  We tried out the new Deuter Kids Comfort II kid carrier and loved it.  Stopped off at a gas station for snacks on the way.  We packed Gator-aid, little donuts, water and cheezets.  Spencer loves cheezets.

We made it to the park around 3 pm.  This time we started out on the north side of the road, on the Dogwood trail. (See trail map)  The trail starts with some gentle up hill past old farm equipment rusting near an old barn.  About a quarter
of mile up the trail, maybe a little less, the High Wall bypass trail branches off to the right. The hiking gets a little steeper now, but the trail is in great shape.  Winding first to the right, then back to the left, across a gully and a small stream and into an open field.  We stopped here for a snack.  When we started out again we moved to the

Trick Track Trek trail, which winds around the base of a some steep cliffs.  We ended up on the White Oak trail dropping back down into the historical area of the park and back to the road.  For a little more up-hill training we crossed the road and climbed the hill to the cemetery we passed last week on the Burr Smith trail.  Only a few dates were visible, the oldest born in 1796, died in 1844.  Having spent two hours on the trails we headed back to the car around 5 pm.

Spencer did really well in the kid carrier.  I've mentioned before, he's not exactly a sit-still kind of boy, so I was worried he would not like riding in the carrier, but he seems to really like it.  We stop every 20 minutes or so, eat some cheezets, run around a little and then load back up.  He chatters to me the whole time we are moving.  I love that.  I only understand a small part of it, but I love that he wants to talk to me while we hike and I try to talk back as intelligently as I can.  I have some solo multi-day hikes planned for the summer and I'm finding that I'm probably going to miss having him back there chattering in my ear.  He's my little hiking buddy now.  He has a new thing where he puts his finger inside my hat band and tries to tip my hat off.  He thinks it's the funniest thing ever.

Looking up from Trick Track Trek
After our hike we met up with Momma and Braxton at grandma and grandpa's house and granny made us all dinner.  Everyone is sleeping peacefully now.  It's 10:37 and it's time for dad to read a little and get some sleep. Momma works next weekend so I think we are going to plan a little longer hike someplace else, maybe Blackwater Falls.

Friday, March 14, 2014

First Hike of the Summer - Watters Smith State Park

By Mike Layne

Saturday, 3/8/14, the weather finally broke this weekend.  Saturday was a perfect spring day.  No wind, no rain and very few clouds.  Spencer and I ventured out for the first hike of the summer.  We borrowed a kid-carrier from friends Frank and Kaycee and hit the road. Got out of the house a little after noon with two items on the agenda. 1. get Spencer a hair cut, and 2. find Watters Smith State Park and get in the woods. Item one was bust. The Barber shop was packed and by the time we were done hiking it was closed. Hiking was almost a bust. If you follow Google directions to the park it will take you to Exit 105 of I-79, which I learned is a back way in. The roads are not marked so we spent an hour or so driving around lost. Not that driving back roads exploring is a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but Spencer is not what you'd call a car-seat kind of boy. Luckily he went to sleep while I found the park. The correct directions, the ones on the website I overlooked, are to get off exit 110 and follow the signs. One last caveat is that there is no sign pointing toward the park driving from the interstate to West Milford. You turn left just before you get to the bridge entering WM. If you go into WM and drive back toward the interstate you'll see the sign.
The park itself was deserted this early in the year, which was perfect for us. From what I understand the park has become somewhat of a haven for mountain biking. There was ample evidence of biking on the trails, which were very well maintained, but we did not see another living soul while we were out. We drove in on Duck Creek road, parked on the side of the road and entered the woods on the south side of the road. We crossed Duck Creek, and took the Burr Smith loop trail 1.8 miles. Along the way we passed the old Smith Cemetery. It being our first trip out using a kid-carrier, we did not stop to read names for fear of not being able to get Spencer to go back in the carrier, but I would like to look closer at the cemetery the next trip out. We crossed over Duck Creek several times. It's a beautiful stream of water. Not sure if the elevation is right, or if there is enough cover to keep the water the right temperature for brook trout, but the water size and habitat looked perfect. There is a fair amount of elevation gain on this trail. It meanders up the hill through a series of switchback turns and returns to the creek through a stand of old growth timber. Not sure if it is actually virgin timber, but it is very old. Some oaks looked to have circumferences that approach 12 feet. At the bottom of the hill you cross a bridge back into a field. From here you can see the road you came in on and the old buildings of the park.

Watters Smith was a great find. We live 20 minutes away and had no idea it was there. Several other trails we plan to explore this spring. Spencer had a blast and did great in the kid carrier. We've since bought a used Deuter Kid Comfort II off Ebay for a respectable price. Hoping to try it out this Saturday if the rain holds off.