Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Breathing is not just for Babies

Perhaps one of the first jobs you fully take on board as a parent is that you’ve got to keep this puny little bundle breathing. I spent the first six months of my children’s lives listening to them breathe, compulsively checking for it while they were sleeping. As they grew older, I finally started taking respiration for granted and began worrying about other life skills such as eating their dinner or flushing the toilet.

But as it turns out, that breathing thing is still pretty important—and still a really effective source of stress. That's a clue as to how my weekend went…

My five year old son started coughing on Thursday evening—enough for me to give him some cough medicine to help him sleep.

Friday 6:15am: My son woke up coughing and saying he didn’t feel well enough for school. He didn’t have a temperature, and was generally upbeat if quieter than usual so I was in two minds about whether or not to send him to school, but leaning towards keeping him home, if the cough didn’t settle.

7:30am: He started wheezing. As he has a history of colds developing into bronchial issues, that settled it—he was staying home. I had a dentist appointment at 9am and optimistically thought that perhaps I could sit him in the corner with an iPad during it. My husband took our daughter to school.

8:45am: He had such a violent attack of coughing that he threw up. I cancelled the dentist.

9-10am: He became increasingly subdued, and his breathing grew noisier. I started googling the enterovirus that is currently running around the country and its charming lingering effects of death and paralysis. Luckily, one of the symptoms is fever, and my son remained fever free.

10:30am: By the time we got to our appointment, he was grunting slightly with each breath, and when I was done signing him in, he took me up on my offer to cuddle him on my lap—not unheard of, but certainly not his usual practice.

The staff were alarmed by the sound of him too… we were seen very quickly, and the doctor popped through in advance of our ‘turn’ to OK him for an immediate albuterol treatment. That turned out to be the first of three, along with an oral steroid, while the doctor declared him to be asthmatic and was clearly in two minds about whether or not to send him off to the emergency room.

11:50am: I left my son with the nurse setting up his third albuterol treatment, so I could go outside for the phone signal I needed to call the school and let them know I would be late picking up my daughter. My son did not complain about being left, but he disliked the taste of the albuterol, and this third treatment did him in. I ended up having to hug him and hold the mask on his face while he cried, so we were pretty miserable all round.

12:15am: His oxygen levels had stayed above the emergency room point, if only just, and the treatments improved his wheezing, though it didn’t totally clear it up. We were given a handful of prescriptions and a chit for an X-Ray at the children’s hospital—to check for pneumonia. On our way back from the hospital, we were to return to the doctors’ office for a walk-in. (Our doctors’ office never takes walk-ins.) We were, however, allowed to pick up my daughter, collect the prescriptions and go home first.

12:30pm: I picked up my cheerful child. My less cheerful one fell asleep in the car—huzzah for drive through pharmacists! I managed to get hold of my husband who left a busy day at work to come home, care for our daughter and get her to her gym lesson.

2:30pm: My son and I arrived at the children’s hospital, and he started crying and refusing to get out of the car despite my best encouragement. He just wanted to sleep by that point, and I completely agreed with him, but we didn’t have a choice, and so I had to bully him out. As scary as everything else was, that moment was hands down the worst part of the day for me.

Luckily the waiting room was showing the Lego Movie which improved his mood enough to carry him through the actual X-ray.

3:30pm: We parked our car at the doctors’ office again, and he threw up for no apparent reason other than sheer exhaustion. Luckily I still had a barf bag the nurse had given me that morning, so it was done tidily enough, and after that his mood improved tremendously. The X-rays came back clear, so he didn’t have pneumonia—Hooray!—but they could still hear a wheeze through the stethoscope. Boo! We scheduled a Saturday morning follow up and finally returned home to rest.

Friday evening and night: As prescribed, I helped my son use his inhaler every four hours… including overnight. And there was much stumbling around and yawning.

Come Saturday, he was one hundred percent better in mood and alertness, but they could still hear the same wheeze. We made a follow up for Monday, but were given the OK to drop the inhaler at night. I looked forward to getting a better night’s sleep.

That same Saturday morning, my three year old daughter woke up coughing.

As she has been less prone to respiratory issues, I wasn’t so concerned about my daughter, though she was very sorry for herself, so we sat on the sofa and watched movies together. My husband took our son out in the afternoon, and our daughter fell asleep for a couple of hours—yet still wanted to go to bed at the usual time. She also had no appetite, so it seemed she was very much following the track of my son’s illness, but without the wheezing. Huzzah.

10pm I was preparing for an early bedtime, determined to be horizontal for a full eight hours, when my daughter woke up and wanted to use the bathroom. As I took her, I heard her making the same grunting that my son had made at the height of his wheezing. I gave her five minutes and checked back in on her—she was practically panting in her sleep and sounded like a chain smoker. For half an hour, my husband and I kept an ear on the situation, but ultimately, there was no way that we were going to sleep on this one.

10:30pm I got back into my clothes, readied the car, and then we woke our confused and reluctant daughter, and I took her off in her nightie and a jacket (no shoes or socks). To my relief, the novelty of being out at night took over, and she was perfectly chipper. I couldn’t hear the wheezing so easily in the car, and I began to brace myself for the embarrassment of turning up at the emergency room with a completely wheeze-less child. Not the case!

11pm: They take breathing seriously at ER. I was still filling out the paperwork when the triage nurse called us through—it didn’t help that I was so tired, it was taking me ten seconds to gather my wits every time I was asked for a birthdate. Ten minutes later, I was carrying my daughter to a bed.
Somewhat surprisingly, this was the first time we had taken one of the children to the emergency room. It wasn’t as traumatic as I had expected. She wasn’t nearly as distressed as my son had been the previous day, so I wasn’t unduly afraid, and despite it being a Saturday night, things seemed fairly quiet. We were lucky enough to get a bed on the wall end of the row, so we had less disturbance anyway.

My daughter took things calmly, but after I laid her in the bed, she looked up at me with very big eyes and said: “Don’t go.” I assured her I was going to stay right there with her, though it was a few minutes before she seemed secure. Luckily, since I had already been through the drill with my son, I was able to tell her a bit about what was going on / going to happen. E.g. when the machine measuring her oxygen levels read 93, I could tell her that her brother had had 91, so she was doing better than him. Watching the numbers go back and forth was the game for awhile, and she dozed a little though there was too much going on for her to settle.

She was given a treatment of albuterol, but with a mister rather than a mask. She lost interest in that pretty quickly, and seemed unimpressed by my insistence that she had to breathe it in until the mist ran out. I ended up having to hold it and let the mist play over her firmly closed mouth, though the nurse assured me it was fine being inhaled through the nose as well.

She was also given the same oral steroid as her brother, and much to the nurse’s confusion, she declared that she liked it. (He certainly hadn’t!) And, of course, she was popped in a wheelchair and wheeled for an X-ray. She was getting very tired and overwhelmed at this point and struggled to follow the directions, but she sat cross-legged on her chair and never complained. Back in her bed she said she wanted to go home once or twice but never argued the point when I told her we had to stay.

1am She was finally tired enough to go properly off to sleep. So was I, but I didn’t have a bed to lie down on. I eventually used the end of her bed as a pillow, though it wasn’t enough for me to actually fall asleep. My chief entertainment was listening to what other people were there for, which all seemed tame enough, barring the guy who had been robbed at knifepoint.

2am Then came a patient who had clearly been taking something inadvisable. He heralded his arrival with the screams: “Don’t break my fucking arm! Please don’t break my fucking arm!” He lacked the courage of his convictions, for a few minutes later this became: “Please break my fucking arm! Fuck you, break it! Please break my fucking arm!”

Thankfully, my daughter remained asleep. I poked my head out and ascertained that the screamer was indeed strapped to his gurney and had a couple of burly guys around him wearing Fire and Rescue Dept T-shirts. It seemed I wasn’t going to have to seize my daughter and dive behind the bed while somebody went on a hallucinogenic rampage.

He continued to scream more often than not for the next hour. His arm and breaking or not breaking it was the recurring theme, but we also had moments of “Get this shit off me!” “Don’t touch me, you bitch!” And my personal favourite: (sobbing) “Look at them. Oh, let them live… please let them live…”

Shortly after he first entered, my daughter rolled over and woke up enough to give me a squinty glare for the disturbance before falling back asleep—to my great relief. While the swearing didn’t concern me, the overt rage, fear and despair, were not what she needed to hear in this situation.

After half an hour or so of his screaming, she woke up fully, stared at me and put her hands over her ears. Quite calmly, she told me she wanted to go home now. Just as calmly, she accepted my explanation that we couldn’t, and told me it was too loud so she had to put her hands over her ears. I agreed with her that this man was not in control of his temper. Her hands were insufficient, and she put her fingers in her ears instead, and while I maintained what I hoped was a calming smile (as opposed to a frozen rictus), she was beginning to look stressed and unhappy.

It was one of those situations that couldn’t be helped, and thankfully, the patient finally quietened enough that she was able to fall back to sleep—the following day, when I asked her if she remembered the hospital last night, she replied: “There was a loud noise, and I had to cover my ears.” It's a shame she wasn't fourteen. It would have put her off drugs for life.

3am I hadn’t given much thought to the X-ray, because my son’s had come back clear, so I was completely taken aback when I was informed she had a touch of pneumonia. Also unlike her brother, her temperature spiked, so she was woken up for motrin, which she took amiably and went right back to sleep again. She was more deeply asleep when the nurse brought her antibiotic for the pneumonia, and I had to prop her up, while the nurse tucked the syringe between her lips, though thankfully she went to the effort of swallowing it by herself.

So my daughter slept, while I alternated between dozing at the foot of her bed and walking around shaking my limbs to make me feel better. Finally, after almost five hours, we were discharged, and I woke her for her only meltdown of the night. I told her we could finally go home, but by this point, she was too far gone. I left the emergency room in a wheelchair with a hysterical child on my lap—all very reminiscent of leaving the hospital after giving birth to her, though embarrassingly, the nurse pushing me was six months pregnant and probably more deserving of the wheelchair than I was.

By the time I buckled my daughter in the car, she was screaming as indiscriminately as the stoned guy. There had been no phone signal in the hospital, so I had planned to send my husband a message from the car park, but I abandoned that idea in favour of getting home as quickly as possible. She spent the entire drive home hanging off the back of my seat—it’s about the only time I’ve missed her carseat over the booster she’s in now. At one point, I had to stop the car, because I thought she’d unbuckled herself. (Thankfully, she hadn’t.)

Home at last, I handed the paperwork off to my husband and carried our daughter up to an armchair in the living room. The familiar surroundings managed to give her some coherency and she eventually wailed to me that she was too cold to go to bed. When I suggested that I go upstairs and sit on her bed with her to help keep it warm, she gulped back the sobs, took my hand and walked upstairs herself. Luckily, it took about two minutes for her to pass out again.

Her brother (they share a room) was woken up by the fuss but he was glad to see us. Apparently, he had woken up at 1am, freaked out to find his sister gone and started screaming for Mummy. Daddy had to break it to him that I was gone too. In short, none of us got a great deal of sleep that night, though my husband was good enough to ensure that our daughter and I had a lie in—he got up at the crack of dawn with our son and got him settled downstairs. Our daughter was up at 7am anyway, but I slept in until almost 9am (eventually woken by our daughter bellowing her pants were inside out) and had two or three naps during the day for good measure.

I kept both children at home on the Monday—and regretted it, even though it was the right call. They were bouncing off the walls after a weekend of being ill, but every time they tried to make use of their extra energy, they started coughing. Thankfully, the doctor’s appointment—with their usual paediatrician this time—gave us the all-clear as far as lungs were concerned. Her opinion of my son was that he had reactive airway disease rather than asthma, and it wasn’t something we should worry too much about unless it becomes a more frequent occurrence.

So that was that. A particularly nasty bug from a parenting perspective, and an extremely efficient way to leave the entire family utterly exhausted. Fortunately, the only long term harm is that the children will have to have the flu shot and not the flu mist this year, because they’ve had albuterol so recently. My son is seriously unimpressed by this prospect. I am a teensy bit apologetic for not getting off my backside and sorting out flu shots before now, but mostly, I’m more focused on catching up on my sleep. Beautiful, wondrous, sleeeeeep….

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Homework update

Since my previous post, my son has started getting daily homework, and we are gradually settling into it. He did lose his temper with me today when I told him it was homework time... 5pm is our routine time for doing it--the children have had plenty of time to play together, and I'm pottering about the kitchen, tidying up and starting to get dinner ready. By this time, the novelty's worn off, so even though I gave him plenty of warning that 5pm was coming, he did not want to do it.

At one point, I told him that it was my job to make sure he did his homework, and he told me it was his. I think he was just negating what I said without really thinking about it, but it did give me a moment's pause. After all, I do want to get him into good, *independent* habits. Yet at the same time, we've only just started this, so it's not a habit yet. And it's as important that he have a time to do it that suits all of us as it is for him to take initiative. e.g., he can't decide to do his homework five minutes before dinner, or when I'm doing something with his sister.

Fortunately, once we actually start doing the homework, there's no problem. So far, it only takes him about ten minutes to do homework (sometimes getting him to clear his work off the kitchen table so we can serve dinner takes longer than the actual homework), and it's worked out quite well. I was concerned about my daughter being a distraction, but she has been fine playing or reading by herself, and doesn't seem one whit bothered that her brother's doing something she can't do. This could all change, but for now, all is going well.

One week down, thirteen years to go! 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Family Geek Out

We went to Barnes and Noble yesterday in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to buy my son a dictionary. (It's almost as if all the parents in the area recently had cause to buy the same item at once!) As we always do, we browsed the picture books in case anything caught our eye, and this did. Quest, by Aaron Becker, the sequel to Journey. 

Journey is a wordless picture book about a girl with a magic crayon that leads her on an adventure through a magical world. Most of the pictures are large detailed landscapes, letting your eye do the exploring. Thanks to the wordless part, both my children (five and three) love to 'read' it, and I've enjoyed talking through the story with them as well, because the artwork is ruddy gorgeous. Below is the book trailer to give you an idea.

When I recognised the characters from Journey on the cover of Quest, I immediately pulled it off the shelf and showed it to the kids. Their eyes went huge, and they squeaked: "Journey!" I may have squeaked as well.

At that point, buying it was a foregone conclusion, and after some argument, we agreed that nobody should have it in the car on the way home; we would all read it together.

And that was exactly what we did, page by page, guessing what it was the children were drawing next, and finding out the details of the story together. Once we finished, we immediately re-read.

My husband and I are geeks, and there are plenty of times that we've been mutually excited over something. But this is the first time I've been able to really geek out with the kids--for all three of us to be genuine fans of a fantasy world, and it warmed my nerdy little heart.

The good news is that we should get the chance to do this again. Apparently, Journey and Quest are destined to be a trilogy. I can't wait. (And, so he tells me, neither can my son.)

Sunday, 7 September 2014

School just got Real

In between my travel write ups (we did too much traveling this summer--I've got New York and Washington DC to add now!), I should catch up with actual goings on. Such as my son's graduation from Children's House to the Elementary Class.

We've kept him in his Montessori School, so he's in a mixed age six-nine classroom, but it's the equivalent to first grade. I.e. moving from pre-school to honest-to-goodness school.

The significance of this transition hadn't occurred to me until August when we got the class supply list, featuring binders and notebooks instead of paints and kitchen roll. It really hit me when we had the parent orientation evening, and we were talked through expectations such as... homework.

In many ways, up until this point, I've considered the children to be at school to learn practical skills and socialisation. Any academic advancements have been a bonus. Yes, I stressed about his reading, but there was always the feeling that it didn't really matter. And now it feels like it does.

It's still Montessori, it's still child-led, so my son will still go at his own pace, and there isn't really a specific standard in each subject that they have to achieve in the three years of elementary. But there is an expectation now that they will stay in line with the rest of the country--and there's an element of preparing them for a non-Montessori academic future, with work-sheets and tests and such like.

And the aforementioned homework. Homework is not really Montessori, which is designed around using materials that are in the classroom and not the home. His teacher's solution to this is to get the children to work at home on the stuff they need to burn into their memories for the long term.

For now, my son's homework is one or two worksheets a week to practice his 'math facts' (multiplication tables, 0-9 sums, etc.) In a few more weeks, spelling will be added to the mix--two nights of studying the words, and two nights of choosing his own activity out of a range from 'write your words from shortest to longest' to 'write a poem using your words.') This will mean something to do every night of the week.

He is taking this development with all due cheer and enthusiasm. I am all anxiety (well, outwardly, I strive for a mask of cool confidence, but inwardly I'm first-world-probleming 24/7). My own homework practices at school were atrocious and thus I am resolved for my children to do better. I want to have a routine time where he sits at the table and does homework, and I am available to help him, discuss it with him or otherwise show interest--but equally, I've got to find something to keep my daughter engaged without distracting him at the same time.

So far it's been very easy because he doesn't seem to have a problem with maths. (That in itself is interesting because up until now, he's always done maths with concrete materials: unit beads, ten bars, hundred squares and thousand cubes, etc. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time he's sat down with a piece of paper and done it in his head--and he can. My husband and I were both mathematically inclined, so this might just be genetic luck easing the transition, but it was fun to listen him read the questions dramatically as if it was the most insane thing he'd ever been asked before declaring: "Well, it has to be [answer].")

I am more worried about how the spelling will go down, but then again, this is just the tip of a fifteen-year long iceberg. It's going to get tough eventually... I should enjoy staying afloat while I can.

The other thing that's starting to concern me is keeping up with his British peers. Technically, he's skipped a year in the US system (it's really a little more blurred thanks to the Montessori system and his early start in that), but in the UK, he'd be starting 'proper' school this year too. The BBC recently ran this article on the new national curriculum, which made me realize I should be keeping an eye on what he's expected to know there.

From my own experience (educated in the US from the age of nine to eleven, before returning to the UK for high school), the US is perhaps more academic than the UK at the primary level... but that was twenty five years ago. To use the examples cited in this article, I know my son will be learning fractions, though computer coding was not mentioned in the elementary class overview! Handily, my husband's a computer guy and I'm sure there are all kinds of apps for that, but what else lurks in the pages of the National Curriculum?

My first thought was to panic, download a PDF of Key Stage One expectations, make extensive notes and start googling downloadable worksheets, to keep my son abreast of the UK standards...

And then there was the second thought which is that I have better things to do with my time, so does my son, and my whole thing about Montessori is that I don't like forcing children to a standard anyway.

So I probably will try to keep aware of what's going on in the equivalent British class. But I'll also acknowledge that there will always be gaps he'll have to bridge when he starts school there. And that's OK. He's going to have huge blind spots in his history and geography, but let's seize the opportunity we have to learn about American history and geography.

Right now, the most important thing is his enthusiasm for learning. That's what I want to celebrate and sustain for as long as possible. Besides, almost six years on from his birth, there are still few things more enjoyable than watching him learn and discover the world around him.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Yellowstone with Preschoolers

We recently did a ten day trip around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks plus intervening cities with our three year old daughter and five year old son. I'm going to break this up into three posts, and this is the Yellowstone portion:

Jackson/Grand Tetons

We flew in through Jackson, Wyoming, and drove through Grand Tetons National Park to get to Yellowstone. Jackson is the only commercial US airport to be inside a national park and reportedly has one of the prettiest approaches to any airport in the world.

The view on our descent

Since we had made the decision to focus on Yellowstone and Montana, we didn't do either Grand Tetons or Jackson any justice. We did take the scenic Teton Park Rd which was only twenty minutes longer than the main one. It gave us lots of views of the mountains and lakes... but what really impressed me was the sheer range of wildflowers. I wish I'd known in advance so I could have got the kids to learn a few flowers and spot them.


Driving through Yellowstone, you will see many signs notifying you of the Continental Divide. This crooked boundary marks the point between water flowing to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Pour water on one side of the line, it will run into streams heading for the Pacific; pour it on the other, and it will eventually make its way to the Atlantic. (We'll just ignore evaporation for the sake of the point.)

The road layout is a big loop with off shoot roads to the five gates, and one east-west road crossing the middle, between Norris and Canyon Village. Either of these are very central--the latter is perfect for access to the canyon, waterfalls and lakes, while Norris is ideal for geothermal features.

We were starting and finishing our holiday at Yellowstone, with a trip up to Glacier National Park in between. We had planned it at the last minute, so the only accommodation we could find for the first visit was in Gardiner, MT, just outside the north gate. On the way back, we stayed in Canyon Lodge for one night. Gardiner is a small, busy but tired feeling town, set in beautiful countryside and consisting mostly of restaurants, gift shops and white-water rafting companies. And, in evenings and early mornings, vagrant elk. I became very fond of it.

The online advice for a short visit to Yellowstone (you could easily spend a week and more there) had been to spend a day on geothermals, a day on waterfalls and a day on wildlife. We started with geothermals, since I figured that the children would have a higher tolerance for trekking around a geyser basin at the start of the trip--besides which, I had explained to my son that Yellowstone was a volcano and he was anxious to see proof of this claim.


NB One of the biggest cause of injuries in Yellowstone is people leaving the trails in geothermal areas and getting scalded. Make sure your children are aware that they must stay on the boardwalks, even if the ground looks perfectly safe nearby. We saw at least one family where the mother was having a terrible time keeping her excited children on the trail.

Most geothermal features and all the big geyser basins are on the west side of the park. We entered from the south so our first port of call was Old Faithful.

Old Faithful mid-eruption
Honestly, though there's a sense of obligation to see Old Faithful, it's not one I'd actually recommend if you feel you can give it a miss. Upper Geyser Basin is fascinating, but sprawling, and with small children you're limited in your explorations.

That said, Old Faithful is the easiest way to plan around seeing a geyser erupting. Check the time of the next eruption at the Visitor's Center on your arrival (signs should be easily visible--allow for a ten minute margin of error), and then do whatever you fancy until its time. Unless you're at the far end of the basin, it should be easy to get to a prime viewing spot. One recommendation was to sit in comfort on the upper deck of the Old Faithful Inn with a snack, but it was being painted while we were there.

Old Faithful Inn is worth a visit for interior decor and lunch. The short trail (there are longer ones) around the Upper Geyser Basin is a nice introduction to the various bubbling and steaming geothermals you can find in Yellowstone. However, in a park with so much mindblowing beauty, the only thing that could qualify as a 'must see' for me was the Visitor's Center, specifically the exhibits explaining the geysers and hot springs, complete with children's section. In the latter, we got our son to measure the 'heat' coming off the different colours of water in hot springs, discovering that the deepest blues are the hottest and the reds are the coolest. This was perfect information for our next destination: Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin.

The shores of Grand Prismatic
This is definitely a must-see. The colours are caused by microbe 'mats'--different microbes flourish at different temperatures. Reportedly you get the best effect in clear weather after days of sunshine. We were getting intermittent cloud cover that day, but we could see the lake long before we got to it because, as in the above picture, the steam was reflecting the colours. That instantly excited the children and they were eager to stop and see the spring.

The postcard pictures of Grand Prismatic are taken from above, and to get that view, you'll have to take the Fairy Falls trail. We took the blog's picture at Midway Geyser Basin, a very short loop with Grand Prismatic Spring at the far side. The crowds were a bit uncomfortable, as I was worried the children might slip off the boardwalk or inadvertently push somebody else off, but the walking itself was no issue. The other fascinating sight there is Excelsior Geyser, which blew itself out years ago leaving a vast steaming lake which pumps huge quantities of hot water into the Firehole River.

Hot water draining into the Firehole River; a swimming hole is some miles downstream.

You can go swimming in the Firehole River. If you take the one way (south only) Firehole Canyon Drive, just south of Madison, you'll go past Firehole Falls and then a swimming hole. We saw people swimming in the middle of the river and also sitting on various rocky outcroppings and it looked absolutely fantastic. There aren't many places you can legally swim in Yellowstone (I heard only two) and we stumbled across this by chance so we didn't have the time to do it, but it's certainly something I'd like to try if we ever go again. The climb down to the water and the river current would be something you'd have to take into account with younger children.

The Artist Paint Pots had been recommended for small children due to their colours.

The Artist Paint Pots Trail
Unfortunately, they were dried up when we were there! Bad luck on our part, but the trail itself was still rewarding--though there's a short forest hike to get to the geothermals. Trekking half a mile through trees did nothing to whet the children's appetites. Still the area itself was definitely impressive. While the paint pots were dried out, there was another mudpot just a few yards away which was hysterical to watch. On that day, the mud was very thick and producing these gloopy bubbles which burst and sent mud flying into the air with full sound effects.

Not wanting to burn out the children and losing time, we regretfully passed by Norris Geyser Basin, though I had heard good things about it. There's another museum there, and the park's tallest geyser, Steamboat Geyser.

We actually ran out of time altogether that day due to roadworks between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs, but the following day, my husband and daughter returned to see Mammoth Hot Springs.

Mammoth Hot Springs
The limestone terraces are one of the most instantly recognisable landmarks in the park, and my husband apparently got my daughter around all of them. (Though with some driving involved, rather than walking the whole thing.)

We saw elk every time we passed the Mammoth Hot Springs area, calmly wandering through as if they own the place. (Technically, they do.) They're not exactly in the best setting for photographs, but it was a great place for our children to see them up close.

Mammoth Hot Springs marks the junction closest to the North Gate, and its village is a good place to stop for a snack. Word of advice: if you want ice cream, try the General Store instead of the Terrace Grill. It has better flavours and cones. (Also cheap ice cream bar options.)

Our last geothermal stop on the south-to-north route was the Boiling River.

Swimming under a hot spring's cascades

I've seen the Boiling River described as Yellowstone's worst kept secret and I'm inclined to agree. The sheer weight of traffic to it is so damaging to the environment that there is no signpost and it doesn't appear in any of the park's literature or maps. However, as we drove from Mammoth Hot Springs to the North Gate, right after we crossed the border into Montana, we saw people walking below the road and along the Yellowstone River, while the unmarked carparks were overflowing along both sides of the road.

The Boiling River itself is a hot spring that joins the Yellowstone via a number of small waterfalls. The water from the falls is scalding hot; the Yellowstone is too damn cold. Between the two, there is a very fine line of happy medium.

The trail there is half a mile, and then there are two sets of stairs leading into the river. The first one leads into a more of a hot tub pool: just the right depth to sit in and no current to speak of. The second allows you to explore down the river a little way, but beware of the currents when you turn back. Put another way: don't take small children down into the fast-flowing part. Even if you keep a tight hold of them, it's going to be difficult enough getting yourself back without any extra weight. There's a small area of shallows here where children can play.

This is more of a sit-and-soak area than a swimming hole, though the crowds are reassuring if you need assistance. (One kind bystander carried my daughter back for me, when I found I'd taken her further than I could manage.) The children found the crowds and current too much, but as an opportunity to truly experience a hot spring, I recommend it.

NB Bring water shoes. The riverbed is lined with shifting rocks, and treading lightly is not an option.


The eastern road more or less follows the course of the Yellowstone River, from Yellowstone Lake through the canyon and towards Gardiner. Tower Falls, at the junction for the Northeast Entrance was the well-recommended sight that we missed for the sake of more time.

We stayed one night at Canyon Lodge on our return journey. It was a lovely hotel and location, but we found a cuddly toy bear waiting for us in our room, with a note saying that if we took him, $18 would be charged to our account. In the time it took for us to read that, the children fell in love with the bear. As they had enough pocket money to buy him, I couldn't say no, but I didn't care for this commercial manipulation.

The Lower Falls of Yellowstone Canyon

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is what gives the park its name, though the Canyon walls have very vivid hues of red as well as yellow. The two waterfalls (Upper Falls, 109 ft, and Lower Falls, 308) are the main focal points of the trails and turnouts. What with the small children, we did the north rim drive which has short trails to the brinks of both waterfalls. The Lower Falls trail is a short but steep hike. Neither child had a problem with the effort involved, however the path is not paved, and loose gravel made it treacherous for somebody as accident-prone as my daughter--there's no danger of falling any distance, but it was a wonder she had any skin left on her knees by the time we got to the end of it. I still recommend the trail. Looking down over the brink was an incredible view. We let the children throw stones over the edge, and watching them fall until they finally got swallowed up by the spray helped put into perspective just how high the Falls are.

I've also heard this is a fantastic place to spot rainbows in the spray, but you would need to go in the afternoon. We were there in the morning, so rainbows could only be seen from the south rim which has less child friendly trails. The above picture was taken by my husband from the end of Uncle Tom's Trail, which meant climbing down hundreds of steps with metal teeth to retain grip in wet (and presumably icy) conditions. I was not trusting my daughter on those, and my son was done with walking, so we stayed in the car.

For a south rim view with less rainbow but more canyon potential, Artist Point lived up to its recommendations, but our best photos easily came from my husband's trek down Uncle Tom's Trail.

After saying goodbye to the Canyon, we proceeded through Hayden Valley for one final geothermal exploration: the Mud Volcano.

The Dragon's Mouth, in the Mud Volcano area
The actual Mud Volcano blew itself up years ago, and is merely an anticlimactic mudpot crater today, but the Dragon's Mouth was what made this worth the stop for me. It was also far and away the smelliest of the geothermals we encountered, which may or may not be considered a positive. It was all part of the joke for us, until my three year old daughter walked through a sulphurous bank of steam and promptly threw up.

There's a very short loop that takes you past the Mud Volcano and Dragon's Mouth, and a short trail up and around the Cooking Hillside to go past Sour Lake--go clockwise for a less steep ascent. This trail was where we got charged by a bison--again, this may or may not be a recommendation to visit.

Yellowstone River where it drains Yellowstone Lake, as seen from Fishing Bridge

The Fishing Bridge, these days open for viewing fish rather than catching them, along with Lehardys Rapids, just a little further downstream was recommended as a great place to view cutthroat trout spawning in the summer months. Either we missed the spawning or on the day we came, the waters were too wind-ruffled, but we saw no fish. Even with the wind distorting visibility, we could see that the river was astonishingly clear, and our children are at an age where walking across a bridge is high entertainment. Had we been able to actually watch fish, we would probably have had trouble tearing them away.

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake became a casualty of time and tired children. We had lunch at Lake Lodge--one of our more successful lunches owing to the canteen style buffet approach which made it easy to customise the childrens' meals. As with most of the buildings we visited in the park, the Lodge featured lovely architecture--and some soft armchairs that I all but fell asleep in. The children loved the rocking chairs on the porch with a view of the Lake.

We had debated doing the West Thumb Geyser Basin, home to the infamous fishing cone where fishermen used to cook their freshly caught fish in natural hot waters. However, we adults were tired by this time, our son was not interested in getting out of the car any more and our daughter was asleep.

We did stop at Lewis Falls on our way out to the South Entrance--this suffered in comparison to Lower Falls, and would have been better done at the start of the park, but it was a nice short walk. Unfortunately, we still couldn't persuade the children to do it, although our daughter left the car to scramble over the log jam that had developed in the river below the falls.

Wildlife Watching

Roadside bear near Artist Point
We made a conscious decision not to go all out for wildlife spotting. The best times of day to see wildlife are dusk and dawn, which would mean either a late night or an early start for the children. With ten days of roadtrip to get through, we decided that the children's sleep time was more important.

The three recommendations I found for wildlife watching were Fountain Flat Drive on the west road (a little south of Madison), Hayden Valley on the road between the Canyon and the Lake, and Lamar Valley on the road to the Northeast Entrance. Lamar seemed to be the best rated, but would also have required the biggest detour. Had it been a different sort of holiday, I would probably have tried one twilight excursion to Lamar. I spoke to a woman who said she had gone at dawn and been able to watch a mother grizzly with two cubs.

We did do an early evening trek through Hayden Valley on the night we stayed in the Canyon area.

Elk herd in Hayden Valley
The reason Hayden Valley is a good place for wildlife viewing is because it has a wide swathe of open grassland along the river. It's great for grazing animals, and from the road you can see for miles around--but in many cases, the wildlife you're seeing will be brown spots against the green. Binoculars and a good zoom lens are a must. (We saw some really serious camera equipment from people doing this properly.)

One area was jammed full of people hoping to spot some grey wolves that had been seen the previous night, and it looked like the best approach was to park up somewhere with food and drink, enjoy the evening peace and keep an eye out for anything that arrived. We had less than an hour, so we simply drove along, stopping at clusters of people to see what they were looking at. With this minimal effort approach, we saw three bison by the road, and the herd of elk in the above picture, plus numerous distant bison.

With small children, wildlife 'encounters' were probably more important than getting a good picture of one in its natural habitat. The elk at Mammoth Hot Springs may as well have been in the suburbs, but we saw mothers, babies and young bucks with their first antlers. We couldn't get a clear shot of the bear we saw near Artist's Point, but we got a great view of it foraging in a log. Bighorn sheep, mule deer and bison were all common sights, and further north, in Glacier National Park, we saw mountain goats and a moose.

In short, without making any particular effort, we came across a wide range of wildlife. I had planned our itinerary with Hayden or Lamar Valley being a backup plan if we felt we had missed out, but in the event, we felt that the See Local Fauna goal had been well and truly achieved. Still, given a second chance, I might well have consulted with park rangers about where animals had been sighted recently and planned a picnic supper/breakfast.

Paddle and Saddle with the Flying Pig

Two popular activities for the area are horseback riding and white water rafting. There are pony trekking places inside Yellowstone, but the children were too young for them. However, after some hunting around the internet, I found the Flying Pig Adventure Company, which had an option to do an hour of horseback riding followed by an hour of white water rafting for adventurers as young as five (The Paddle and Saddle Express). I signed myself and my son up for the second morning of our visit.

My five year old on Sunset
The horse rides were actually done by Hell's A-Roarin' Outfitters at a ranch in the Gallatin Hills. Our hour let us ford two streams, ride along an impressive panoramic view of the hills and through a wood. My son's horse was held by our guide the entire time, as seen in the picture. They have options for much longer rides, but this was the perfect length for us.

My husband and daughter waited for us back at the ranch, where a ranch-hand kindly gave my daughter a free ride around the yard and showed her the other horses. Being British, it never occurred to us to tip anybody until too late, which we still feel guilty about, because they were really considerate.

The ranch dog was friendly too.
Afterwards, we drove back down into Gardiner, my husband dropped me and our son off at Flying Pig and took our daughter to Mammoth Hot Springs. I had our gear and snacks in a backpack, so we changed into swimsuits at Flying Pig. (The website offers wetsuits and footwear, but it was apparently warm enough not to need wetsuits and we had our own water-shoes with us anyway.)

The rafting was on the Yellowstone River, an eight mile course from the back of Flying Pig. I've never done white water rafting before, and I suspect that if you're an aficionado, this would be a pretty boring trek. For the first half of the trip, the river marks the border for Yellowstone National Park, and a little later on, you can see the Devil's Slide, a long red streak down a mountain. Otherwise, it's fairly featureless--obviously, this is the shortest trip... I can't speak for the two hour or full day treks.

For us newbies, the rapids were dizzyingly fun. My son was the youngest person in the boat and sat in the back/middle without a paddle. Before the end, he was asking to paddle too, and for the last stretch, I swapped places with him and helped him paddle the final rapids. Our guide was excellent with him and let him row at one point. (We did remember to tip this guide, since the bus that took us back had a sign urging you to do so.)

Other features of the trip included a spot to get out and swim--we did, but the water was so cold (53 degrees or so fahrenheit) that my son started crying and we had to get back onto the boat. There was also a photographer on shore at one point taking pictures--if you want to feature prominently in shot, I suggest sitting in the front or on the lefthand side of the boat.

We were staying at the Super 8 in Gardiner, so afterwards, we went back to the hotel, changed into dry things and headed out to the well-recommended Wild Buffalo foodtruck for lunch, where my husband and daughter rejoined us. Though the Paddle & Saddle Express is a half-day option, designed to let you have the rest of the day to explore Yellowstone, in practice, we needed a rest break afterwards. But my son and I absolutely loved it.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Making Way for Buffalo

Hey, look a post. And a resolve to write more of them that may or may not be followed through to fruition...

We have just got back from a trip around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Detailed posts to follow (I hope!), but first I wanted to share with you a cautionary tale about following Park advisories.

Yellowstone has several guidelines and warnings signs (my personal favourite: “Caution! Hot, flying mud.”) Many of the geothermal areas have a relatively thin crust of earth over scalding hot water, mud and steam, and so there are boardwalks for guests to follow with strict warnings to stay on the boardwalk.

The animals, of course, pay no such attention to these warnings, and so when we were following the trail around the Mud Volcano area, we saw a bison stubbornly plodding through the steaming trickles of water and taking a drink from Sour Lake. (From the smell of the air, I wouldn’t have tasted the water, even if cooled, but our bovine antagonist didn’t care. Then again, this was an animal who had chosen to saunter through a volcanic hot spot in the heat of the afternoon.)

Never trust an animal with a taste for sulphur.

On the subject of Yellowstone’s wildlife, there are cautions for them too. Visitors are advised to stay one hundred yards away from bears and wolves, and twenty-five yards away from all other wildlife. Regardless of distance, if an animal changes its behaviour because of you, you are too close.

In due course, we saw that the bison was heading slowly but surely for our section of boardwalk, so we hurried ahead to get out of its way. Once we were a safe distance from its predicted path, I turned around and started videoing it. I assumed it was going to cross the boardwalk, and I thought a video would be a fun souvenir of just how up close the wildlife can get. Twenty five yards from the other side of the bison, several other tourists had got their camera out with much the same idea.

However, the bison did not cross the boardwalk. It turned and started walking and grazing alongside the boardwalk towards us. Ordinarily, we would simply have moved out of its path, keeping to a safe distance, but the boardwalk was keeping us on its path, so all we could do was move further back. We duly started doing so, but the bison was paying no attention to us and seemed perfectly placid, so we weren’t in too much of a hurry. I was holding my three year old daughter’s hand, which made backing up awkward, and let’s be honest, I was a little more worried about the video than my retreat.

We didn’t let it get very close to us (I was using the zoom on my camera), but it almost certainly was within the twenty-five yard mark, when the bison charged. At me and my daughter.

If there is one thing you can count on me to do in a crisis, it’s to freeze up. There appears to be no ideal tactic for when you are faced with a charging buffalo, but on this occasion, not moving worked. The bison was bluffing. It did not attempt to mount the boardwalk but thundered to a halt right alongside us.

(My daughter’s reaction was to scream and hide behind my legs, so she clearly has superior reflexes, and there is hope for the family line yet.)

When my brain was capable of processing information again, it no longer needed to worry about maintaining a twenty-five yard distance. A full-grown, bull bison was one yard from us, giving me a one-eyed, sidelong glare. I could have stepped forward and touched him. My brain promptly got hung up on just what the hell I was supposed to do now.

Behind me, a woman had leapt from the other side of the boardwalk to get behind a fallen tree, yelling at her son to do the same thing. For some reason, I was still more scared of third degree burns than being gored by a buffalo, so I was all in on the standing-my-ground tack. My main memory of this whole moment was staring back at this bison’s eye, while trying to step backwards slowly and without tripping over my daughter.

As we started moving, the bison made another prancing rush (which, honestly, looked pretty absurd yet in no way lessened my respect for him at the time). I stopped in a moment of panic that he wasn’t going to let us get ahead of him and briefly wondered if I should try moving forward instead, to get past him that way. In retrospect, going behind him and out of his sight sounds like a really bad idea, and luckily I chose to keep retreating, knowing that my husband was behind me somewhere.

Eventually, my brain kicked properly into gear, and—never taking my eyes off the bison—I told my daughter to walk to her father. (She ran.) Once she was out of my way, it was easier for me to walk backwards and—thank goodness—the bison lost interest as abruptly as he had gained it. I made it safely back to my family, and he moved away from the boardwalk and started grazing. At our last sight of him, a few minutes later, some other tourists who had come up after our encounter were having their photographs taken with him.

It was an unnerving reminder that however accustomed to humans wildlife are, they’re still unpredictable, and anything that big is bloody dangerous. I don’t know if that bison ever would have turned violent, but I’m thankful for the boardwalk which gave me a foot of extra height on him and also provided an ‘intuitive’ barrier between us. (Though a quick google of ‘bison charge’ has proven that a boardwalk will not necessarily stop a bison.)

The thing was, I thought I was being safe and respectful of the wildlife. We have a very good zoom lens on the camera, and it was never my intent to interact with the animals or give the children a close encounter. In fact, my son started the holiday with a morbid fear of elk after my firm exhortations about keeping clear of large animals. (Elk can most certainly be dangerous, but this backfired on me when they were casually wandering past our hotel.)  I just fell into the trap of seeing the bison as the docile, slow creatures they so often appear to be. I became that little bit too casual about checking the distance.

We were phenomenally lucky. A cheerful little document online provides all sorts of (painful) alternative outcomes to this story. As fun as wildlife watching is, especially when you get a chance to get up close to one of the really large beasts we share this planet with, remember to play it safe—particularly if you're escorting children.

Finally, please note that my careless bid to play David Attenborough was in no way worth it. While some random tourists probably have excellent pictures of my being-charged-by-a-bison face, all we got out of it was a video that the Blair Witch crew would be ashamed of.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Reading Update: Books for Pre-readers / Early readers

Despite my blogging going off the rails, 2013 was a pretty good year for us, with numerous accomplishments--with reading being one of the more exciting ones!

My son, now five, pulled all his reading skills together this autumn and started applying it to books. He had just got the hang of sounding out words at the beginning of the year. He's now able to read a simple phonics book, taking in the story and context as he goes, and if he sees a simple word on a sign when we're out and about, he will read it and confirm with me.

While his schools take the main credit, one of the best moves I ended up making in this endeavour was to put books in the car. I started when we were visiting the UK over the summer and doing long road trips--we didn't have any phonics appropriate books at the time, and my son was still resistant to picking up a book and trying to sound out the words. So instead I gravitated to books that they knew really well or that were pictures without words. It worked like a charm.

Wordless Picture Books

The great thing about the wordless picture books is that they're still teaching the children basic reading skills: namely going from left to right and story comprehension. They're also fostering an interest in books and independence in using them. So far I have found that my children embrace a picture book only if I 'read' the story through with them first, helping them grasp the storyline (though these days, I suspect my son could tackle one on his own.) Once they've become familiar with it, they can look through it by themselves--though if I'm available, they'll always want me to join them!

Far and away, my favourite of our wordless picture books is The Wave by Suzy Lee. A lot of this bias is because the little girl in it reminds me so much of my daughter when she plays at the beach (as a bonus, this summer, my daughter even had a little blue dress like the one in the book). Whenever we read the book, we always refer to the main character as if it were my daughter.

A close second is Journey by Aaron Becker, which has incredibly beautiful pictures and an exciting adventure. Storywise, if you've read Harold and the Purple Crayon, this is treading very similar ground though in a completely different style, and I like to think of it as a sequel.

Others we've enjoyed are The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, Dancing Boy by Ronald Himler and the virtually wordless, Do You Want to Be My Friend? by Eric Carle. I also use books that have text but the pictures can independently tell a story, such as We're Going on a Bear Hunt (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) and All The World and Rollercoaster (both Marla Frazee).

Phonics Books

As my son's reading ability increased, I started looking for convenient phonics books for him. The general selection is pretty dire in the early readers section of book stores and libraries: you're really choosing between phonics or an interesting story--the best exception I found after a solid trawl through was Jack and Rick by David McPhail.

We encountered the Biff and Chip books while in the UK, and after a while, I decided to go ahead and order a bunch of these. They're relatively interesting for phonics books, and they feature actual children that mine can identify with. Besides, I get the impression that a lot of British primary schools use them, so it's all part of cultural identity? If nothing else, my son will be familiar with the written word: 'Mum'.

We have one series two book and the entirety of series three. Series three seemed a good fit for what my son has been doing over the past term: learning blended sounds (like 'sh' and 'ee'.) It also has some nice little stories, including a modern retelling of Aesop's fable "The Dog and it's Reflection" (Floppy and the Bone). I am introducing one of these to my son every few weeks: we read them together, and then we put it in the car for him to read as we drive--with a twenty minute each way commute to school, he'll happily sit there and work through the short stories, sounding out each word.

So very often when we drive anywhere, the children will sit in the back with a couple of books each, reading aloud--and very often they don't, and they would still much rather have the iPad (let's not pretend we've worked miracles here). But it's been a very exciting leap forward.

Going forward into 2014, my plan is to finish going through our Biff and Chip books and then progress to some phonics and repetition-heavy Dr Seuss (Hop on Pop, Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham) and P D Eastman (Go, Dog, Go!) by way of gradually introducing more sight words. I have a handful of archaic Ladybird "Read It Yourself" titles from my own childhood which should also fit in nicely here. I am very excited for the point when my son can take any book off our shelf and tackle the story inside for himself.

For my daughter, we'll continue with the picture books and the I Spy game (using the letter sound rather than the name), which is her favourite. My son can play properly now, but my daughter is still too young to analyse a word's starting sound. Instead, she just chooses a sound (usually 'b' or 'j') and then we guess appropriate answers until we hit one she likes--lately, she's developed a fondness for just saying 'no' to everything, so we tend to overthrow her turn after half a dozen guesses.

She knows her alphabet pretty well at this point, and likes to look at her name written down, so that's as much as I need from a child not yet three. She however is dying to read and gets insanely jealous of my son's reading time with me--she'll try to mimic him, and is frustrated at not getting it. I sometimes wonder if she'll teach herself to sight read before she can do phonics. We'll see.

I've also been trying to read more myself, having fallen out of the habit since having the children. My main problem is that I don't like being interrupted from a book mid-flow, so I came up with the solution of reading a lot of children's and YA literature this year, which tends to be more accessible for picking up and putting down at a moment's notice. (The Kindle is also useful in this regard.) There is plenty of kidlit that is written intelligently enough to appreciate from an adult viewpoint.

As a bonus, it's given me a greater idea of what is out there for modern children besides Harry Potter and the Hunger Games--though I suppose these will also be outdated by the time my own children get to that stage. My favourite discoveries have been Handbook for Dragon Slayers and The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Anyway, that's that. If you have any other book recommendations for myself or either of my children, please comment!