Animal Science: 7 Places to Show Kids Bison

Bison at Yellowstone National Park

Loved how the bison "owned" the Yellowstone National Park, roaming freely where they wanted. If they felt like crossing the road, believe me, you waited. Their size and power and prehistoric look makes you sit back, wait, and enjoy watching.

The kids enjoyed seeing the bison so much, we sought out a closer location with bison.  USA Today listed The Land Between the Lakes as one of the "51 Greatest Places to See Wildlife" describing the area, "Located in the national recreation area known as Land Between the Lakes (between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake), Kentucky's only drive-through elk and bison prairie gives visitors up-close views of these majestic animals."  

The Elk & Bison Prairie National Recreation Area (Golden Pond, KY) in Land Between the Lakes offers family an economical deal - only $5 per car.  http://www.lbl.org/EBPrairieGate.html. Only enclosed vehicles allowed.  The loop only covers 3.5 miles, but leave plenty of time to allow bison to cross the road in front of you.
In the past, 40 to 60 million bison roamed across North America (NA).  According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, there are now only 500,000 in NA and most live on ranches.  Conservation herds total an estimated 20,000.  If you'd like to help, check out The American Bison Society http://www.wcs.org/saving-wildlife/hoofed-mammals/bison/the-american-bison-society.aspx

As the kids continued to age, I'd find more places to sight bison.  Look up bison farms where residents raise bison and offer products for sale.  I found one in Wisconsin - Lester's Bison Farm (31807 60th St, Salem, WI).  No entrance fee. 

We did purchase meat after learning more about the farm business from the owner himself.  If you do not feel motivated to travel for bison meat, go to meet Lester.  His patriotism shines at the driveway entrance with a row of American flags.  Retired from the United States Marine Corp, he has a lot of stories to tell.
If you'd like to show your kids the bison, here's 7 other locations with bison;
1.  Sandsage Bison Range, Garden City, KS, http://www.kdwpt.state.ks.us/news/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Wildlife-Areas/Region-3/Sandsage-Bison-Range
2.  Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne, MN, http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/blue_mounds/index.html
3.  Antelope Island State Park, Layton, Utah (UT), near Salt Lake City, $9 per car http://www.utah.com/stateparks/antelope_island.htm
4.  Fort Robinson State Park, Crawford, Nebraska http://www.stateparks.com/fort_robinson.html
5.  Maxwell State Bison Refuge, Canton, KS http://www.kdwpt.state.ks.us/news/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Wildlife-Areas/Region-4/Maxwell
6.  House Rock Wildlife Area near Jacob Lake, Arizona, http://www.wildlifeviewingareas.com/wv-app/parkdetail.aspx?parkid=57
7.  Witchita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, OK, bison and elk reintroduced  http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Wichita_Mountains/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html#


Science: 9 Places in Florida Where Your Kids Might Spot a Manatee

Not only kids have curiosity about animals.  Travel & Leisure magazine article 12 Places to Swim with Animals states "your travel bucket list just got 12 items longer."  The article included swimming with manatees in Florida as one of the twelve places.  I admit it was on my list.

All three species of manatees (West Indian, West African, Amazonians) have endangered animal status.  The Florida Manatee and Anitillean Manatees are subspecies of the West Indian species.  If you are a globe trotter, perhaps you visit the Anitillean Manatee in Puerto Rico or Mexico or the African Manatee in Kissama National Park in Angola, Africa.  Boat traffic and cold stress from temperatures below 68 degrees present risk factors for manatees.  If you go on a tour, the guide will reinforce instructions on how to observe without disturbing and rules such as not touching the manatees. 

One of the few places to swim or snorkel with the Florida manatees is the Crystal River, north of Tampa.  A tour makes it easy, providing you wet suits and a short boat ride (under 30 minutes).  Make certain to arrive early to watch the mandatory regulations video.  Related to the elephants, these gentle giants or "sea cows" typically grow to 10 feet in length and can weigh over 3,000 lbs.  Manatees can live 50 to 60 years. 

We saw manatees both active and swimming around us and manatees sleeping at lower levels.  Even during napping, manatees surface for air every twenty minutes.  Manatees eat large quantities of vegetation each day including sea grass, aquatic plants, algae, and mangrove leaves.  These friendly creatures swim gracefully.  It's a magical treat to swim near them. 

The best time to spot manatees is during the winter and early spring when manatees gather near warmer water such as near springs or electric company channels.

If you take a Crystal River tour, swimming skills help.  You'll likely be in cool water for an hour and a half.  There's many places to observe manatees including these 9 places:

1.  Citrus County's Homosassa River, paddle toward Ellie Schuller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

2.  Weeki Wachee River, warm Weeki Wachee Springs; check out Paddling Adventures located next to Weeiki Wachee Springs Park for a 5 mile, 3 hour paddle

3.  Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge observation area near Cape Canaveral, plus look nearby at Bairs Cove Boat Ramp

4.  Manatee Springs State Park Chiefland, Suwanee River, 100 million gallons of clear water comes from the springs

5.  Blue Spring State Park, north of Orlando, although access prohibited in winter

6.  Edward Ball Wakulla Spring Park, Wakulla Springs, the deepest freshwater spring in FL

7.  Lee County Park, Fort Meyers, discharge canal from electric company, check out Calusa Blueway Outfitters

8.  Manatee Lagoon, West Palm Beach, near electric company

9.  TECO Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach near discharge canal

Experts estimate the total Florida manatee population at approximately 4,000, so you are not guaranteed to spot a manatee.  If you don't want to disappoint your kids, consider the Lowry Park Zoo or Miami Seaquarium. 


Sports/Swimming: Three Family Friendly Mermaid Sites

Mermaid swimming, a cross between free diving and synchronized swimming, has become trendy.  Perhaps your child doesn't have aspirations to become one of the professional thousand mermaid and merman, but observing a show does inspire strengthening swimming skills.  Mermaids can descend on a single breath.  While wearing a tail that can weigh up to 35 pound, they make choreographed moves to music.  It's no easy task.  It can take nine months of training, using hula hoop diving exercises and more.  Mermaids must get scuba and CPR certified and prove timed 200 yard swim and 50 yard butterfly.

However, many of the recent shows or classes have adult locations or minimum age requirements: 
1) Silverton Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada with 4,000 fish
2) Sip'n Dip Lounge, Great Falls, Montana which added mermaids to their live piano bar entertainment
3) Dive Bar Sacramento, CA, featuring merman 4) Hotel del Coronado, CA, $25 class for adults includes 45 minutes of core and cardio fitness while wearing a tail. 
5) Whitney M Young Magnet Schools, Laflin St., Chicago, by Aquamermaid Chicago, $60

Here's my suggestion - go to the original, the Weiki Wachee show debuted synchronized mermaid ballet in October 1947 as a road side attraction.  In 2008, Weeki Wachee Springs became a state park and park entrance includes the show.  The park offers limited seating in an auditorium below the surface of the water;  go early!  Long hoses placed throughout the ground provide air to mermaids and mermaids perform to multiple songs.  We laughed as a turtle tried to get into the act.

Here's 3 other family friendly mermaid shows:
1) Downtown Aquarium, Denver Colorado, Mystic Mermaid Show, includes conservation messages, adults $20, children $14
2) Ripley's Aquarium Myrtle Beach, SC, mermaids swim along with sting rays and sharks on weekends, $23 adult, $17 child aquarium tickets; limited seating, go early!
2) Wreck Bar, Fort Lauderdale, FL, shipwreck scene and 30 min. show, featured in Analyze This movie, only two shows per week, go early!


History: Renaissance and 14 Fun Festivals

Where can your kids dress up in a period costume other than Halloween?  Renaissance festivals across the nation not only enable dressing up, but also learning a little European 14th to 17th century history while having fun watching shows and buying crafts.

Many festivals have multiple stages including music, comedy, and drama.  I believe the most dramatic shows are the fire whip show and the jousting competitions.  Read the show descriptions carefully.  Some shows like trunk shows using props and audience participation may be family friendly and make the kids laugh.  Other acts are meant for adults only with adult humor.

Plan for the cost to go beyond the typical $20 entrance fee per person because your kids will want to try the unique food and drinks.  My son begged for a turkey leg and opportunity to eat with his fingers.  We also liked the sassafras drink, a mixture of root beer and licorice taste.  Plus there's games and crafts to buy.  My daughter could not resist the archery.

The shows and craftsmanship demonstrations get included in the entrance fee.  Look for blacksmiths, glass blowing, and pottery making.

We've taken our kids to both the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, WI and Ohio Renaissance Faire in Harveysburg, OH (located between Cincinnati and Columbus Ohio); both rated as best renaissance festivals in the US by the Travel Channel.  Photos taken at the Kenosha festival.  However, you don't need to live in the Midwest for the festivities.  The first one began in Agoura, CA in 1966.  Festivals occur throughout the US today:

1.  Minnesota Renaissance Festival; Shakopee, MN; Aug.-Labor Day
Claimed as the largest in the US with 300,000 attendees

2.  Florida Renaissance Festival; Fort Lauderdale, FL; Feb., March
Large fair with world's largest rocking horse and 12 stages

3.  Georgia Renaissance Festival; Spring
Squire of the wire, hypnotist, acrobatic daredevils, wheel of death

4.  Carolina Renaissance Festival; Charlotte, NC; early Oct. to late Dec.
Fairhaven villagers in charming cottages

5.  Maryland Renaissance Festival; Aug.-early Sept.
Village of Revel Grove, 43rd year of comedy sword fighting show, pirate ship

6.  King Richard's Fair; Carver, MA; Aug.-Oct.
80 acre with royal zoo; vow renewal and Bachlorette Ball

7.  Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair; Mount Hope, PA; Aug.-Sept.
Kings Court, tournament joust, human chess, and trunk shows

8.  New York Renaissance Faire; Tuxedo Park, NY; Aug.-Labor Day
Theme weekends include Time Travelers Weekend and Masquerade Weekend and Ball

9.  Texas Renaissance Festival; Todd Mission, TX; late Oct to Dec.
55 acre theater, polka dancing, and holiday themes such as Oktobersfest and Celtic Christmas

10.  Scarborough Renaissance Festival; Warahachie, TX (south of Dallas)
Wedding packages available

11.  Sherwood Forest Faire; McDade, TX; Feb. to March
All you can eat dining, parade and 40 stage acts

12.  Arizonia Renaissance Festival; Apache Junction, AZ;
250,000 attendees, 2,000 actors, over 200 craft shops

13.  Northern California Renaissance Faire; Hollister, CA; October
Concert series every Saturday; costume contest

14.  Valhalla Renaissance Faire; South Lake Tahoe, CA; two weekends in June
Shakespearean bignettes


Sports: 4 Trampoline Development Centers

Want to get their hearts pumping?  Go to a trampoline facility and let them soar.

According to CNN, trampoline is one of the 10 strangest Olympic Sports, along with 1) solo synchronized swimming, 2) club swimming, 3) tug-o-war, 4) live pigeon shooting, 5) swimming obstacle course, 6) roller skating, 7) la canne (canes, similar to fencing), 8) rope climbing, and 9) race walking.  The vast majority have not been included in recent Olympic games.  However, trampoline is fairly recent.

London England held the first Trampoline World Championships (1964).  Sydney, Australia hosted the first Olympics to feature trampoline (2000).  Did you know the inventor learned from a kangaroo and actually jumped with a kangaroo on his trampoline?  Your little joey can have so much fun too. 

Trampoline offers much more challenge than who can jump highest.  Try a half turn, tuck jump, straddle jump, and seat drop.  For the gymnasts, they may jump as high as 33 feet and show off other tricks: 
1) Barani - front somersault with a half-twist
2) Cody - backward somersault from the front
3) Quadriffis- any quadruple somersault from the front.

USA Gymnastics chooses a limited number of clubs as Trampoline Development Centers, encouraging competitive trampoline sport.  In 2016, USA Gymnastics chose the following four clubs:
1.  De Veau's School of Gymnastics in Indianapolis, IN
2.  Mini Hops Gymnastics in Plymouth, MN
3.  Legacy Training Center in San Luis Obispo, CA
4.  International Gymnastics Centre Inc. in West Sacramento, CA

We've used trampoline facilities in Fort Wayne, IN and Buffalo Grove, IL (near Chicago).  Both offered more than jumping.  Both offered a foam pit and dodge ball games.  No need to bring a team.  Just join the fun.  Safety first.  The facilities provide safety videos and signs.  Always good to reinforce the message yourself with your kids.

1) Bring comfortable clothes, but not too much stuff - you'll likely want to rent a small locker.  Facilities often require socks with grips and sell them at a reasonable price.  2) Set a realistic time.  You can purchase 2 hours, but you may not need it.  One hour or even 30 minutes may suffice.  Especially if you use competition rules - routine terminates if you touch the side panel or stop (-:

When you go on vacation, sometimes the weather just doesn't cooperate.  Pack your grip socks.  If you are vacationing in the Smoky Mountains, check out Top Jump Trampoline Park in Pigeon Forge (between light #8 and 10).  If you need to rent a luxury cabin, check out our rental nearby named Indigo Moon Lodge www.indigomoonlodge.blogspot.com.


Geology Lesson: 3 Vacations, 3 Dunes

A new environment can make getting outside and exploring fun.  Dunes are a geological wonder enabled by wind.  Diverse in size, the hills and ridges add to the visual wonder.  Did you know Michigan is home to the largest dune system in the world? 

Trip One:  At 450 feet above Lake Michigan, our kids enjoyed the challenge of climbing dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. As a toddler, my daughter didn't go far.  ABC's Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as the "Most Beautiful Place in America".  The National Park Service protects these dunes.

Trip Two:  On a later vacation, we visited sand dunes protected by the state park system.  Jockey's Ridge State Park has the tallest sand dunes on the Atlantic Coast.  While located on the Outer Banks, Nags Head, North Carolina, the dunes are not located on the coastline beaches.  Geologists believe hurricanes blew sand inland.  At a height of 80 to 100 feet, my kids, niece, and nephew enjoyed doing cartwheels on the sand.  We enjoyed the beauty of the sunset over the water.

Trip Three:  On our most recent vacation, we sought out another state park with a sand dune.  Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah has fabulous red sand created by iron oxide and minerals.  It comes from Navajo sandstone from the geologic period called Middle Jurassic.  Although the dunes have an estimated age of 10,000 to 15,000 years old, the landscape quickly changes.  The hills can move as much as 50 feet in just one year.  This time my kids, niece, and nephew ran up and down the hills.  Those moving at a slower pace found the rare Coral Pink San

d Dunes tiger beetle, only found within the 500 acres of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.  Conservationist worry about their extinction.

Here's 7 other sand dunes in the United States for your kids to explore:
1.  Juniper Dunes, Washington (WA) for hiking, wire keeps out the off road vehicles (ORV) and motorcycles http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/juniper-dunes-wilderness

2.  Syracuse Sand Dunes, Kansas for the family into adventure and able to use ORVs http://www.syracusesanddunes.com/

3.  Killpecker, WY, another play zone for ORVs http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/field_offices/Rock_Springs/rec/dunes.html

4.  Christmas Valley Sand Dunes, Utah (UT), the largest inland shifting system in the Pacific Northwest http://www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/site_info.php?siteid=85

5.  Oregon Dunes, Oregon, if your kids are old enough, the family can go horseback riding on the dunes  http://oregondunes.org/horse-riding.html

6.  Great Sand Dunes National Park, 35 miles north of Alamosa, Colorado (CO), kids can even sled on the dunes  http://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/directions.htm

7.  Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana (IN)  http://www.nps.gov/indu/forkids/index.htm

We've also been to the Indiana Dunes.  It's also fun for kids, but don't expect perfect scenery...a few smokestakes could be in your horizon.


Sports: Kayaking and 3 Festivals

One of my favorite classes in high school was water sports.  It's difficult to decide which offered more fun - scuba diving in the deep end of our high school pool or learning the eskimo roll and doing it over and over in my kayak.

People began using kayaks, otherwise known as "man's boat" or "hunter's boat", approximately 4,000 years ago.  If you want to tie in a geography/history lesson combination, look for the locations of the people who first developed and used the kayaks:  Inuit (Greenland, Canada, Alaska) and Aluet (Russia, Alaska).

While most people today don't use a kayak to hunt seals and whales, kayaking provides great exercise, especially building arm muscle.  Plus, kayaking on lakes, rivers, and along ocean shores provides an opportunity to experience nature from a different viewpoint.

How might you inspire a paddling interest?  Perhaps watching a film or paddling festival.

Film festivals:  1) Reel Paddling Film Festival (Portland, ME, Hadley, MA, Alexandria, VA, Lake Placid, NY and more cities)
2) National Paddling Film Festival (Frankfort, KY) $25 ticket and silent auction

I've enjoyed watching the paddling competition at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado.  Here's 3 other festivals:
1.  Gauley Fest (Summersville, WV), proceeds support American Whitewater's river conservation
music acts, first come first serve camping; 3rd Sat. in Sept., $20-40 tickets
2.  Reno River Festival (Reno, NV, Wingfield Park Whitewater Park), 35,000 visitors; USA freestyle National Championship, kayak and fishing clinics, yoga, bike ride and costume contest, music; May
3.  Upper Klamath Festival (Klamath, OR) $30 participant fee includes shuttle, free camping; 2nd weekend in April

Renting a kayak at a state park gives you an opportunity to try the adventure.  My husband took these photos at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale, FL.  By kayaking, my son and I entered shallow areas that big boats couldn't access and we got close to birds.

National forests provide wonderful waterways for kayaking and canoeing.  Check out nationalforest.org for a full list including these 3 forests with varied views:
1.  Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Superior National Forest, MN) 1,200 miles of routes
2.  Indian River Canoe Trail (Hiawatha National Forest, MI) canyon like banks
3.  Clearwater Canoe Trail (Lolo National Forest, Montana), mountain views

If you get more serious and want to learn whitewater kayaking, Nantahala Outdoor Center paddling school has classes ($130-$150/day; Bryson City, NC).  It's less than 2 hours from the popular Smoky Mountain vacation rentals, including our luxury cabin rentals Lightning Bug Lodge (Sevierville, TN) www.lightningbuglodge.blogspot.com and Indigo Moon Lodge (Pigeon Forge, TN) www.indigomoonlodge.blogspot.com.