A Very Virginia Christmas

We’ve trimmed our holiday traditions down considerably in recent years – a nod to COVID-induced realities, sadly, but also a reflection of the current (overwhelmed) state of life. But there are a few traditions in the run-up to Christmas that are just non-negotiable; I’m not willing to give them up, and I will move heaven and earth to make them happen. A visit to Aladdin, the Mount Vernon Christmas camel, is one of them (although Aladdin is around until Twelfth Night, and it’s acceptable to visit him after Christmas, if necessary) and a walk through Old Town, our former neighborhood, to admire the decorations. This year, we combined the two into one thoroughly Alexandrian day.

Starting with Mount Vernon. It was a grey day – not too cold, but damp – and a walk felt good. By the way, if you’re thinking the coloration of the Mansion looks different, it is. The property has gone back to the traditional buff color, removing the historically-inaccurate crisp white exterior. This sandy hue is what it actually looked like in Washington’s day.

There he is! It’s tradition for Mount Vernon to host a camel for Christmas, because Washington used to procure one as a holiday treat for his stepchildren and grandchildren. Aladdin has been a regular visitor for the last fourteen Christmases now and we’ve visited him almost every year, including his first year as the Christmas Camel – when he was just a baby.

He’s so stinking cute. I cannot.

Obviously, Aladdin isn’t the only animal on property. After paying our respects to him, we wandered off in search of other friends. I have never seen so many sheep here before. There must have been twenty of them! Seriously. Where did they all come from?

We walked around the rest of the outdoor attractions, too. Peanut loved stopping by each of the outbuildings to read the explanatory placard – there was much lecturing when Nugget and I failed to keep pace; I had sock problems, and to be honest, we were more interested in the garden.

It might be the fact that I had spent several days reading Nigel Slater’s poetic ode to winter, The Christmas Chronicles, but I was enchanted by the bare architecture of the kitchen garden in winter.

And I’m always inspired by the espaliered fruit trees. I have delusions of gardening grandeur (when we buy the forever house!) involving lots of fruit trees. Sometimes my dreams involve a glorious tangle of gnarled apple trees and a blackberry bramble, but other times I picture espaliered fruit. I guess it’ll have to wait for the as-yet-fuzzy forever house and garden to take shape, before I’ll really know.

Red, green, and purple. Christmas!

After wandering almost the whole Mount Vernon property (we missed the upper flower garden, but Peanut was done with Nugget and me and our Monty Don delusions) we headed to our old stomping ground – Old Town Alexandria.

The residents of Old Town go all in on Christmas decorations, but because it’s such a historic neighborhood, by tacit agreement they do it in a very traditional, understated way. Lots of swags of fresh greenery, tartan ribbons, and fresh and dried fruit – no inflatables or loud colored lights. (Which have their place, but would look alarming on these pre-Revolutionary streets, let’s be honest.)

No baby yet. Check back in a few weeks. (Pssst – this creche is in front of St. Mary’s Basilica, which we just learned was the very first Catholic church in Virginia. Yay, history!)

Wreaths of Old Town, 2021, here we come. I think this door – one of the first we walked past – might have been my favorite.

But I loved this one, too – simple, but gorgeously effective.

Another favorite – a wreath made entirely of oyster shells is a stunning nod to coastal Virginia. Also, I love a wooden door! Over the years, I’ve gotten fonder of the natural wood look. This made me think of the entrance to the Nantucket pub that features in the first few chapters of Moby Dick, where Ishmael and Queequeg meet.

Another favorite – understated, but perfect with the exposed brick and gold stars.

No visit to Old Town is complete without walking by the Spite House. This tiny row house is barely more than six feet in width.

More dried fruit! I love these traditional decorations.

Partway through our walk, we met up with friends – my law school BFF, her husband, and their two kids. In an instant, my kids switched from complaining about the forced march past very grownup door decor, to wild exhilaration at seeing their friends. Running, jumping, screeching and cackling ensued.

We all got a laugh when my friend’s husband leaned down to his son and urgently demanded, “Where are your parents?

We walked, talked, snapped pictures and berated wild children for almost two hours – until the sun was gone, the lights were twinkling, and carolers were singing their way down King Street. As other traditions have dropped off one by one (there was no Christmas in Little Washington this year, no waterskiing Santa on the Potomac, no Scottish Walk, and no holiday trains at the National Botanic Gardens in D.C.) I’ve hung onto this one, which is simple, and free, but brings outsized holiday cheer.

What is your favorite holiday tradition?

Fall Colors at Green Spring Gardens

Last weekend, Peanut had a Brownie meeting at Green Spring Gardens – a beautiful park not far from our old haunts in Alexandria. We’d been there once before – for a children’s beekeeping event organized by the park – and always meant to go back. Funny we should find ourselves driving down there after moving away from Alexandria, but it turned out it wasn’t that far away. I brought my new mirrorless camera, fully tricked out with a lens that isn’t even released to traditional retail yet (I got it direct from Nikon) and planned to drop Peanut off with her troop and then take a photography walk around the gardens.

That wasn’t to be. Peanut was having a mommymommymommy kind of day and I couldn’t leave. But it turned out the other moms were pretty much all sticking around too; we stood together in a clump discussing the kids’ COVID-19 vaccines, upcoming holiday plans, sports schedules and the like.

While Peanut worked on her letterboxing “log book,” I did sneak off to photograph the Children’s Garden, at least. We had wind in the forecast and I suspected – and was confirmed by the park employee who was leading the Brownie event – that this was probably the last weekend of fall colors before all of the leaves would be on the ground for the duration.

As the temperature started dropping, I rushed off to the car to pick up Peanut’s heavy coat. On the way back, without breaking a stride, I managed to get a few more snaps of the gardens in their fall glory.

When I got back to the Brownies, they were nearly done with their projects, and almost ready to go on a walk to search for the Green Spring Gardens’ letterbox and stamp their new logbooks. All the moms (and one dad) came too.

The girls found the Green Spring letterbox by a beautiful pond, and lined up to stamp their logbooks. What a fun event! I think we’ll definitely be seeking out other letterboxes in our area so Peanut can get more stamps in her “passport.”

As for me – I got my fall color pictures after all! Still getting to know my new camera, but I think they came out well, and I can’t wait to experiment more on other photography walks.

How is the foliage where you live? Still going strong, or is the season pretty much over?

Gifts from Grandmother

A few weeks ago now, we decided on a whim to go for a short hike at one of our favorite local spots – Rust Nature Preserve in Leesburg, Virginia. We’ve hiked here in all seasons at this point; I love looking for feathered friends (it’s a bird sanctuary) and resting my eyes on the serene meadow. It’s always a special place, but our most recent hike was something more.

As we started out for our regular meadow loop, I spotted something I’d never seen before, at least, not at Rust – trail berries! Early-season black raspberries, specifically.

At first, I thought they were blackberries; I only later realized that they were black raspberries. Either way, though, edible. Blackberries have no poisonous lookalikes – they do have similar-looking cousins (like loganberries and marionberries – or Mayor Berries, as I like to call them, sorry fam I’ll see myself out) but all are fine to eat. So the rule in our house is, trail blackberries and the like are fair game. The kids chowed down accordingly.

As we meandered down the trail, stopping every five feet to pick and eat more black raspberries, I had the strong feeling that my grandmother put these raspberry bushes in this meadow for us.

She loved a good wildflower meadow, and berry-picking; we used to gather bowls of red raspberries from a thicket in the yard at my family’s Adirondack camp and then take them inside, still warm from the sun, douse them in heavy cream and feast.

She also loved Queen Anne’s lace – it might have been her favorite flower; certainly I always associate it with her – and the meadow was dotted with the delicate white blossoms, too. Coincidence? Hardly.

I made the kids thank Great-Grandmother for the gifts. (“Well, of course you did,” said my aunt when I told her this story, “you’ve always been polite.”)

A short 0.6 mile loop took over an hour, but it was worth it. We picked and ate berries (oh, this probably goes without saying, but guys, please don’t eat anything you find in nature unless you’re sure it’s safe, okay?) and walked along talking about how nice it was that Grandmother thought to put all these treasures in our path.

Pony-Watching on Assateague Island

Planning our weekend trip to Chincoteague, I spent an hour or so tooling around on TripAdvisor, looking for activities to do that would take us out of the campground. I knew that we would want to get in a good few hours at the Assateague Island National Seashore beach, and beyond that I wasn’t really sure but I was hoping to see the famous wild ponies. (Which are actually ponies – not horses.) So Saltwater Pony Tours, with it’s 750+ rave reviews on TripAdvisor, caught my attention right away.

Saltwater Pony Tours is just one of several pony-viewing boat tour companies operating out of Chincoteague, but was by far the highest rated. As a concession to COVID-19, they’ve implemented a new policy – at least temporarily – of one family/group (plus the guide) per boat, meaning you automatically get a private tour for your family. Between that policy, the reasonable price, and the piles of outstanding reviews, I was sold. Luckily, there were several available time slots, and I booked us in for a two hour tour starting at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday. We rolled into Chincoteague around lunchtime, grabbed some snacks at a waterfront restaurant, got the kids ice cream, and then headed to the marina. Our guide/captain, Casey, met us at the dock and escorted us onto the boat – a large, beautiful pontoon that we had all to ourselves. Steaming out of the harbor, Casey oriented us to the geography of the islands and pointed out wildlife, including pelicans diving for their happy hour.

Our attitude whenever we are out for a wildlife-viewing adventure is: nature gonna nature. We know wildlife is wild (that’s the appeal, right?) and that there’s no guarantee of any sightings. Worst case scenario, we spend two hours on a boat on a beautiful day. Can’t really beat that, even if we don’t see any animals.

As luck would have it, though, within a few minutes of pushing off the dock, Captain Casey got a radio call – ponies! One of his colleagues from the tour company was reporting that there was a group congregating in an area called Black Duck Gut, which is pretty much inaccessible (thanks to tides, wind, and shifting sands) unless you really know what you’re doing. Fortunately for us, we seemed to have the best and most skillful navigator in the islands driving our boat.

Casey expertly steered us through the channels and within minutes – there they were, the famous wild ponies of Chincoteague (actually Assateague)!

My small horse fangirl was entranced. She has read Misty of Chincoteague (I haven’t – must correct that) and she and Captain Casey spent the ride over discussing the book (he’s a teacher in his regular, non-summer life) – at least until we got to the ponies, and then she just stared starry-eyed.

In fairness, though, we were all doing that.

Thanks to Casey’s expert navigation, we were able to get up close to the ponies – within 50 yards! – and bob around watching them for over an hour from the boat. (He explained that they consider the boats as just “part of nature” but if they were ever approached on foot, it would be a different story.) Between the excellent viewing spot and my sick zoom lens, I was in wildlife photography heaven.

The highlight was seeing all the adorable foals – especially this wee one, who Casey told us was only four or five days old!

We actually got to see it nursing! Totally unforgettable.

After the baby had been nursing for awhile, Casey predicted: “He’s gonna lay down in a milk coma soon.” Sure enough…

Down he flopped.

Casey explained that ponies and horses only lay down when they are feeling really comfortable and safe. Our pontoon (and one other that made it into the channel) clearly was not bothering them at all.

The new baby was adorable, but he or she wasn’t the only foal in the group. This one was born in the spring sometime.

And still enough of a baby to need Mama’s milk.

We watched the ponies graze on the short salt grass for over an hour, completely transfixed, and then reluctantly turned away and headed back to civilization.

On the way back to the dock, Casey showed us the spot where the famous annual pony swim takes place, and regaled us with an insider’s view of the action. Then – because over an hour of close-up pony watching in Black Duck Gut wasn’t enough and we had more treats in store – we spotted another band of ponies on the other side of the island.

Casey explained that the ponies tend to congregate in bands of mostly females with one dominant male. The group we had been watching on the other side of the island was led by a male named Riptide, who had been king of the islands for years. This band was following a much younger – three years old – male named Norm. Riptide would never let Norm near his ladies, so Norm has to make his own destiny.

Seems like Norm is doing just fine.

It was an absolutely magical two hours, and we couldn’t have asked for a better experience! Casey’s knowledge of the waters around the islands and the ponies themselves made for the perfect pony-viewing tour. We felt incredibly lucky to have gotten to see these beautiful creatures wild and free in their natural habitat.

After the pony tour, we were all walking on air – but Assateague wasn’t done with us yet! The next day, driving back to camp from the beach, we got lucky enough to see ponies for a third time – grazing on salt grass right by the side of the main road! Steve pulled over and I darted out with my big camera.

Hey, look, it’s our old buddy Riptide! (He’s the brown pony with the blond mane – an unusual combination, making him easy to spot.) Riptide and his ladies were accompanied by a gaggle of cattle egrets.

Totally amazing to see this majesty right off the side of the road!

Throughout the pony tour, I kept using the word “magical” – which is what this experience was. Seeing the famous ponies up close was definitely one of the wildlife-viewing highlights of my life. We were very conscious of how lucky we were to be sharing space with them. I hope we return to Chincoteague and Assateague and see the ponies again someday (soon), and I hope that this experience stays with Peanut and Nugget forever.

Have you ever been to Assateague?

Tales from the Exurbs, Vol. VIII: Lord Chuckingham

The other day, Steve rushed into the house and excitedly announced that we had a “new neighbor.” Since we’ve barely met any of our existing neighbors, I wasn’t sure why the fanfare – but then he pulled his phone out and showed me a video of a rather beefy fellow eyeing him suspiciously and then disappearing under our shed.

The kids were thrilled, obviously. Our very own neighbor groundhog! Can life get better? Seriously, can it? Over dinner, we had a ferocious family debate about what to name him. Peanut and I plumped for “Phil,” after his famous relation, but Steve said we were being “speciesist” and that not all groundhogs are named Phil. Eventually, after some truly skillful advocacy, Steve persuaded us all to agree to his choice of names.

Meet Lord Chuckingham. Because he’s dignified. See it?

After dinner, Steve suggested that we should all go look out the sunroom window, because Lord Chuckingham might be hanging out by his palace gates. Low and behold – he was, and I snapped a few pictures through the sunroom window (including that first one, above). Then Steve suggested I might be able to sneak outside and get some better snaps without scaring His Lordship, if I was super quiet. It was worth a try, so I rushed out the front door, crept around the side of the garage, laid down in the grass and army crawled into the middle of the yard for a clear shot.

Almost there. What I do to get good pictures for you guys, I mean, really.

Your Lordship! Welcome to the neighborhood!

He wasn’t sure what to think of me. (Worth noting; I was all the way across the yard – about 75 feet away, or more – when I took this picture. Kudos, again, to the P1000 and its sick zoom lens.)

He decided to crouch down and hide, but continued to keep an eye on me. I read this signal as “go away” so I carefully and quietly crept out of the yard and back in the house. A few minutes later, he disappeared under the shed and we haven’t seen him since; it’s been scorching hot outside so I assume he’s staying cool in his burrow (smart groundhog).

Welcome to the neighborhood, Lord Chuckingham!

Avian Excitement

Spring is springing all over the place around here these days – really, it’s more like summer here, but I’m not complaining, bring on the heat – and the birds are as active as ever. Living in the temperate Mid-Atlantic region, and in a wooded exurb neighborhood, I have bird activity to enjoy all year ’round, which is wonderful, of course – but spring is a particularly busy time for the local bird population. And on that note, I have some fun updates!

First, on the home front: years ago I bought a vase-shaped ceramic nesting box from Crate & Barrel. This was long before I got into birding or knew anything about what to do or what to look for; I just liked the way it looked and thought it would be a nice addition to my (at the time) back porch. It’s moved with me from house to house, purely as a decorative object – until recently! Over the winter I saw a few Carolina chickadees going in and out, which was very cool, but just within the last month, a pair of Eastern bluebirds have decided to make it their home! (Sorry, Carolina chickadees – y’all are cute, but bluebirds are much more exciting.)

For weeks, they have been coming and going, bringing twigs, pine needles, and long strings of pollen (ugh) to literally feather their nest. I’m sure it helps that I hung a gigantic mealworm feeder right next to the nesting box (after swearing multiple times that I would never, ever, EVER buy mealworms).

So cool! I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I now take all conference calls from the sunroom so I can watch the bluebirds’ decorating progress all day long.

Further afield (but not much further) – while my backyard bluebirds have been living their real estate dream, the eagles at Riverbend Regional Park have added to their family: we officially have eagle chicks!

See them?

How about now?

You can tell they’re chicks because they’re not bald yet, but dang – even the chicks are gigantic birds! (These aren’t newly hatched, obviously.)

Mom and Dad are clearly so proud. We don’t have a nesting pair every year – although this nest has been around for as long as I can remember coming to Riverbend – and even less frequently do we catch a glimpse of hatchlings or chicks, so we’re obviously excited about this development. Prepare yourselves for more eagle pictures to come over the summer season…

Any avian excitement in your neck of the woods?

Way-Back Wanderlust: A Day in Monet’s Garden

Two things: (1) it’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere worth writing about, thanks for nothing ‘Rona, and (2) it’s spring and I’m craving color and flowers. So I thought it might be nice to take a few (or ten) turns in the way-back machine and show you snaps from Steve’s and my visit to Claude Monet’s garden, in September 2010 – more than ten years ago now, which seems incredible.

I had wanted to visit Monet’s garden since I was a little girl and read the classic Linnea in Monet’s Garden. When I was a bit older, my school used to take field trips to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; I loved the entire – extensive – collection of French Impressionists, but Monet was my favorite. So when Steve and I planned a trip to France in 2010, I knew that Giverny was a must.

Like most visitors, I imagine, our top priority sight was the famous water lily pond. Living in D.C. by then, I had made many pilgrimages to the water lily paintings in the Smithsonian’s National Gallery.

The iconic bridge!

Although I was most excited to see the water lily pond, I surprised myself by loving the gardens closer to the house even more.

Monet’s pink house with the green shutters, hung all over with ivy, is iconic. (We walked through the house, but photos aren’t allowed inside. No matter – I had no problem blowing up a memory card in the garden.)

I loved the riotous green pathways, leading in every direction, with flowers of every color reaching up for the sunlight.

I had intended to ask my grandmother for a painting of this wheelbarrow, but never did. Maybe I’ll have the photo printed on canvas or wood, instead.

The crowds seemed to all head for the water garden, and we had entire pathways to ourselves, to wander and feel the enchantment of being in the place that so inspired Monet. A few days later, back in Paris, we visited his great masterwork at the Musee de l’Orangerie.

Someday, I hope to find myself back in Giverny. Until then, I’m contenting myself with these photographs from more than a decade ago, and remembering the warm sunshine and the heady aromas of the artist’s garden.

Are you looking back at old vacation photos to cope with COVID wanderlust, too?


These days, whenever we get even the tiniest dusting of snow, I can be found at my kitchen window, camera in hand, waiting to paparazzi the neighborhood birds.

We’re a busy way-station for songbirds and cardinals year-round, but they seem to go particularly bonkers when there’s snow on the ground. It’s like they think they’re never going to get fed again. (They cleared out half of the nutberry suet blend, and a third of the safflower, by lunchtime after our last snowfall.) I love watching their little squabbles and dramas around the feeders, but I think my favorite thing about these avian visits is snapping pictures of their beautiful colors against the muted, snowy backdrop.

Cardinals, for instance, look stunning and dramatic against the snow.

Lady cardinal!

This fella was palling around with a female eastern bluebird.

Speaking of whom…

It literally never gets old to see them in my yard. For years, I wanted to see a bluebird – and never did. Then this summer I finally spotted one while out on a walk, and the dam broke; I see them everywhere now. Lately they’ve been visiting my front yard feeders, which feels like a miracle. I hope they keep coming; as soon as the starlings give up on me I plan to get the bluebirds some mealworms.

How funny is this fluffernutter with his feathers all poofed out like that? It’s to stay warm; fluffed feathers are the bird equivalent of a puffer jacket.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that it makes them look like adorable fluffy tennis balls.

Hello, pretty lady.

The finches were out to play, too. American goldfinch:

And a sweet purple finch:

I never get tired of their sweet faces and elegant plumage. I’m glad I live in a region with year-round avian residents – and so many of them. They’re certainly brightening up this dark pandemic winter around here.

Are you a bird nerd? What sorts of visitors do you get at your feeders?

Bad Day to Be a Frog: Great Falls, January 2021

It’s hard to believe we have been hiking at Great Falls for over a decade. Steve and I started coming to the park in January 2008 – thirteen years ago, crazy. One of the big draws in moving to the exurbs was being closer to this and so many other hiking spots – and while we have enjoyed the bounty of local trails, we’ve mostly focused on exploring other, less popular, parks near us. But recently the kids asked to go to Great Falls and we were happy to oblige. It’s always a delight to hike there, but I guess the park wanted to show us what we’ve been missing out on while we explored the county parks, because it delivered every element of the Great Falls experience.

Starting with the falls themselves – roaring!

I love watching the falls from the three successive overlooks and could stay there all day. Often in the summer months, there are whitewater kayakers and paddleboarders testing their skills, which is also such fun to watch. And sometimes, we see them in the winter, too…

Get a load of this guy! Hardcore.

I was very relieved to note that, as you can see here, he is wearing a drysuit. It was cold – about thirty degrees. The water must have been absolutely frigid.

After making a few heroic rushes at the whitewater, he let himself be carried downstream into Mather Gorge.

See him way down there? We were impressed, obviously. (I mused to Steve later that while my baseline is wanting to do ALL of the paddlesports, whitewater kayaking is pretty much the bottom of my list of water activities to try, although I do love watching the paddlers in action. I would like to go rafting, though.)

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the view and set off on our hike upriver. I love the trail that winds downriver from this point, but it’s very cliffy (that’s a word) and we can’t trust our two rambunctious, non-listening children to not go tumbling over the side. So we hike upriver, right along the water’s edge, instead. I do hope that one of these days I can wander downriver again.

As we headed off on our upriver walk, I spotted a bird flying up to perch in a high branch and trained my camera lens on it. Two ladies walking in the opposite direction stopped and asked me what it was. “I’m not sure,” I confessed, “it’s backlit. I’m hoping that when I get home I can adjust the exposure and figure it out.” We traded guesses – they thought by size that it was a pileated woodpecker, but it wasn’t sitting right and lacked the crested head. I theorized that it might be a yellow-billed cuckoo, but I really wasn’t sure. When I got home and adjusted the exposure so that I could finally see its markings I discovered – we were both wrong. Trail ladies, if you read this, it’s a northern flicker.

We parted ways and our family continued on our upriver hike. Steve and I chatted about a big trip we are planning for 2022 (more soon) and the kids lagged behind, dragging their little Sorel boot-clad feet and bickering. I peered through my camera viewfinder at some mallards, snapping away as we walked.

Suddenly I stopped short, gestured toward a little offshoot of the river, and whispered “Great blue heron!”

Steve didn’t see him right away; he had his eyes trained on the opposite bank – but this heron, who did not care at all about the hikers on the path, was on our side of the tributary, no more than fifteen feet away. (Great blue herons are famously indifferent to people; some of their cousins, like the green heron, are much shyer.)

This guy reminded me of Gru from the Despicable Me movies. Anyone else?

despicable me 2 thats GIF

You can totally see it.

(Worth noting: I did not get all up in Gru the Heron’s business to take these pictures. My bonkers wildlife camera has a 125x zoom capacity. Thanks again for the sick birthday present, Steve!)

Eventually he got tired of standing in one spot and stalked off to the opposite bank. At that point, I was ready to continue on with our hike – until Steve grabbed my arm and pointed again.

“He has something in his beak!” he said excitedly. “A fish or a crayfish or something!”

The light caught and we saw: it was a frog, a very unfortunate frog having a really, really awful day.

The heron kept dipping the frog back in the water, then pulling it out and carrying it in its beak as it stalked around the tributary. Washing the frog off? Playing cat-and-mouse with it? No idea. But it was fascinating – and a little alarming – to watch. And since he was clearly a terrifying frog predator, we changed his name from Gru to Baby Yoda.

GIF by moodman


The kids were remarkably unfazed by their first predation event. Peanut complained about her boot the whole time and Nugget threw sticks into the water and pointed out “duck butts” every time the mallards dove for a fish.

(All pictures taken with Nikon Coolpix P1000, if you’re curious.)

Quite the epic day at Great Falls! It was a good reminder – while we’ve been enjoying exploring all the parks near our new home, Great Falls is a favorite for a reason; must come back here again soon.

In Which I Am Emphatically Pro-Geotagging

The Great Range, snapped from a viewpoint on Big Slide Mountain, Keene Valley, New York

Warning: soapbox deployed, lengthy diatribe ahead!

I’m a member of a few different paddling interest groups on Facebook.  Kayak Mamas, Women Who Paddle, and Paddling in the Adirondacks.  I love the Paddling in the Adirondacks group for the beautiful pictures the members post, which give me an ADK fix when I’m not able to be in the region.  But lately, the group has been really annoying me.

There’s a subset of members of several of the outdoor groups I follow – Paddling in the Adirondacks being just one of them – who have been clutching their pearls especially tightly of late.  There was already a debate raging in the outdoor community about proper use.  And to a large extent, I’m sympathetic to the pearl-clutchers.  I get as angry as anyone when I see litter, graffiti, or initials carved into trees.  Enjoying an outdoor space in a way that mars it for others, or harms the environment, is selfish and irresponsible.  And as someone who lives in a tourist-heavy region, I understand the frustrations of traffic-clogged roads and out-of-towners behaving cluelessly.  (In D.C., there’s a special scorn reserved for people who stand on the left side of a Metro escalator.)

Kayaks on the beach at Jones Island State Park, Washington

But the pearl-clutching gets overdone in certain areas.  My Paddling in the Adirondacks group has a couple of bugaboos: closeup wildlife shots (don’t post a picture of a loon unless you’re prepared to include in the caption a breathless disclaimer about your long-range zoom lens); people who leave their gear scattered all over the previous night’s campsite (I agree: disgraceful; although I’m not sure it’s always downstaters or out-of-staters, ADK folx); and geotagging.

Mather Gorge, Great Falls Park, McLean, Virginia

So what exactly is geotagging?  Simply put: it’s the practice of including a location on your outdoor social media posts.  (Instagram, Facebook, and I assume other social media outlets – those are the only two I bother with – have location tagging as an option.)  Geotagging has been vilified for a few years now, but the pandemic really threw the debate into sharp relief.  As options for indoor entertainment fell away and more people hit the trails, the rivers, the mountains and the beaches, those who were “here first” (<–LOL, you were not) were incensed at the waves of newcomers, and convinced that the new people are ruining their favorite fresh air sports.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been frustrated by people not social distancing on trails, and not wearing masks in crowded areas – even outdoors; I care enough about you (perfect stranger) to endure the mild discomfort of wearing a mask, and you should do the same for me.  But at the same time, I am on record as saying that I like to see other people on the trails – it makes me happy to see others experiencing joy in the outdoors, and I am disillusioned enough about politicians to believe that they won’t be motivated to protect a wild space unless they see it is being used and loved by their constituents.

Sunrise over Mirror Lake, Lake Placid, New York

So why chime in now?  I’m at my tipping point after one too many annoying social media posts.  Recently, scrolling Facebook, I was stopped in my tracks by a lovely picture of fall foliage over a serene Adirondack lake.  Enjoying the picture, my smile fell away when I read the smug caption: “If you know where this place is, please keep it a secret!”

I don’t know where that place is.  And I guess I never will, since the author – who I will call Smug Paddler – doesn’t want me or any other unwelcome out-of-staters sullying up his secret paddling spot.  (Another group member offered a guess and Smug Paddler, still smug, responded: “Nope – but I might check that spot out, so thanks!”  So, basically, gatekeeping is for other people.)

And that’s my main issue with the no-geotagging movement: it’s a form of gatekeeping and purity testing, and gatekeeping is inherently elitist and exclusionary.  Oh, and more than that?  It’s racist.

Bears Den Overlook, Bluemont, Virginia

At its most basic: the no-geotag gatekeeping movement is nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf white people, blind to their own privilege, other-ing “urban” hikers and people of color to keep them from enjoying the same recreation opportunities.  It’s keeping the so-called “wrong sort” of hikers out, so that the “right sort” can have the outdoors all to themselves.  It’s the promotion of the idea that certain people are inherently less deserving of fresh air, a beautiful view, or space on the trail.  And that’s just wrong.

Melanin Base Camp says it much more eloquently than I could:

The #nogeotag movement is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals—usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping—asserting their self proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces.

Most of the articles begin with a white writer reminiscing over a much beloved hot spring, a treasured swimming hole or a rustic hiking trail from childhood that has now been “ruined” by a sudden influx of selfie-taking hikers.

They never stop to consider that their childhood was privileged with outdoor experiences not available to the majority of working-class families in the United States. They never stop to consider that this is a privilege many people in the U.S. would like to experience if given the chance. Their lack of self-awareness is pretty stunning.

(By the way, give Melanin Base Camp a follow.  Their Instagram feed is stunning, inspiring, and inclusive.)  The article, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety, lays out all of the problems – and there are many – with gatekeeping and excluding “urban” hikers (read: Black and brown folx), working class families, and people who are new to the outdoors.  It’s a must-read.

In fact, there’s no proof that geotagging social media posts has any effect on overuse of outdoor spaces.  As a like-minded soul helpfully posted in the comments to the obnoxious Facebook post that put me over the edge, the REI blog’s article “Is Photography Ruining the Outdoors?” debunked that notion pretty heartily.  (Using data collected by the Adirondack Council, in a bit of poetic justice for Smug Paddler.)  There’s no evidence supporting that photography (yes, including selfies) and social media sharing are responsible for overuse or improper use of public lands.

The only persuasive argument I’ve seen made against geotagging relates to safety concerns: it’s not wise to broadcast your location to the entire internet, especially when you’re in the backwoods.  I agree.  If we’re friends on social, you’ll notice I don’t geotag all of my posts.  There are certain posts I never tag with a location: my kids’ school and summer camps, for instance.  I do geotag my hikes and paddles, but I don’t post the pictures – or tag the locations – until I’m already back home (or at least in the car, on my way home).  If I’ve posted a picture of an outdoor adventure and tagged the location – especially if it’s wilderness – I’ve already left.  That practice, and keeping my Instagram account private (meaning I have to approve anyone who wants to follow me) is how I address those appropriate concerns about safety, and I’m comfortable with the personal decisions I’ve made in that respect.

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Luray, Virginia

There are plenty of ways to address overuse and improper use of public lands.  The good and smart folx at Melanin Base Camp suggest several.  More funding for the National Park Service, for instance, and more funding in general for education and outreach.  (Don’t like the way new outdoor adventurers are using public lands?  Educate – politely and respectfully – don’t gatekeep or hector people.  Those of us who choose to eat plant-based can explain how you inspire people to make better choices for the planet, without being a total @$$hole about it.)

While we’re funding NPS, maybe politicians can stop using government shutdowns as a political football, so that parks don’t end up unstaffed and abused.  Those images of Joshua trees cut down and overflowing trash cans at Yosemite were awful.  Keeping people of color out of public lands isn’t going to fix that problem, though.  You know what would?  Responsible government.

Other solutions: education, outreach, permit requirements, promoting alternatives (like state, regional, and local parks, or national forests and recreation areas that don’t get as much attention as the legacy parks).  Working with stakeholders.  Including indigenous groups and First Nations communities, and respecting their cultural and spiritual connections to these places.  (The myth of wildness, which Melanin Base Camp also eloquently debunks, is extremely harmful.  Public lands have not been “wild” for millennia.  They’ve been cultivated and stewarded by indigenous communities and that history deserves recognition.)

Widewater State Park, Widewater, Virginia

Golly.  Can you tell I have some feelings about this?  Clearly that Facebook post touched a nerve.  But honestly?  I’m sick and tired of exclusionary tactics and elitism in the outdoor community.  Of course we should be responsible.  But what gives Smug Paddler the right to declare anyone unwelcome on a public lake?  People protect what they love; that’s well-known.  Doesn’t it serve everyone – and the public lands we claim to care about – if more people love the outdoors and want to protect it from the ravages of climate change?

So I’ll keep geotagging my posts and sharing my outdoor adventure finds.  And if someone finds a new favorite hiking or paddling spot because of me, I’ll be pleased – not incensed.

Where do you fall on the geotagging debate?  Debate welcome, but respectful comments only, please.