Connecting to the Natural World with Nordic Skis and a Passport

This is a summary of a presentation made at Topsham Public Library on February 25, 2020, as part of CREA’s Fourth Tuesday series.

Tyler DeAngelis needs to get outdoors. This much was apparent from his above-titled presentation at CREA’s Fourth Tuesday series at the Topsham Public Library on February 25.

Tyler used a captivating mix of still photos, video, websites, and music to describe his overseas travel and, by extension, his approach to the outdoors. He spent the winters of 2016 and 2018 racing and playing on Nordic skis across Europe and beyond.

Tyler views nordic skiing as a bridge that connects him – and many others –  to the natural world. In Norway, he discovered that there are more ski trails than roads in winter. In the Dolomites of Italy, a race course winds up the length of a valley, then returns, ending on Main Street, where residents swarm outside to offer racers food and drink and cheer them on. The sport brings people together and it brings them outside.

The 90 km Vassalopet in Sweden attracts 16,000 racers and (similarly) finishes on Main Street which is covered with snow for a week in preparation for the race. During this week, countless events take place outside on the snow-covered Main Street, bringing people outside in winter to celebrate together.

In Oslo, Norway, Nordic skiers on the subway is a common sight. They take the subway to the edge of town where they can ski onto 1500 km of free ski trails.

For Tyler, hard work and nature go hand in hand. He relishes physical challenge, but takes the most pleasure in being active outdoors. If he’s going to push himself to the limit, he wants to do it in nature. He described the Birkebeiner, a 54 km race in Norway, that re-enacts the spiriting away of the one year-old heir to the Norwegian throne to protect him from an interloper. Every racer is required to carry 3.5 kg backpack – the weight of the infant.

The elite racers are very competitive, like the young man behind Tyler who warmed up with an impressive (and intimidating) array of one-leg pushups, tricep presses, and more. Yet, after the race, there is terrific camaraderie among racers, even the aforementioned young man, despite finishing after Tyler.

Tyler thinks of skis as a tool for exploring and appreciating the environment. He described his own need to ‘get into the woods’ and the ease with which he can do that on skis in winter.

He admires the Norwegian ‘Right to Roam’ – a legal code under which people are allowed to roam wherever they wish (on other people’s lands) as long as they are respectful. Communes (the equivalent of our municipalities) can put ski trails on anyone’s property. Tyler showed countless photos and videos of beautifully groomed trails passing by farmhouses, through fields and woods.

Tyler and his travel buddy raced on weekends and played in the snow during the week. They climbed mountains on mountaineering skis, explored remote areas fluffy with new powder, and skied miles of groomed trails running from village to village. Go-Pro videos of Tyler and his buddy exuberantly swishing through untouched fresh snow made most in the audience yearn to pack up their skis and head for the mountains.

Tyler finished with some sobering, but unavoidable, thoughts on environmental issues he encountered during his travels. The Nordic ski community has discovered that the most common waxes (PFAS) are ‘forever’ chemicals that accumulate in the food web. Even at low levels, PFAS waxes are adversely affecting the reproduction and hormones of nature’s creatures and are likely harmful to human lungs during the waxing process. Collegiate and other organizations are beginning to ban their use, but people should be aware of their impacts.

Tyler also talked about the impact of climate change on snow conditions in Europe. He had to change his plans numerous times due to lack of snow – in parts of the world where lack of snow is very unusual. He showed many photos of snow-covered race tracks (man-made snow) surrounded by bare earth. Many areas are making snow to meet demand and cultural expectation, but snowmaking is energy intensive. In one area, the Swedes are making snow to preserve a rapidly melting glacier. Yikes.

Park parkTyler’s presentation reinforced the point that there are countless ways to experience and enjoy the natural world. CREA hopes you have found your pathway into nature!

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Keeping Maine’s Sky Dark at Night

Have you seen the Milky Way recently? At a recent meeting with Rob Burgess of the Southern Maine Astronomers, the topic of the nighttime sky came up (not surprisingly!). I mentioned my childhood memories of being awestruck by the Milky Way at night and asked why I don’t see much of the Milky Way these days.

Rob explained that light pollution is the culprit. As artificial lighting increases light levels at night, smaller, fainter stars become more difficult to see.

Apparently, the orange glow I see to the west is the ‘light dome’ created by Lewiston. Similar domes exist over Portland and most other cities and well-lit areas. Near cities, cloudy nighttime skies are hundreds to thousands of times brighter than 200 years ago.

Unfortunately, this decline in truly dark nights affects more than just our ability to see the Milky Way and many stars. It also affects wildlife.

According to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), artificial light at night has harmful, sometimes deadly, effects on wildlife. Nocturnal animals whose habits have evolved around cycles of light and dark for millennia are particularly affected by our brightly lit nights.

Prey that use night as cover are more vulnerable to capture. Nighttime glare can disrupt wetland frogs and toads that emit mating calls only at night, reducing reproduction. Bright lights also interfere with birds’ migration and disrupt insect food webs.

The good news is – there are simple changes we can make to reduce our impact on the night. The general principles are:

  • Light only what needs to be lit
  • Provide light only when it is needed
  • Make lights no brighter than necessary
  • Choose ‘warmer’ lamps for outdoors (<3,000 k)
  • Shield lights so light illuminates downward only

These principles argue for motion-activated outdoor lights of less than 3000 k. It’s now possible to purchase outdoor flood lights with motion sensors built into the light, so you don’t need to buy a new fixture to take advantage of motion-sensing technology.

I now have a motion-activated LED entry light, set to a ‘warm’ light (which draws less current). It works beautifully and gives the creatures of the night their privacy (as long as they don’t try to come up our front steps)!



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CREA Storywalk® Gets Families Moving Outdoors

Learn how CREA’s Storywalk® is getting families outdoors – even in winter!

Excerpts from the Portland Press Herald – January 30, 2020

Families with small children trickle down the gravel road lined with trees. They are traveling at the pace of preschoolers, which is to say, slowly. Little ones notice things – they still have the gift of wonder. Just about anything can be a plaything, especially in nature. Several children discover slick icy patches to wiggle and “skate” on. Others find sticks that, with a little imagination, suddenly become official ‘walking sticks’ for their upcoming adventure in the woods.

It is a crisp winter morning in December, and the Cathance River Education Alliance (CREA) is hosting its first guided Storywalk for Preschoolers at the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham…

While CREA has had Storywalks up for several years, this is the first year it held a guided walk. Judging from the reactions of the group on this crisp December morning, reading outdoors with new friends is a big hit with preschoolers.

Program host and CREA Camp Director Jenny Mueller entertained the earliest young visitors by guiding them around the impressive collection of native birds and mammals at CREA’s Ecology Center. Little voices echoed, “Wow!” and “What’s that?” and “Can I touch that?”

Once the group was complete, with 12 children outnumbering the eight adults, everyone ‘geared up’ for the cold and headed to the first storyboard at the beginning of the Barnes Leap Trail. The book, Over and Under the Snow, (written by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal), is about the secret world of squirrels, snowshoe hares, bears, bullfrogs, and other animals who live under the snow in winter.

Jenny, parents, grandparents and an eight-year-old older brother took turns reading the book. Everyone particularly enjoyed making the animal sounds sprinkled throughout the story.

Jenny modeled how to reinforce information presented in the story. As the ‘littles’ (as she called them) moved along the trail, she reminded them to look for animal tracks and burrow entrances (i.e. holes) in the snow, just like the ones shown in the story.

Jenny encouraged everyone to put on their “deer ears,” cupping hands around ears to hear more like these woodland creatures. “Can you hear better with deer ears?” she asked? “Yes!” “What can you hear now that you couldn’t before?” “The river!” a four-year-old boy exclaimed, then sprinted down the trail to find it.

After finishing the book, the group gathered at Barnes Leap and marveled at the rushing Cathance River which was wild from recent precipitation. The return route via the Cathance River Trail and a “secret” shortcut trail was more rugged. The children delighted in negotiating tree roots and rocks as they scouted for “ice pancakes” in the river and “Wow’ed!” over bright orange jelly fungus.

The outing ended with a warm up in the Ecology Center and cocoa. Several families read more winter-themed, nature books from the Ecology Center library, while others played with animal puppets.

The takeaway from this event is that children love to be outdoors in any season. While they may be shy at first, they quickly revel in the joy of discovery with their peers. The natural world is the perfect environment for young, developing brains. Many believe unstructured play outdoors promotes strength, creativity, imagination, exploration, risk management, self-confidence, and learning. Ironically, research shows that free time outdoors helps children learn to focus. And, time in nature reduces stress.

CREA will be hosting guided StoryWalks for preschoolers seasonally, whenever a new book is installed on the storyboards. Look for it on the Events page on the CREA website: The StoryWalk is open to the public year-round at the Cathance River Nature Preserve. Naturalists of all ages are welcome, dusk to dawn, to enjoy the walk. The StoryWalk® can be found on the Barnes Leap Trail just past the CREA Ecology Center.

CREA’s Ecology Center is also open every Sunday, year-round, from 12-2 pm if you’d like to combine a visit with your StoryWalk adventure.

Read the entire story at the Portland Press Herald 

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2020 Mt. Ararat Student Research Enriches Understanding of the Preserve

This fall, every Thursday at 9:05 am, high school students spilled out of the school bus, rushed to the Ecology Center to gather equipment, put on boots/waders as needed, and headed to research sites to gather data. With only an hour and a half each week to collect their data, this is no small feat!

Working in seven small groups, Glenn Evans’ Honors Biology students from Mt Ararat High School formulated research questions on a range of topics and collected data for eight weeks. 

Projects included heath ecology, Cathance River water quality, invertebrate diversity in the Cathance River, cattail dieback in the fishless pond, large mammals, and dragon/damsel flies.

In addition to the guidance of their teacher, projects were mentored by local specialists, including Fred Cichocki of Chewonki, Kelly Waddle and Steve Pelletier of Stantec, David Reed, Scott Libby of Battelle, Dave Courtemanch and Molly Payne Wynne of The Nature Conservancy, and Liz Hertz.

Students are analyzing the data and will organize their findings into posters that will be presented on January 28, 2020 at 6:00 pm at the Topsham Public Library. Join us to hear their findings and to support the spirit of science inquiry in the next generation.

Their findings will enrich our understanding of the precious natural resources in our community and will be added to a growing database of biological and environmental information about the Preserve. 

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Preschoolers Revel in Over and Under the Snow

Families trickled down the gravel road at the pace of preschoolers. Which is to say, slowly!  The little ones discovered slick icy patches to wiggle and “skate” on. A few found walking sticks for their upcoming adventure in the woods.

It was a crisp winter morning in December, and CREA was hosting its first guided Storywalk® for Preschoolers. (One learns that when you host an event for families with preschoolers, they tend to arrive a few minutes late.)

Families gathered inside the Ecology Center while waiting for everyone to arrive. Inside, little voices echoed, “Wow!” and “What’s that?” and “Can I touch that?”

Program host Jenny Mueller introduced families to CREA’s amazing collection of native bird and animal specimens at the Ecology Center, then gave them the option of exploring indoors via a quick scavenger hunt.

Patrick, an older sibling, took on the challenge right away. Within a few minutes he had found every item and was helping younger children find things on the list.

Once everyone arrived, the group ‘geared up’ and headed to the StoryWalk®’s first pages at the beginning of the Barnes Leap Trail. Jenny invited families to walk and read the StoryWalk® pages as a group.

Caregivers and parents joined Jenny enthusiastically – taking turns to read pages, make animal sounds, and enjoy the story together. Jenny modeled for caregivers how to reinforce information presented in the story, reminding the littles to look for animal tracks and burrow entrances (i.e. holes) in the snow such as those shown in the story.

The group meandered down Barnes Leap Trail, reading – laughing – and running (well, the littles were running…) to each story easel along the trail. The book Over and Under the Snow taught the group about the secret world of squirrels, snowshoe hares, bears, bullfrogs, and other animals who live safe and warm under the snow in winter.

Midway down the trail, Jenny encouraged everyone to put on their “deer ears,” cupping hands around ears to hear more like our woodland friends. “Can you hear better with deer ears?” she asked? “Yes!” “What can you hear now that you couldn’t before?” “The river!” a four-year-old boy exclaimed, then took off down the trail to find it.

After finishing the book, the group gathered at Barnes Leap to look over the rushing Cathance River, wild from a rain and snow. How many unique ice formations could the littles spot on overhanging rocks?

Jenny led the group back via a different route that provided more views of the Cathance River plus the fun of negotiating roots and rocks on the more rugged Cathance River Trail. The littles were delighted to see the rushing water, ice pancakes, and bright orange jelly fungus.

After an hour out on the trails, the group returned to the Ecology Center, and was welcomed by its warm pellet stove and a hot kettle ready to make cocoa for all. Families stayed for a snack and warm up while guessing what animals CREA pelts came from.

Several snuggled on the couch to read winter-themed, nature-based picture books from the Ecology Center library, and play with animal puppets.

The takeaway from this event is that children love to be outdoors in any season! While they may be shy at first, they quickly revel in the joy of discovery with their peers.

CREA will be hosting these StoryWalks® for preschoolers quarterly, whenever a new book is installed on the storyboards. Look for it on the Events page on the CREA website:

In the meantime, bring your littles to enjoy our winter StoryWalk® book, Over and Under the Snow! Storyboards start just past the Ecology Center at the beginning of the Barnes Leap Trail.

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What is a ‘Puffling,’ Anyway?

Puffin populations in Maine are healthy today, but that’s a relatively recent development as we learned from Susie Meadows, 

CREA’s featured speaker at Topsham Public Library in November. Manager of the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, Susie described the drastic decline of puffins and other seabirds prior to 1918 due to overharvesting – principally for feathers. Project Puffin was started by the National Audubon Society in 1973 as an effort to learn how to restore puffins to historic nesting islands.

It wasn’t until 1981 that puffin pairs started breeding on Eastern Egg Rock, but much was learned about seabird restoration along the way. In 1973, very young puffins were brought from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock. The young age was necessary so the ‘pufflings’ (yes, that’s what juvenile puffins are called!) would imprint on the island and return later to breed. Pufflings were hand-fed in burrows by volunteers for six weeks, then headed to the open ocean for two to three years as is their custom.

When the puffins did not show up to nest on Eastern Egg as hoped for, project leaders tried different tactics to attract them, including mirrors, decoys, and puffin calls, theorizing that they needed to create an environment that was socially appealing. The presence of other puffins signals the presence of food sources and safety in numbers.

In 1981, four puffin pairs successfully raised pufflings on Eastern Egg and the population has since grown to over 150 pairs. Restoration efforts using the same techniques began on Seal Island in 1984 and pairs began breeding there only eight years later. Five hundred pairs now occupy Seal Island.

The social attraction techniques developed in the Puffin Project have since been used to restore seabird populations to locations all over the world, including Terns, Common Murres, Bermuda Petrels, and the Short-Tailed Albatrosses (Japan). Some of these species had been believed extinct, so the techniques developed to restore puffins in Maine proved to be invaluable in restoring other very vulnerable seabird populations.

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CREA Summer Camp: 2019 A Summer to Remember!

This article was originally published in CREA’s Fall 2019 newsletter.

When was the last time you found a frog at your feet in the river, built a boat with your new best friend, did a solo-hike, or covered yourself in clay from head to toe? Been a while? If so, it’s time to come to CREA Camp.

This past summer CREA offered 6 weeks of awesome outdoor exploration, STEM adventures, art creations, nature-based science discovery and, most importantly, confidence-building. Adventures were based at CREA’s Ecology Center and Nature Preserve trails. Connecting our campers with nature and fostering future stewards of the environment is our mission and our passion.

110 campers and 15 Counselors-In-Training joined us over the course of the summer. Most came from our own community, but some traveled far to experience CREA. Including Nolan from WA, Alex from NY, and Amelia and Nathan from OH.

Our camp team made all of this magic happen! Zoe Battle joined us prior to starting her freshman year at Macalester College. Zoe was an integral part of implementing our camp science curriculum and creative art lessons. Nick Merrill joined us after completing his freshman year at Bowdoin College. Nick was our fishing guru, nature guide, games-master and an enthusiastic leader!

We are all looking forward to CREA’s 2020 Summer Camps which open for registration this winter. Visit our camp page for more information or email Jenny Mueller, Camp Director with your camp questions. 

Think Camp!

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Fall 2019 Letter to Members and Friends

This letter was originally published in CREA’s Fall 2019 newsletter.

To our Members and Friends:

As Autumn comes to the Midcoast, so too do buses and buses of students from SAD 75 and Brunswick School District come to the Preserve to study Pond Life, Life Cycles, Earth Systems, Geology, and more in CREA’s ‘outdoor classroom.’

On a brilliant October day, CREA Educators Sarah Rodgers and Carey Truebe welcomed Mrs. Dedek’s fourth grade class from Williams-Cone to study Energy. One group of students measured solar, wind, and water energy outdoors with Carey while Sarah took a group inside to talk about different forms of energy.

CREA Educators do not stand and deliver information. They extract information from the students – asking questions, giving everyone a chance to think and participate, and prompting students to think analytically.

Indoors, the conversation ranged from real life examples of energy changing form in ways that are useful to whether the students had used electricity that morning (“Did you have milk with your cereal?” “Yes…” “Ah, so when you opened the refrigerator door….” “I used electricity!”). When considering whether the sun’s light energy could be used to create heat, students raced out the Ecology Center door in search of ‘something dark that converts the sun’s energy to heat’ on the building.

Everyone is engaged and everyone is participating. This is learning at its best. And students are exposed to practical, real-life applications of abstract energy concepts they have studied back at school.

Fall is one of the loveliest times of year in Maine and certainly one of the loveliest on the Cathance River Nature Preserve. Like Mrs. Dedek’s class, we hope you found time to walk our trails or participate in one of CREA’s many fall programs.

2019 has been a year of robust programming by CREA. Recently, CREA hosted a nature cruise up the Kennebec in partnership with the Maine Maritime Museum. Add to this our unique work bringing student-directed, nature-based learning to countless K-5 students from SAD 75 and Brunswick School District, six weeks of exciting, nature-based summer camp, ‘Fourth Tuesday’ talks at the Topsham Public Library, and walks at the Ecology Center for learners of all ages. Through these, CREA touches the minds and spirits of thousands of friends and neighbors here in the Midcoast. You will read more about our programs in this issue, and you can see pictures on our website, Instagram, and Facebook.

None of this would be possible without your support – our members. Together, we open doors that help people experience the magnificence and significance of the natural world. Membership is the life-blood of our organization. We are a lean organization that does this with an amazing staff of one full-time director, 2 part-time educators, and 1 part-time camp director/administrative assistant. Every membership dollar goes to this invaluable work.

2020 marks an important milestone for CREA: 20 years of fostering the wise use of the Cathance River Nature Preserve, deepening ecological awareness through nature-based learning among students, educators, and the public; and promoting environmental stewardship. We look to you to keep CREA a vital and valuable resource for the next 20 years, and beyond.

Visit us at the preserve this season, and watch for upcoming programs via our website <> and e-blasts. CREA connects people with nature, for the benefit of both!

In gratitude,

Ellen Bennett, President

Caroline Eliot, Executive Director

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CREA’s Outdoor Learning Network

This article was originally published in CREA’s Fall 2019 newsletter.

Let’s imagine you’re an elementary teacher, devoted to your students and looking for ways to enhance your teaching. You recognize that introducing regular doses of hands-on, outdoor learning experiences would benefit both you and your students. You want to explore new ideas, but the demands of your regular school day and associated meetings make that difficult. What to do?

The Outdoor Learning Network, created by CREA Educators Sarah Rodgers and Carey Truebe, could be just what this teacher needs. Sarah and Carey teach nature-based, science curricula to public school students at the Ecology Center. Through their ongoing collaborations with teachers and districts, Sarah and Carey realized that peer-to-peer sharing was invaluable to teachers. 

Many teachers crave time to brainstorm ideas about outdoor teaching and share their experiences. But, busy with day to day challenges, they rarely get the opportunity to discuss new, innovative ideas – especially with teachers outside their school.

To meet this need, in 2018 Sarah and Carey led a free summer workshop for teachers on how to ‘take learning outdoors,’ thanks to generous grant support from Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust, Davis Foundation, Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, and Merrymeeting Bay Trust. At the one-day workshop, Sarah and Carey shared outdoor teaching strategies, introduced outdoor activities linked to indoor science, math, and literacy lessons, and modeled the ‘student discovery’ style of teaching.

To create an ongoing forum for peer collaboration around outdoor, place-based teaching, they conceived of the Outdoor Learning Network (OLN) – a place where teachers could talk with other teachers at their grade level, learn about resources for outdoor teaching, and share frustrations, obstacles, and how they have worked within their school to overcome hurdles.

The first OLN meeting took place at CREA’s Ecology Center in June of 2019 with teachers representing almost every elementary school in SAD 75 and the Brunswick School District. The OLN plans to meet quarterly, rotating among different elementary schools. In late October, they met at the Bowdoinham Community School where they toured outdoor spaces used for teaching, and reviewed visual posters that help Forest Kindergartners ‘gear up’ with outerwear and supplies before heading out for a day of learning in the woods. 

At the October meeting, teachers shared rules they’ve created to guide outdoor play, discussed how they proactively address parental concerns, and acknowledged the importance of recognizing genuine challenges faced by students who haven’t ever carried a backpack or experienced unstructured play time outdoors.

The OLN exemplifies the remarkable work our Educators are doing. Not only do they inspire over a thousand public school students every year with their outdoor teaching, but they are working to magnify its impact by spreading the tools (and benefits) of place-based teaching much more broadly across our school districts through peer-to-peer collaboration. We are grateful for their talents and commitment!

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CREA Thanks Our Sunday Volunteers

This article was originally published in CREA’s Fall 2019 newsletter. 

Some people love their quiet Sundays. But a number of dedicated folks in our community leave their homes on Sundays to benefit all of us.

These are our ‘Sunday volunteers,’ who take turns hosting the Ecology Center’s open house every Sunday from 12 – 2 pm. We owe a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to these generous souls who venture down Rensenbrink Way – rain, snow, or shine – to give the public a chance to see the fascinating exhibits and systems of the Ecology Center.

With deep gratitude, we thank: Tom Burrage, Valerie Chow, Rick Diamond, Lisa Durrell and Ann Gardner, Charlie Evans, Glenn Gutsche and Janet Kolkebec, Bob and Kathleen Halliday, Ron and Joann Strand, and David Vaughn.

Are you interested in volunteering at the Ecology Center? Training is provided. Please contact our team for more information at .

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