Thursday, December 29, 2011

Winter Hike at Alum Rock: A Canyon with a Smelly Past

Bridge above Penitencia Creek. Photo by C.G.
Hot springs and an alien meteor in San Jose? Once a fashionable Victorian spa resort, Alum Rock Park is a narrow canyon whose steep ridges overlook a year-round creek traversed by 21 natural mineral springs. Some of them are hot springs whose sulfuric content exudes a particularly eggy smell but these minerals are exactly what made the canyon so popular in the early 1900s. Physicians proclaimed the healing virtues of these waters and a resort was born, complete with water pagodas and a steam train. As for the meteor, it was a big boulder of manganese that locals claimed to have come from outer space. However capitalism got the better of the boulder when it was sold for its "earthly" metallic content during the first world war. Today the "meteor" has been mined, the Victorian spa is long gone, but Alum Rock remains a fabulous Sunday walk for all ages. Completely underrated, this park features beautiful trails under mature oak canopies and a series of arching bridges and neo-Roman spring grottos along Penitencia Creek.

Sharing the road, Alum Rock style. Photo by C.G.
On a clear and brisk Boxing Day, our family set off on the wide and paved Woodland Trail behind the Youth Science Institute and started our ascent towards the South Rim trail. Two hundred yards ahead, a big stag crossed the trail and a biker stopped to watch. It felt good to be out!

The stag didn't linger but we enjoyed the sight and kept an eye out for other "beasts" from then on. However it's not an animal that motivated our next stop but a vegetable and an exotic one at that.

Deodar Cedar pine cones. Photos by C.G.
I'd only seen the Deodar Cedar pine cones on websites before. Native from the western Himalayas, the Deodar Cedar is not your habitual Bay Area woodlands tree and that day we saw two specimens of this stately tree. Its big draw for my girls came in the pine cones that oddly resemble rose flowers. They are such pretty pine cones that you want to look at them like works of art.

Indeed right after the junction with South Rim trail, we noticed a few of these peculiar pine cones on the leafy trail next to a fair number of horse chestnuts. Immediately our girls bent down to get a closer look. So different, they are so different. Alum Rock was getting intriguing.

Going up. Photo by C.G.
Our ascent continued and after several zigzags we reached the rim and a breathtaking view of the Santa Clara valley. At that point, the hardest part of the hike is over and all you need to do is keep on walking and enjoying the views.

Wish that we could have kept on until  Arroyo Aguague Creek but half of the South Rim Trail is currently closed for repairs and will not reopen until spring 2012. As a result we left the rim at the junction with the aptly-named Switchback Trail and watched our step to get back to canyon level. A few exposed sections made me think this would be a nightmare for people with heights issues.

Egg sandwich anyone? Photo by C.G.
Now at creek level with rumbling stomachs, we spread our picnic on a creek-side table and had lunch. Before long one of our girls blurted out "Who farted?" Ah, the joys of sulfuric waters do reside in that eggy smell now, don't they?

That's how we introduced the concept of mineral springs to our young crew. We explained the sulfur and the rotten egg smell, the other minerals, the "miraculous" virtues of the water in Victorian days. Were that we had thought of packing egg sandwiches for lunch.

Bridge. Photo by C.G.
However to prove the point, we skipped a few rocks across the creek and showed a grotto out of which came milky blue waters to our girls. "It looks nice but it sure stinks" concluded our 6-year old, wrinkling her nose. In all fairness and on the scale of eggy springs, Alum Rock's springs are mild but to a young sulfur novice the smell can be overpowering - just be warned.

Momentarily leaving the springs behind, we walked up Penitencia Creek Trail to the bridge over Arroyo Aguague Creek and again crossed on rocks (the bridge is currently closed) to look at the stone work on the other side of the bridge. I really like the round circular steps leading up to the bridge, they blend so well with the romantic mood of that ferny canyon.
Spring grotto. Photo by C.G.
Since the area was technically closed, we backtracked and decided to spend some time exploring the springs and their grottos. Now you'll notice - when you go - that most of the springs have steps leading down to a sort of square "bathtub" area.

"Miracle" water fountain. Photo by C.G.
Initially I thought that bathers came in white robes to enjoy the springs al fresco but I've since read that the spring waters were pumped up to bath houses and enjoyed in large copper tubs. The steps were only built to show the location of the various springs. Too bad, I prefer my earlier version but the water level does seem ridiculously low - not to mention the yuck factor of the algae and other slimy things floating in the water.

We explored both sides of the creek and walked back to the Youth Science Institute in front of which a Greek-style pagoda shelters one of the park's mineral springs - as a water fountain. "Let's bring some miraculous water home!" I suggested to our girls. And so we emptied our water bottles and filled them with liquid elixir the virtues of which we'll surely feel very soon.

Swing time. Photo by Frog Mom
Last but not least, our girls enjoyed some swing time at the playground before leaving. The sun was now high in the sky and this felt like a perfectly balmy winter day - just the reason why winter is one of my favorite seasons in the Bay Area. Next time you go, don't forget to fill up your water bottles before you leave. You never know - the minerals might still be there.

Practical details
  • The described South Rim partial loop is roughly 3 miles long with some steep portions.
  • Easy hike option for strollers or beginning walkers: up to 2 miles along Penitencia Creek Trail from the Visitor Center
  • Download a trail map here.
  • Website:
  • Entrance: 15350 Penitencia Creek Road, San Jose
  • Park closed Mondays. We went on a Monday and so did a few dozen locals. The restrooms were open, the rangers on duty and the springs smelly. What does it mean that it's closed on Mondays? 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: "Bring It On! The Musical" and "Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas - The Musical"

Two Broadway musicals for the holidays - Yay! Photos courtesy of SHNSF
Jazz up your 2011 holidays with two great musicals! Between the bionic acrobatics of Bring It On! The Musical and the lunatic antics of the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas - The Musical, December's been an exciting time to go out and take some Broadway time off traditional festivities. Here's my review of both.

Bring It On! The Musical
Adrienne Warren and Bring It On Company.
Photo courtesy of SHNSF
If the Black Eyed Peas decided to remake High School Musical with the cast of Legally Blonde and Dreamgirls with some bad-ass attitude, they might end up with Bring It On!, a musical where hip hop dance moves and Olympic flips steal the show.  

On opening night last week, the crowd went wild at the Orpheum Theater and at the end of their two-hour stint, the performers got a well-deserved standing ovation for impossible cheer leading feats.

The musical is not only about cheer leading - it is adapted from a movie called "Bring It On" and on opening night, the audience counted more than a few babes in cheer leading outfits. "Wow, total fan gear" I thought to myself, "Far out!" Only to realize on SHN: Broadway in San Francisco's Facebook page that the babes were the actual cheer leading team of the 49ers, the Raiderettes! So there, it's a cheer leading musical approved and recommended by the real deal.

Hold on a minute, slow down. What if you're not a cheer leading buff? What if you don't watch ESPN ever and don't know your athletic moves?  What if - God forbid - you haven't seen the movie? What if you don't even care about cheer leading? Since that's basically me, I can assure you'll still have a good time. Here is partially why.

The moves, folks, the bionic moves! Bring It On! may not shine by its bright plot or its chart-topping music but the choreography and high-energy performers make it one of the most entertaining musicals I've seen in a long time. Just imagine, as soon as the lights go down, a complex pyramid of flexible humans forming squadron-type figures and two girls who suddenly shoot up in the air like they were blasted from the stage. That's when the gasping begins.

Gregory Haney. Photo courtesy of SHNSF
You'll gasp too. It's impossible not to gasp when a girl does another death-defying leap, flips through mid-air, arches her back vigorously and lands flat on four manly hands. There's a reason the oldest performer is only 24 years old! The rehearsals must have a lot more in common with a strong circus gymnastics routine than a dainty charm school.

This being San Francisco, one of the wildest ovations went to Gregory Haney who plays a tongue-in-cheek bold transgender cheer leader named La Cienega - frankly one of the best characters in the show. As unrealistic as a queer cheer leader sounds, La Cienega gives the musical an edge that spices up the white pop blandness of Taylor High or the perfectly cool hip-hop Jackson High. The two competing schools are just a tad too clich├ęd and a few underdogs go a long way in adding character. However as I wrote earlier, who cares? You're not going for the Pulitzer-prize winning story. You're going for the sheer fun of an athletic slice of Americana.

  • Until Jan. 7, 2012 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco 
  • Address: 1192 Market Street (@8th Street)
  • Running time: 2:30 with a 20 minute intermission
  • Not recommended to kids under age 10 (I have to agree with that)
  • Website for tickets:
How The Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical
Stefan Karl as The Grinch with Seth Bazacas as Young Max.
Photo courtesy of SHNSF
Who would have thought the Grinch could be such a cool and attractive villain that kids would cheer him on despite his robbing the citizens of Whoville of their rightful Christmas? I've read the Dr. Seuss book many times to my kids and that stinky old Grinch on paper is not a guy you want to meet. Yet when you go see the musical, prepare to be surprised.

After our performance of the Grinch at the Golden Gate Theater, the Grinch showed up in the lobby and all the kids massively rushed to him for hugs, photos, Christmas-stealing advice and more naughty tricks. A razzle-dazzle kind of bad guy, this Grinch works the audience like Aladdin's flashy Genie gives you the Broadway take on serfdom and the result is hundreds of laughing and cheering young kids asking for more. We went with an 8-year old friend of my girls who kept raving about the Grinch after the show was over. Yeah, that's how popular this Grinch is.

Cleverly the inhabitants of Whoville are as insufferably righteous, enthusiastic and sugary, only redeemed by the young Cindy Lou - played by a 9-year old - who is completely adorably cute. Both my girls wanted to be her or wanted to have a Cindy Lou just like her. How she manages not to be scared when confronted with the Grinch, now that beats me. She is a brave little girl.

Beyond brave girls and naughty Grinches, what made the show really unique for the audience was the sets. A combination of hand-drawn black and white flats and full color props, they looked like they were giant pop-ups of the book's pages. In unison, the Whoville costumes were over-the-top pink and red and the Grinch very much green and hairy.

Grinch company final scene. Photo courtesy of SHNSF
By remaining faithful to the book yet adding that Broadway sound and pizzaz, the musical is a hit for all ages. Apart from a toddler who cried when the Grinch appeared, all kids had a whale of a time during the show and even skeptical older kids couldn't help rooting for Cindy Lou, the Grinch and the Grinch's dog.

If you're a Dr. Seuss fan, a fan of shows where the villain is the star or a fan of well-executed Broadway musicals, this one's for you and your family. It only runs for a few more days. Catch it before it's gone!


  • Through December 31, 2011 in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Theatre 
  • Address: 1 Taylor Street (@Market)
  • Running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission
  • Appropriate for all ages
  • Website for tickets:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Niles Canyon Train of Lights

Niles Canyon Historic Railway. Photo by Frog Mom
One of the last working trains of the Bay Area, the Niles Canyon Railway is a real working railroad whose vintage locomotives and coaches conjure images of Wells Fargo, Joaquin Murrieta and Mark Twain days. Come December, the train dons a festive appearance with thousands of lights inside and outside, Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus walking down the train, and holiday music playing during the ride. My girls and I went with a friend and her 6-year old son and had a ball.
Yes the hill spells "NILES". Photo by Frog Mom

Before I bought my tickets online, I looked up where Niles was. You see, the Niles Canyon Railway departs from the Niles Station which itself is located in the Historical Niles District which in all logic should be in the city of Niles. Well, try again.

Despite all the evidence, the train departs from Fremont in an area that was formerly called Niles until 1956. One city absorbed the other, the city name is no more but the spirit is strong. Niles Street in Fremont is all Niles this and Niles that.

Shuttle bus. Photo by Frog Mom
The quaint district is also what my husband would call a nightmare: lovely antique shops filled to the brim with something you could bring back in your friend's car. Utter temptation! At 3.30pm, we made for the shuttle bus stop and saw a vintage bus open its doors. On the large bench at the back, the kids were getting goofy - they were obviously ready for the train.

And what a train! A quarter-mile long, from what I've heard. Quite the monster iron horse. After a train guy punched our tickets with star shapes, the kids smiled for a photo with Santa Claus and Mrs Claus but the North Pole couple were oddly positioned behind a white rope and on the photo, it looks like the kids are cordoned off. Hmm.

Waiting for the whistle. Photo by Frog Mom
Finally we arrived in front of the train and faced the big dilemma - which car to choose? All the coaches are different. Some are open, some are not, some are 1910s, some are 1950s, some have the food and drink kitchens, others have restrooms.

I mean, you have to walk down the train and stake your claim as soon as you know it's right. The kids wanted to be outside so after mildly protesting that we'd catch a cold, we all sat outside. What the heck, it's not every day we board a holiday train.

Classy outfit. Photo by Frog Mom
At 4.15pm sharp the locomotive blew its whistle and the train rolled away. Slowly first, the train quickly picked up its pace but even at its fastest, we were surprised at how slow it was. I know that's not the TGV but I guess I expected it to go faster. But hey, the speed mattered not the least because we were taking in the left-right lulling, the clickety clank sounds and the train people.

Golden hills. Photo by Frog Mom
For instance, on every car you will find docents who are trained railway engineers. They can operate the train, restore equipment and build tracks. I spent some time conversing with them on the history of the railway while the kids prepared their hot chocolate and apple cider on their seat. My friend Day was happy watching the landscape zoom by.

At one point I scanned the hills and saw a big coyote with a thick tail. I blinked twice to make sure it wasn't a deer or a weird bush. No, a real coyote. By the time I got the kids attention, it was already way behind. Cool! I was hoping that by boarding the 4.5pm train we'd see some wildlife at sun down and we did. Oh, there were cows on the slopes too but those don't belong in the wildlife category.

After crossing a bridge the train followed the curves  of the canyon which gave us numerous opportunities to see the whole train progressively lighting up. Initially we didn't notice the lights were on but as the night blanketed us, we realized every single car was fully decorated and some even had blinking patterns.

As fun as watching a light bulb can be, a kid is a kid and ours were dying to explore the train, or rather run down the train. We figured they couldn't get off anywhere and gave them our green light to run off while we watched the bags. They were ecstatic and left before we even had time to say "stick together." Well, they did anyway and came back asking for cookies. Cookies? What - they were hungry again?

Train elves
Turns out, the next car was one of the dining cars and there was a big box that said "Cookies $1". Inside the kitchen, two kitchen elves were busy pouring hot chocolate, mixing it and topping cups with frothy whipped cream. Ah the child's delight!

All right, so they got their cookie on top of wolfing down two tangerines each, a bowl of Chinese fried rice, and gulping down three cups of hot chocolate. They must be growing.

After 40 minutes we slowed down and stopped at the Sunol train depot where the 7pm train departs. Could we get off and walk around the station? No Ma'am, you have to stay on the train. Bummer. I wanted to see the lights from outside. Again, the kids took off to explore some more and after a while, I followed suit. The whistle blew once more and from Sunol, we rolled in the opposite direction back to Niles.

See the car lights on the other right? Photo by Frog Mom
Now, there's a detail I haven't divulged yet. The train tracks run parallel to Highway 84. Why that is? Highway 84, at the point, is called Niles Canyon Road and connects Fremont to Sunol. See a pattern here?

Obviously the railway came first but the cars caught up and in the narrow canyon, the constant traffic takes some getting used to. Still, it was fun to wave at the cars and have some drivers honk back at us.

The night was getting chillier but to my surprise, the kids peeled off their layers. After running around so much, they were hot! I understood why when I caught up with them in the last open car where they were using handrails as swinging bars. So that's what made the little monkeys so hot. I see.

A few minutes later the trail pulled to a stop and we rallied the young crew to get off the train. Wait, I didn't even have time to say all that and they were already gone! Geez, what's the hurry?

Slow exit. Photo by Frog Mom
My friend Day and I tried to find our offspring but they had gone too far and the crowds stopped us from going any further. Oh well, let's just hope they wait for us. They will, right?

And they did, a tight trio waiting for us right outside the train. They seemed relieved to us their moms and so were we. Once we were off, all we needed to do was hop on the shuttle bus to get back to our car. No problem, there was room for everybody.

As a bonus, the drive home was surprisingly smooth and we were in front of our house before 8pm. What an evening!

Practical details
  • When: The Train of Lights runs every December.
  • Tickets: you can buy them on Eventbrite
  • Niles or Sunol? The Niles trains departs at 4:15, you can see the canyon and the sunset.The Sunol trains depart at 7:15, and this ride is all about the lights.
  • Website: 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hakone Gardens: Where Bamboo Forests Meet Maple Gardens

Hakone Gardens in fall colors. Photo by C.G.
Terraced on the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains just off the city of Saratoga, Hakone Gardens is an escape to manicured and lush Japanese gardens you only see in period movies. Depending on the season, the garden dons the golden and crimson hues of autumn, the lush greens of winter, the tender blossoms of spring or the bold colors of summer. Though I usually wander where nature is wild and rebellious, I admire beautiful gardens where plants are harmoniously arranged, seemingly haphazardly to the lay eye but for the experts, according to a precise and seamless script. That, Hakone Gardens is and more.
Fall maples in November. Photo by Frog Mom

I visited this garden on two occasions before but never at the peak of the Indian summer colors and really wanted my girls to see the maple trees in their fall splendor. An excursion on a late November afternoon fixed that and despite rainy skies, we enjoyed a very pleasant walk in the garden with hardly any other visitors. Relatively small - 18 acres only - Hakone is carefully organized in micro-gardens with different moods around the ever-poetic moon viewing pond and tea house.

What My Kids Like
Stepping stones. Photo by Frog Mom
In traditional Japanese gardens, my girls look for a few staples: stepping stones in the pond where they can "walk over water," arch bridges to climb high in the sky, ponds to spot koi carps swish by amongst lilies, and garden paths leading to secret pavilions. Oh, and stone pagodas too because they're mysterious. The authentic replica of Japanese Samurai or Shogun’s estate garden, designed by one of descendent of the imperial gardening family members, Hakone Gardens has all that.

How I Found Out About Hakone Gardens
Hidden in plain sight, Hakone Gardens is one of the known gems of the Silicon Valley but unless you look for a Japanese garden, it's not exactly on the main thoroughfare.

Gate. Photo by C.G.
Three years ago, I "discovered" Hakone Gardens when researching filming locations for the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. I knew the Bay Area had been featured quite a bit and found out that the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the Golden Gate's Japanese Tea Garden and Hakone Gardens had all been used throughout the movie. The first two I knew but not the latter. As the garden scenes had left me magical impressions, I planned our first trip to Saratoga. On the third trip, here's how I like to see the garden.

What To Do
The entrance to the garden isn't free but instead of paying your dues to a person in a booth, you go inside the store and buy tokens that will get you through a turnstile. Each time my girls are disappointed that they have to give away their token - I'm too - but they still like the turnstile. It's unusual for a garden.
Past the entrance, the path leads you to an open pavilion where you can embrace a view of the garden. From here you stand on the verge of quiet waters and even the most rambunctious toddler would pause to appreciate the curvy lines, green volumes and period costume possibilities. A fair number of brides and grooms tied the knot under this wisteria trellis so think of it as an invitation to warm fuzzy feelings.

Moonviewing House. Photo by Frog Mom
From there, we like to explore anti-clockwise starting to the right of this pavilion. My girls find the first crossing over the pond and run around in moderate doses as this is not a playground and other visitors may expect low sound levels. By the time we cross over, they're headed uphill towards the tea pavilion or Moonviewing House.

Believe it or not, this 1918 structure was built entirely without nails and you can peek through the clear windows to view tatami mats and a surprising collection of bamboos. Did you know bamboo could be shaped by forcing the shoot to grow through various containers? That's how you get square bamboo. Hmm, wicked.

Wisteria tunnel. Photo by C.G.
From the Moonviewing House, kids can't resist walking through the wisteria tunnel, a straight-ish path lined by cobblestones that gradually leads up the mountain. That's where a creative parent could photoshop floating spirits or sneaky trolls in the picture.

Follow the paths to the top. On your way, you can glimpse out on the valley through an opening in the foliage but the area under the viewing platform is somewhat messy and I prefer to stick to the orderly spirit of the garden.

Once you reach a small stone pagoda and fenced shrine, follow the dirt path til you reach a door. This is the entrance to the bamboo garden, or rather bamboo forest given the density of green stalks.
Bamboo action. Photo by Frog Mom

Animal- or Kung Fu Panda-loving kids will know that bamboo is the favorite food of their favorite white and black bears. In fact, adult panda bears eat between 40 and 80 pounds of the luscious green stalk every day. How's that for eating your greens? But there's more to bamboo than endangered species.

What kids may not know is that in Japanese culture, bamboo wards off evil spirits - hence the presence of exterior bamboo blinds on houses and of bamboo groves around Shinto shrines. On a symbolic level, bamboo symbolizes strength and flexibility, two virtues children must acquire to pass the "no you can't watch TV all day but I'll play Monopoly with you" test. So there, it's good to know bamboo isn't such an idle plant.

To "tune in" with the bamboo forest, you can sit with your child on the stone bench and listen to the bamboo stalks creaking with the wind. No wonder people set bamboo groves to music on YouTube.

In the lower part of the bamboo grove you can walk on the stepping stones in the gravel garden and that pretty much concludes your tour. On your way out, enjoy a last view of the pond and a stone pagoda.

As I write this, I wish I was there but I'm not. Sigh. I think I'll brew myself some green tea and dream of bamboo shrines in the mountains next to hot springs bubbling over rock-lined river beds.

  • Hours: weekdays 10am - 5pm, weekends 11am - 5pm, closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day 
  • Fees: $7 entrance fee per person  $5 for seniors (65 +) and students 5-17, free for children 4 years and under
  • Website:
  • Address: 21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga

Friday, December 9, 2011

Meet Leafcutter Designs: Paper, Art and Whimsy

Dear child... Photo by Frog Mom
If the tooth fairy or the spider in the kitchen wrote a letter to your child, this is what it might look like: an inch wide envelope with your child's address in ant-size script and an equally small sender address in the top left corner. Turn it over, break the red wax seal, open it and slowly pull out a tiny letter. Coming from a fairy, it'll reveal a page of text and a shower of minuscule glitter stars. Unfold the magnifier and start reading. Now, what child won't be in total awe when receiving this letter?

Lea Redmond. Photo by Frog Mom
The World's Smallest Postal Service is the brainchild of Lea Redmond. A self-taught artist who runs Leafcutter Designs, Lea is the very impersonation of the "maker" spirit with her right brain and crafty fingers. I had the honor to visit her workshop in Oakland and behind the scenes, I also discovered that she offers other fascinating paper creations that I'd love to share with my readers.

First a few words about the World's Smallest Postal Service, a spark of whimsy in a cookie-cutter world. Today, anybody can send a tiny letter to someone special. Just get on Leafcutter Designs' website, let your creative juices flow, type your text and order online. It couldn't be any easier.

In December, Lea mails letters from Santa whose envelope is adorned with a little blue snowflake. Throughout the year she can personalize your letters with various shapes that symbolize the occasion - pacifier for baby, kite for father's day, and more.

In the past, Lea has mailed letters to whole classes, wedding invitations with urls for online details, corporate donor thank you's and love letters - even wedding proposals! "People get very creative," says Lea. Using vintage metal type fonts, she turns any message into something special that will be remembered - beats the email anytime.

Tiny packages. Photo by Frog Mom
 A 3-D corollary to tiny letters, Lea sends tiny packages with symbolic objects wrapped in tiny print newspaper - The Small Times - featuring a working crossword. Yet another opportunity to whip out the magnifier.

What's inside? Think a Christmas package with a spinning top, a love package with a compass (where would I be without you?) or a package with a tiny bouquet. The idea is not to send an expensive or a big bulky item to show you care but rather your message pared down to a symbol wrapped in a box. How powerful is that? Plus, the tiny twine wins my heart.

Wooden tokens. Photo by Frog Mom
You guessed it, Lea loves to conceptualize and her wooden tokens are another product in the same vein. By coincidence, I first came across them in the drawers of The Curiosity Shoppe in the Mission. I was hanging out with my girls and told them they could spend $2 each. They frantically opened drawers and found little knick-knacks including these wooden tokens which we started to decipher.

They can be redeemed for a song, for a hug, for a poem, for a pep talk, for a game to play or for a story read out loud. Any parent should have a few of those to spend quality time with their kids.

Matchbox Theater. Photo by Frog Mom
For older kids or your theater-loving friends, the Matchbox Theater is a ticket to a great time that ends with a live performance and 14 matchbox puppets. Unlike Lea's other creations, the matchbox theater comes as a kit that you assemble at home and I like it that way.

Any child who's 2nd grader and older (even younger if they're particularly crafty) could make the stage, glue the puppets on matches and read the script. Or guess what? You can make up your own storyline but I like Lea's selection of stories, some of which include haikus from Kobayashi Issa, an 18th century Japanese poet and Buddhist priest. Yes, we're far from goldilocks and the three bears!

Dicy games. Photo by Frog Mom
Lea's other creations are total brain teasers like the recipe dice - roll the dice and pick the ingredients for tonight's dinner, the wiggly eye dice - we like anything wiggly, the kit for hand stitching a letter, the dinner fortune teller napkins - have your guests fold the napkins and open them to read their fortune or the absurdly Dada paper umbrellas - to hand out to strangers on the street on a rainy day. How's that for creative fun?

Much like Elmo, Lea likes to share her ideas and on her website, you can even download and print templates for free projects to do at home on rainy days.

Now, one last thing before I leave you to ponder the many uses of paper. If you think the World's Smallest Postal Service is as great as I think it is, consider the World's Smallest Postal Service kit as a gift to your child or a friend on their next birthday. It'll be a riot and you might even receive a tiny letter in the mail - from a secret admirer. The invisible man perhaps?
World's Smallest Post Service Kit - An Introduction from Leafcutter Designs on Vimeo.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sea Kayaking with Kids in the Sausalito Richardson Bay

Kayak jam. Photo by Frog Mom
Of all the winter activities, sea kayaking rarely tops the family list but in the Bay Area it really should. Winter offers some of the best conditions you'll find year-round for kid water adventures - windless days, mild temps and abundant migratory wildlife. Where else can your kids count harbor seals' teeth when they yawn? Without binoculars if you please. Short of swimming, sea kayaking is the gentlest way to get up close and personal with the rich aquatic life of the Richardson Bay, as hands-on and real as a grip on a paddle, napping harbor seals and silver wavelets for miles on end.

Yawning harbor seal. Photo by Frog Mom
The day after Thanksgiving, my husband checked the fog outside the window, gave me a miserable look and asked "Must we go to Sausalito?" I nodded affirmatively. "It'll be nicer there," I offered. Truth is, I was intent on using a sea kayaking deal I bought on Zozi with Sea Trek Ocean Kayaking Center - $20 for 2 hours of stand-up paddle-board or sea kayak. Only rain would have stopped me but skies were dry. "Fine," my husband said and we got our girls ready.

Getting ready. Photo by C.G.
I had called Sea Trek the week before and confirmed it was OK to bring kids. They were completely relaxed about it and told me many parents paddle with kids on their boards or kayaks. "Come anytime," they said, "No need to reserve ahead of time." That's exactly what we did - no Black Friday for us!

Now girls, we asked our offspring on the Golden Gate Bridge, would you rather kayak or stand-up paddle-board? To which they answered "Are we going to get wet?" I checked the outside temperature on the car dashboard - 61 degrees. "Maybe," I said. Then "Probably." I was glad my friend Becky had lent us two kid wetsuits. The wet factor was definitely greater with paddleboards than kayaks so they chose sea kayaking. Wise girls.

Paddling away. Photo by C.G.
The guys at Sea Trek were rock stars and knew their bay inside out. They also knew how to make newbies comfortable with paddling without chaperon on 52-degree waters. Minutes after we arrived, they outfitted us with waterproof vests, life jackets (kids and adults) and kid-size or adult-size paddles. They then told us where to go in the bay and gave us a crash course on how to paddle, including the hand and thumb position on the paddles. Half-giggling, half-nervous, our girls took the front seat of each 2-seater and we launched off the beach and into the cove.

Having fun. Photo by Frog Mom
Out of the cove, we turned in the direction of the boathouses. My swimming instincts told me to scan for big boats or buildings so I'd know where to go when we came back. Good move as there's nothing that looks more like a white boat than another white boat. Paddling away, my thoughts got wrapped around the extraordinary fact that we were moving forward and we hadn't capsized so far. It was an exhilarating feeling and both my 6-year old and I giggled. We were floating on water!

Then the paddles started dripping water all over my pants every time I switched arms - obviously, there was a technique I hadn't mastered yet and that put a slight damper on my enthusiasm, but hey, minor inconvenience for a quiet day at sea. By luck I was wearing capris and had a spare change of clothes in the car. My 6-year old in wetsuit stopped paddling when she noticed water dripping on her lap too. "Mom, there's water on me," she complained. No more giggling. OK, I'll paddle - you relax and enjoy.
Sentinels. Photo by Frog Mom

A few feet away we saw two black heads bobbing in and out of the water. "Seals!" I shouted to my husband who had zipped through the bay and floated way out there. "Yes, seals," he shouted back, "but there are way more ahead of you." Oooh, exciting.

Pelicans. Photo by Frog Mom
I redoubled my drenching efforts and minutes later the sentinels on the pier appeared. Like beacons on wooden piles, California brown pelicans stood tall and proud at the top of a dozen posts and looked down on us land creatures trapped in plastic contraptions. Placidly they stroked their wings as we admired their feathery breasts, red bills and yellow heads. What graceful animals they are. One of them extended its wing like a cape above us and we were amazed at how wide it was. My 6-year old was in awe. Neither of us had ever been so close to a pelican, let alone dozens of them - we were speechless.

Barking noises drew our attention and I steered the kayak forward to where the sound came from. Harbor seals, dozens of them! My husband paddled next to me and we hung to each other's kayak so our girls could enjoy the show together. These harbor seals were a riot!

For us, harbor seals are zoo animals and when by luck we see them in lagoons, they are too far to see well. From our floating station, we could count the freckles on their faces. We could appreciate their awkward sleeping position. We could breathe in the full splendor of a well-directed seal fart after a fishy meal. Wow!

We all wrinkled our noses and our girls went "Eeeew!" in unison. Yup, animals in the wild, fart, dog breath and all - the real deal, people! Some of the harbor seals grunted louder than others. Were they afraid of us? We pulled away.

People watching. Photo by Frog Mom
Down the pier we glided slowly, making as little noise as we could to avoid alarming the pinnipeds. Water lapped at our kayaks' hulls in a gurgly slushing sound. Some seals had reddish fur, others were brown, some got ready to dive, others went back to sleep. It was a full-on marine mammal show. Our girls took turns giving them names, pointing their physical features to each other. Then, "Dad? I'm hungry." We checked our watch. 1pm! And turned around.

It took us 20 minutes to paddle back - currents were helping us - and I was glad I could recognize the big white boat marking the entrance of the cove. Swiftly we docked and disembarked. Our girls were both ready for lunch and ready for dry clothes. My husband turned to me. "Thanks for insisting, that was amazing." On the other side of the beach, our girls couldn't wait to tell their friends.


  • Sea Trek - Schoonmaker Point, Sausalito (near the Bay Model).
  • Rate for "sit on top" sea kayaks: $20/hour
  • Timing: Around mid-January and early February, big schools of herring starts spawning in the bay and that brings sea lions and thousands of birds to feed. With almost no afternoon winds and low afternoon lights, you can paddle all day long and not worry about winds - great for kids. quieter - less boat traffic.
  • Food: we had lunch at Fish which is literally the next dock up. My girls love their white anchovy appetizers!