Thursday, September 15, 2011

Picking Apples in Santa Cruz

Apple harvest 2011. Photos by Frog Mom
Back-to-school usually means apple season and last week I was dying to pick fresh apples off the tree to make apple pancakes. However Bay Area u-pick apple farms usually mean a Sonoma trip around Sebastopol or Healdsburg and I was too lazy to go across that big red bridge and drive another 60 or 70 miles north. When I heard about the u-pick apple orchards of California Polytechnic State University north of Santa Cruz, to Santa Cruz we drove! Judging by the 22 lbs of apples we jammed in the car, I'd say the trip was a crunchy juicy success.

This is it. Photo by Frog Mom
When we turned onto Swanton Road past the famed Swanton Berry Farm barn, I looked at my odometer. The website said 4.6 miles from Highway 1. Through windy roads we drove and passed several farms but none that looked like an apple orchard. After mile 4 I started getting worried but around a bend we found it. It was the smallest and most laid-back apple orchard I'd ever seen.

A project of the Swanton Pacific Ranch, the 2-acre orchard is a working ranch where students learn the ropes of certified organic crops on a backdrop of redwoods and grasslands. Of students there were none, it was Sunday after all. The roadside was amazingly quiet. Just us and a car that was leaving. We pushed the chicken wire gate and let ourselves in. Nobody to greet us, the entrance is basic but it works: a modest shed with a scale and a money box on the honor system. Welcome to the wonderful world of Cal Poly apple orchards!

Gingergold or Royal Gala? Photo by Frog Mom
Fortunately I had tote bags in the back of the car because there are no bags either. At $1.75/lb of organic apple in the middle of nowhere, you can't have it all. We quickly saw that only the first 4 rows of apples were ripe for the picking and initially thought "Is that it?" 22 lbs later, I was happy that was it.

The great plus for kids is that all the apples grow on dwarf trees so they're easily accessible for pint-size apple pickers. The 12 apple varieties mature between August and November and last Sunday we had a choice between Royal Gala, Gingergold and Lodi. Later in September you will be able to pick a dark red apple that looks almost like a plum. "It's the Sali Red delicious," says Jena Casey, Research and Education Support at Swanton Pacific Ranch, "It leaves the flesh slightly pink after biting into it."

Picking apples! Photo by Olivier
My 6-year old had taken her knit doll along so when I asked her if would help to pick apples, she offered a lame excuse to taste apples solo. "Mom I can't, I'm busy with my dolly." So much for bringing woolly companions on expeditions. Fine, I'll ask the other girl then.

Fortunately my 7-year old has a knack for picking fruit. Not just apples. She's a skilled blackberry, raspberry, redcurrant, blackcurrant, fig, apricot, peach and any-fruit picker. I didn't even have to ask, she was already back with her arms full of yellow apples. "Where do I put them?" she asked. Phew, it was going to be quicker than by myself.

I'm not sure it's proper picking etiquette but we tasted a few as we went. Some of the varieties looked "unripe" to our untrained eyes and if we were going to come back with too many apples, they better be good. The good news is, they were delicious! On the tart side for sure, but I like tartness in fruit and they were juicy like only a fruit right off the tree can be.

Gingergold apples. Photo by Frog Mom
The small juicy red apples of the Royal Gala variety won our heart for best apple to eat. Just the perfect snack size for a kid lunch box and red as the apple in Snow White. The Gingergold came in bigger and small sizes and it quickly became my 6-year old's favorite.

The Lodi was my 7-year old's favorite because its soft flesh but it looks like it's only soft and yellow when the crop's on the decline so we probably caught the tail end of that one. Note that with loose teeth, a soft fleshed apple is a wise choice indeed.

To better identify apples in the rows, you can refer to a color brochure available at the entrance by the scale, look at the wooden signs in front of each row, or check this map that tells who is where. You may need a magnifying glass to read the varieties but I couldn't make the photo any bigger without risking total chaos on this page.

We weighed our harvest in the scale and I left a check in the money box because I was short on cash. If you are going to pick between 5 and 12 lbs, plan on spending $8-15.

Back at home, what did I make? The apple pancake of course! And baked apples too but I used the wrong apple variety (Gingergold) and they disintegrated. I need to try again.

Here is the apple pancake recipe, as adapted from the recipe provided on the Cal Poly U-Pick brochure. It would make a mean Sunday brunch item and the smell of roasted apples is enough to get every sleepyhead up. Enjoy!

Apple Pancake Recipe

1/4 sugar
1 T cinnamon
3 eggs beaten
1/2 t salt (I used sea salt)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 milk
6 T butter
8 small Royal Gala apples quartered

Preheat oven at 400F. In a large ovenproof skillet, melt butter and add apples, turning them once as they get brown. In a bowl, mix all other ingredients. When the apples have cooked 10 minutes on medium heat, remove them from the stove and pour the batter over the apples. Bake 35 minutes or until puffed above sides of pan. When you remove it, cover it with a big dish and flip it immediately so the apples are on top. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve warm.

Swanton Pacific Ranch details

  • 480 Swanton Road, Davenport
  • Phone: 831-458-5410
  • Open Fri, Sat, Sun and Mon
  • 9am - 5pm

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tubing in Reno with Kids

Anticipation is half the fun! Photo by Frog Mom
Next time you go to Reno, skip the casinos. The cool cats surf and tube in Reno, did you know? Dress the kids in swim attire and head downtown to Wingfield Park where you can splash the whole day away at the Truckee River Whitewater Park. Next thing you know you put the right foot in and you go "Awww!" or "Eeeeek!" depending on how you feel in a snowmelt-fed river. But since the kids are in for fun, you don't have a choice and you splash right in before dropping down pools and laughing it off. There's something utterly crazy about going down the river and looking up to see the big ugly towers of casinos sprouting up from the river bank but that's exactly what makes tubing in Reno so much fun. It sounds so off and yet it isn't!

Downtown Reno, river side. Photo by Frog Mom
When we arrived in Reno during our Labor Day road trip, I knew I wanted to check out the river side. I vaguely remembered a Sunset magazine article on the waterfront district and we googled it to find activities to do with the girls after the Reno Museum of Art. As it turned out, the museum was closed on the day we went so we just walked over to the riverfront at Virginia Street and Mills Street.

Temps were soaring in the low 90s, a light breeze cooled off the riverfront and we were amazed to find a paved path along the Truckee River. Parts of the path hover right above the water in hanging gardens, others meet up with the street level under a green canopy of trees and you can hike for a good uninterrupted mile before turning back on your heels.

Street level path. Photo by Frog Mom
The highlight of our walk that day was a group of fearless surfers and rafters tackling a bigger drop pool on the river. The rafters struggled to go up the pool and the surfers took turns at water acrobatics at the end of two lines tied to a bike on the street! Geez, these guys sure were daring and when they wiped out, they just swam downstream until they could come back to the edge. Our girls were gobsmacked.

Surfing in Reno. Photo by C.G.
Then we saw a family of 3 - a dad and his 2 boys, ages roughly 8 and 10 - approaching on big tubes. The first slid down the drop and joined his dad. The young'un followed but got stuck in the whirlpool part of the drop. A surfer dude went to his rescue. A few other people followed the same route in tubes of all sizes. All this got us thinking and it didn't take us long to find where people rented tubes: Tahoe Whitewater Tours.

The next day we were back with swim suits and water sandals. We parked the car in front of the tube rental office and rented 3 tubes for $6 an hour. I was planning to swim alongside the tubes so I had my swimming goggles on and a swimsuit. However after our first trip in, I found the right arm of the river to be so shallow that I dressed in capris and tee-shirt to avoid getting scraped on slippery rocks. Aha, that explained why I had seen so many people swim fully-dressed the day before! I thought they were poorly prepared for a river swim when in fact they were.

Imagine this on your head
Filming with the GoPro
To get a unique angle the water experience, I filmed the first water trip with my Hero HD Helmet GoPro camera. This amazing high performance waterproof camera comes mounted on a head band and you can film any water or action sport without using your hands which is pretty neat. It shoots at a 170 angle which gives a nifty National Geographic magazine feel and the sound is true to life. Just tighten the headband around your head and get swimming! I know that I'll be using it for my ski adventures too as I've seen great footage of winter sports with this camera.

 Hint: move curser to 2 minutes to avoid the lengthy preambles of "should I or should I not get wet". The YouTube movie I made is quite long because once I was in, I was more concerned about the safety of my girls than the graphic diversity of my movie. Plus this GoPro camera doesn't have any viewing screen and I wasn't sure what I was filming - or whether I was filming. When the GoPro shut off on second take because the batteries went low, I didn't realize it until I downloaded the files on my computer and saw they weren't there. That was very frustrating but a 10-minute Google search showed it was a battery problem - not the fact I hadn't pushed the right button. I charged the battery on a USB drive and was able to use the camera a few days later without problem in a lake. Aside from that, I was amazed by the quality of the image and I hope you'll enjoy the movie.

From the tube rental place, you reach the river just upstream from Wingfield Island. The river divides into two arms. Right/south of the island is where the water is shallow, tame and safe for kids of all ages. Drop pools are smaller but still provide good fun. Left/north of the island is rougher to rough with much more depth, strong currents and higher drop pools. You won't be able to stand everywhere and you'll need to be a good enough swimmer to reach the shore in case of emergency. If your child is uncomfortable with water, avoid that part.

We explored both sides but after my 6-year old had a scary experience on the north side that ended up with a scraped knee, we came back to the south side and enjoyed it a lot more.

River booboo. Photo by Frog Mom
Kids will need more than swimsuits and tubes to go tubing. Any water sport has its own risks as I learned when my 6-year old's tube flipped over sliding down a drop pool and she went under the water. Those were the longest 10 seconds of my life and until I was able to reach her downstream, my heart went in hyperdrive mode. When I got her out of there, her knee was bleeding and she was shaking. Me too. I wish the tube renters had warned us better about the north arm of the river.

So please even if the river looks tame, make your kids wear a lifejacket and a helmet. You can never be too cautious.

Practical Details
  • Tube rental: $6 an hour 
  • Location: 400 Island Ave., Reno, 
  • Phone: 1-775-787-5000
  • BYO: swim suits, waterproof shoes, towels and dry change of clothes.
  • When: Temps hit the 80s and 70s in September and October, it's not too late this year to feel the rush!
  • Ages: I would not recommend this activity for kids under age 5.
You couldn't think you could tube the day away without filling your stomach, right? First the kids. We took ours to The Hop, an ice cream shop where you can get the frozen thing in every color of the rainbow. They drooled over the windows, picked a flavor each and couldn't finish their scoop. That's when I saw on the counter a tiny sample cup for kids. Why didn't the waitress give me that when I asked for kid size? Lesson: adult scoops are meant for adults.

In the evening, we had a wonderful dinner at Old Granite Street Eatery, a Reno restaurant where veggies mean more than mashed potatoes and good micro-brew beers exist. Following the Yelp reviews, we shared the Devils on Horseback as appetizers but I was tempted by the farm fresh deviled eggs too. All the menu looked right out of San Francisco's Ferry Building! What a great surprise in Reno. Rather than the kids' menu, my girls shared the pork tenderloin with sweet corn, bacon and Swiss chard and I had a wood grilled burger. My husband flank-steaked. All were incredible. I should add that parking was ridiculously easy and service very friendly. In a few words: go there to eat in Reno!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Best Hikes with Kids, San Francisco Bay Area: My Book is out!

At The Warming Hut holding my book! Photo by Becky
Taking notes at Pirate's Cove. Photo by C.G.
Last year brought to me an incredible adventure and it's about time I write about it because the result is now out in book stores. In late January 2010, a freelance editor contacted me. The Mountaineers Books, a Seattle-based outdoors publisher, was looking for an author to write a new "Best Hikes with Kids: San Francisco Bay Area." The editor had come across my blog Frog Mom and wanted to know if I was interested. Interested? More like eager - I loved the idea! The original 1992 book by Bill and Kevin McMillon had been updated in 2002 and needed a new version. As I had the book on my shelves, I read it cover to cover and turned my hiking brain on.

By late February, I submitted 3 sample hikes, a table of content with 90 hike destinations (mostly different from the original book) and a book proposal with ideas. Anxiously I waited and kept telling myself it'd be ok if they rejected me because I was not a published author and you can't always get what you want.

Hiking with my dad at Tennessee Valley.
Photo by C.G. 
Two weeks later, I received an official book offer and fell off my chair! When the contract came a month later by April, the deal was the following. The 65,000 word manuscript was to be submitted in September 2010 with sample maps for each hike, 140 digital photographs, an author bio and a table of contents. That gave me 5 months to explore, research, photograph and select 110 hikes in the Bay Area.

I had no idea where to start a book so I started by looking at a map of the Bay Area. OK, so officially the Bay Area includes 10 counties: San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa, Alameda, Solano and Santa Cruz. I decided to follow 3 rules.

Hiking at Stebbins Cold Canyon. Photo by Inga
First, I wanted my book to be fair to each county and represent the diversity of the Bay Area wherever you lived - not just for San Francisco families. That way, you could take the book with you on a day trip to Sonoma or a day trip to Santa Cruz and still find stuff to do. That meant popular Marin hikes would not be included but people would be able to discover the green side of Napa or Solano.

Second, I wanted to include sightseeing and nature facts sidebars because I love to combine trails and travel. Seemed like seasonal events would be cool additions too. Third and last, I wanted each hike to have specific kid appeal - animal farm, cool nature fact, animal migrations, historic buildings, famous children's books locations, shipwrecks, native American way of life, etc.

My brother and niece were at Ano Nuevo too! Photo by C.G.
On that basis, I started the actual "professional" hiking in March 2010. At the beginning I was hiking about 3 trails a week but the winter rains lingered well into spring and summer which meant I had to forego several days on hiking at a time  - which I dedicated to writing and research. When the weather dried up around June, I counted that I needed to complete 5 to 7 hikes per week to reach my goal. My goal was to hike 20% more than the final result so I could weed out 20 hikes and end up with 110 perfect hikes.

Goofing up with hubby at Uvas Canyon.
Photo by Olivier
By then my girls were out of school and I was glad I had selected their summer camps based on my hikes. Since I went on day hikes, I needed to be able to drop off my girls at camp in the morning, cover whichever miles I needed to drive to the trailhead, complete the hike while jotting down notes and taking photographs, eventually ask for families on the trail to photograph them and have them sign releases, maybe do a second hike nearby and rush back for pick up time at camp. I cannot count the number of times my girls were the last to get out of camp.

At the end of the summer, the hiking pace picked up as I saved the farthest parks for the last. Some weekends, I left my husband take care of my girls, left at 6am and returned at 8pm having covered 2 or 3 parks that day. Needless to say, I was in great shape. But in dire need of a new pair of hiking boots - 400 miles later, my shoes were neither waterproof nor mud proof.

Desperately seeking new boots! Photo by Frog Tadpole
At the end of the day, my family and friends all took turns volunteering to come hiking with us and the GGMG Magazine team outdid itself to contribute young hiking models and provide book support efforts. Thank you all!
Even my mom hiked despite a bad hip. Photo by Frog Mom

Come September 2010, I submitted my manuscript and it went through several rounds of careful edits until late spring 2011. I re-did some of the hikes to confirm details, I changed a couple hikes because of new information and I got serious headaches on non-accurate maps. Fortunately The Mountaineers Books team was tip top professional and Ben Pease the cartographer incredibly knowledgeable about the area.

Book signing at REI San Francisco. Photo by Christine
The book finally came out on August 12 and has been in Bay Area bookstores since early September 2011. It's 365 pages long and weighs 12.6 ounces - I couldn't help weighing it. You can get it on here or at your regular book store - if they don't carry it, encourage them to do so!

I did my first REI presentation in San Francisco on Wednesday September 7 and it went great. Here is a calendar of my upcoming events, until I manage to get myself a decent author website.

Upcoming Talks on Hiking with Children and Bay Area Trails
- Wednesday September 14, REI San Carlos, 7-8.30pm
- Wednesday September 21, REI Concord, 7-8.30pm
- Monday October 24, REI Saratoga, 7-830pm
- Tuesday October 25, REI Fremont, 7-8.30pm

I also have a healthy snacks cooking class in the works (exciting!) and more author events in store. I'll post details as soon as I have them. If you know of a good place to hold a talk or a book signing, please contact me by email at frogmomblog [at] gmail [dot] com.
Zee book!

To celebrate my book, I'm organizing a giveaway for 2 lucky readers! It's easy. Write about your favorite Bay Area kid trail in this post's comments and you'll be entered to win. Double your chances by commenting on the Frog Mom Facebook page and by referring friends to Frog Mom - tell them to mention you referred them in their comment.

Deadline: September 30th, 2011. 5pm PST

The winner gets an autographed book from me with a special surprise and I'm not tellin' what it is before the end.

To the question "What do we do now?" in the movie Rango, the main character always answers "We ride!"

I say,

"We hike!"