By Melissa Gaskill
As the astronomer described the constellation Sirius, pinpoints scattered in the wide, black sky slowly took shape as Orion's faithful dog. I watched the faces of my kids, Holley, Collin, and Bridget, light up: that excitement is what I love about stargazing. Over the years, we have returned many times to McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. We tap into professional knowledge at outdoor star parties, glimpse heavenly sights, such as star nebulae and Saturn's rings, through a telescope, and peruse exhibits in the visitors' center. With its clear skies and temperate weather, fall is a perfect time to visit the observatory, part of the University of Texas at Austin (and to camp in nearby Davis Mountains State Park, where stars barely visible at home shine brightly in the dark night). We've also made treks to other observatories, including Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park in Burnet, Texas (800-977-0081). Wherever we go, my kids now make a point of looking for Sirius. (McDonald Observatory holds star parties three times a week: $12 for adults, $8 for kids ages 6 to 12, free for kids 5 and under; 877-984-7827.)
For listings of star parties and telescope viewings, go to telescopes.stardate.org/guide/public.php or contact your local astronomy club. Some national parks, including one of our favorites, Big Bend National Park in Texas, also hold regular stargazing events (search nps.gov by park or event).
By Melissa Klurman
When the air takes on a November chill, my family's thoughts turn to a special holiday treat: rich, tart apple cider. It's time to head to the Warwick Valley Apple Trail in New York state, which leads to local cider presses and sweet sipping spots. Dark and delicious, the cider they sell is as different from commercial apple juice as cream is from skim milk. Our son, Aidan, 9, a connoisseur since his first seasonal sip at age 1, eagerly awaits the chance to sample varieties from the five farms along our route. Our favorite stop is Pennings Orchard, where we also pick apples and visit baby animals; its wooden hand press gives up our first fragrant cup. (Because it takes 36 apples to make one gallon of cider, and hundreds of gallons are made each day, there are also big presses, housed in an outbuilding.) The only thing Aidan likes better than cold cider? "Hot, cinnamon-y mulled cider!" he says. Especially when it's served with warm, cider-infused, nutmeg-flecked doughnuts, which we watch being cooked in the open kitchen. (845-986-1059)
To create your own cider trail, visit orangepippin.com. It has detailed information on thousands of apple orchards located in more than 40 states, along with descriptions of apple varieties. Some orchards outsource their cider production, so if you want to watch presses in action, call before you go to see if that's on tap. And ask about other activities they may offer, including apple picking, hayrides, festivals, or visits with farm animals. For ideas on cooking your apple bounty, see nyapplecountry.com/recipes.htm.
By Rani Arbo
Last year, my 7-year-old upped the adrenaline factor on our annual pilgrimage to the corn maze at Lyman Orchards in Littlefield, Connecticut: he navigated it unchaperoned, with his three best friends. Four acres of corn way over their heads, and two miles of trails in which to lose themselves (or not, thanks to teenage "corn cops" posted at major intersections)."It took us about three hours," Quinn estimated when I asked him about it recently. In fact, it took them 32 minutes (I know, because I was nervously checking). Seen from above, the maze depicted an American flag with an eagle inset. Designed by international maze maven Brett Herbst, it included two bridges that peeked over the amber waves of grain, but apparently those (and the map) weren't of much use to our valiant crew of second-graders. "We just kept trying different paths," Quinn said, explaining their strategy. "It was a little freaky, but it was awesome." The best part? "When we found the eagle's eye!" This year's Lyman Orchards design features a Red Sox versus Yankees theme. (Maze opens Sept. 1; $10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 4 to 12, free for kids 3 and under; 860-349-1793.)
There's now a corn maze in nearly every state. Two online directories (themaize.com and cornmazesamerica.com) can help you locate one in your area. Always check with the hosting farm in advance to confirm details and learn about their other offerings, such as wagon rides, farm stands, or pick-your-own harvesting. When you go, wear good walking shoes and pack sunscreen, water, and a watch (so you can time your trek).
By Jennifer Margulis
If you look down at your binoculars, the guide warns, you'll lose sight of the birds. Instead, he tells us, keep your eyes on the eagles and bring the binoculars up to your face. Using this technique, we spy a bald eagle sitting on the ice, an ominous black-backed shadow just far enough away from a flock of mallards that they bob unconcerned in the unfrozen part of the lake. Then it happens. I can't believe what my 9-, 7-, and 5-year-old and I are seeing. The eagle takes to the air and swoops down upon a sickly duck he's been eyeing, carrying it away in his sharp talons, his wings flapping furiously as he gains altitude.
The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, on the California/Oregon border, are the winter homes for one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the country. (They begin arriving in November and stay until March.) But spectacular viewing of the raptors roosting in the trees, hunting the abundant waterfowl on the lake, and soaring majestically in the sky wasn't our only reward for braving the cold. On the 10-mile Lower Klamath Refuge loop road, we were lucky enough to spot two coyotes, four river otters, one mule deer, and a great horned owl. (530-667-2231)
Raptors migrate through or overwinter in many regions of the country. Other hot spots for eagles include Skagit River Bald Eagle Center, Rockport, Washington; Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Andes, South Dakota; National Eagle Center, Wabasha, Minnesota; Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Mound City, Missouri; the Mississippi River Visitor Center, Rock Island, Illinois (mvr.usace.army.mil/missriver, click on 'Eagle Watching'); Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Cambridge, Maryland; and the American Bald Eagle Foundation, Haines, Alaska. At Cape May Bird Observatory, in Cape May, New Jersey, you can see many migrating hawks.