Thursday, March 7, 2019

Fan Club

My parents came to every home game my college soccer team played, and many of the away games, too. This might seem unremarkable – until you realize I went to college a 6-hour drive away from home. And that I mostly sat on the bench, making brief appearances in a handful of games through three years.

Being at the games was about more than simply rooting for me. They became part of a group of parents cheering for their daughters, a collective cadre of supporters who watched through crisp sunshine, cool rain, and even autumn snow, who hugged us after many wins and occasional losses, then took us out to dinner.

Now that my own kids are out there, competing on the soccer field and the race course, I’ve found they also have their fan club – and that I’m just a small part of it. This was clear at October’s Halloween Cup, when grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends stood along the soccer field sidelines for hours to cheer for the kids.

It was again apparent last weekend, when my son raced at our home hill of Cannon Mountain in a two-day event to try for a spot at this weekend’s state Championships for his age group.

Ski racing can seem an intricately complicated sport, even at the junior level. To simplify, there are a series of races through the season whose cumulative results qualify a pre-determined number of kids to Champs. If you don’t make the cut, you get one more chance – at Finals – to qualify.

Finals were last weekend. My son needed to finish in the top 5 out of a pool of close to 100 racers from around the state to get to Champs. His twin sister and a bunch of his ski racing buddies had already qualified. He really wanted to go to Champs as a competitor, not an onlooker.

Being a spectator at a ski race is really an act of love. It entails several hours in usually cold weather, sometimes with precipitation falling, and often including a hike up (and then back down) an icy slope to gain a decent vantage point. All to watch the kid you came to see ski by in a matter of seconds.

Because I coach the youngest ski racers on weekend mornings, I often have to follow along on Live Timing, which means logging onto a website to check racers’ times as the competition progresses.

As I was coaching Saturday morning, my phone buzzed incessantly in the pocket of my ski bibs. At our mid-morning break, I pulled it out to get an update. Even if Live Timing hadn’t been an option, I would have known my son’s first run went well. Friends who were at the race – on the other side of Cannon Mountain from where I was coaching – had texted to tell me he looked great and skied fast. Other friends following from afar on Live Timing sent congratulatory “Woo-hoo!” messages. They kept coming through the day and into the evening.

Sunday afternoon I ditched my ski boots and hiked up along the edge of the long giant slalom course to watch the action. (If you read this column regularly, you may remember that last year I wrote about what a disaster I am when my kids are racing. I’m much better mid-course than at the finish. If you missed it, here's Race Mom Jitters.)

The higher I went, the more spectators I found. I ended up standing with my husband and younger daughter, my dad (Mom was lower down), and my brother. Our posse of Owen fans joined a group from Cranmore, there to cheer on their own kids. But they didn’t just cheer for the kids they knew, the ones from their own race program. They yelled for every kid who went by. If they could learn a racer’s name from some other spectators cheering nearby, they yelled that name. They asked what number my son was, then cheered as enthusiastically for him as they did for their own kids.

And so the fan club grew that day, if only for a few minutes.

My boy came through with two days of great results to notch that coveted trip to Champs this weekend. The reasons I am proud of him are fodder for some other story, one I’ll write in a more private way.

While the success of the weekend may seem the most important thing – and certainly had my kid walking on air – I noted something more valuable than results this weekend.

What I’m most thankful for is the fan club my children have, the people who will show up to watch – whether on the sidelines, at the edge of the race hill, or as part of the audience in the auditorium. They offer support in person or from afar. They are there to boost the kids up on the tough days and to celebrate with them on the good days.

They’re the best fans any kid could have.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the March 8, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Foxes

My son spotted the first fox one morning last spring as we were on the way to school. There, in a field we pass multiple times a day, sat a small red fox, with black-tipped ears and bushy tail, who seemed to be gazing at the mountains.

So began my obsession with a local fox family.

We started looking for the fox each day, hoping its mom was in that field somewhere. One day, on the way home after dropping the kids at school, I saw two foxes. Soon, we realized there were four kits.

Through the next several weeks, as the hills evolved from brown to green and the temperatures warmed toward shorts and flip-flops weather, we saw the foxes almost daily. I would slow the car each time I passed the field and stare at what had before simply seemed a pile of rocks – but which we determined was the foxes’ den.

Sometimes, if I was driving by solo or out for a jog, I’d stop and watch the foxes from across the road. The kids loved to see them, too, but I was infatuated.

For about two weeks in June, we saw them every day, either on our way down the hill or on our way back up – sometimes both. They’d be perched in a spot of sunshine, alone or in pairs, sometimes the fuzzy ears of all four peeking above the rocks and tall grass. Often they’d be looking toward the mountains, sometimes curiously gazing at the road with their bright little eyes and black snouts.

We never did see a parent fox, and I imagined an exhausted mother and father – red foxes work together to raise their young – tuckered out inside the den after a night of hunting to provide enough to feed four fast-growing babies.

I imagined a den which had seemed snug and cozy at the end of winter, when the kids were newborn and tiny, becoming overcrowded as the little ones grew bigger – and figured Mama Fox probably kicked the increasingly boisterous crew out so she could get some rest: a fox’s variation of, “For crying out loud, go play outside!”

As the fox kits grew bigger, they also grew braver, wandering further from the den. I watched them hunt in the field and play-wrestle with each other. Once, I rolled down my window and scolded one of the kits for creeping too close to the sparse traffic. I was terrified we’d come down the hill one day and find a dead fox in the road.

Instead, the kits gradually disappeared from our view. Multiple sightings each day diminished to a couple a week, then none at all, as the nearly-grown foxes dispersed from their family unit.  

Still, I kept looking at the field, wondering where they were. Perhaps, I thought, they were wandering through the woods between the den and our house. Maybe they’d moved – safely – across the road and up the hill, or into some forest-edged fields closer to town. Or they’d grown into a more nocturnal schedule and were simply sleeping away the daylight hours in the same old den.

While it’s been months since we’ve seen the foxes in that field, I still look as we pass by their old den, hoping to see a glimpse of a ginger tail or the black tip of a fuzzy ear.

Over the years, our game camera has captured images of both red and gray foxes, and we see fox tracks through the field and along the Woods Road throughout the winter. This time of year, we often smell the subtly skunky scent red foxes leave at various posts throughout their territories during mating season.

Lately, I’ve noticed a series of tracks crisscrossing the crusty snow near where the foxes denned last spring. I’m hoping that means they are setting up house again, preparing for the next litter of kits, and that we’ll get to watch them emerge from the den come springtime to gaze at the mountains, watch the traffic go by, and carry on their foxy ways.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the February 22, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Winter Woods Road

Just outside our front door, there’s an obscure labyrinth of paths that leads through the field and into the woods behind our house. These passageways are never so clearly traveled as during the winter months, when markings in the snow reveal the passings-by of critters large and small, human and non-human, often furred but sometimes feathered.

A happy pup on the Woods Road
As often as I can, when there is snow covering the ground, I head into the woods with the dog, who wiggles in full-bodied, happy anticipation of the smells she will sniff and the squirrels she might chase. Usually I travel by ski, but if the snow is deep and untracked, I wear my snowshoes. I may enter the woods from the edge of the road or the front yard, on the path just below our springhouse or at the back corner of the field.

However I get there, my main route is along what we call the Woods Road, a traverse built years ago through the forest by my husband’s grandfather. Because I have traveled this road in all seasons for many years – including when my children were tiny and, therefore, moved at a dawdling pace that allowed for more careful observation – I am familiar with the places where game trails intersect the old road, where the squirrels sometimes stash their winter cache of food, which trees the pileated woodpeckers favor in their search for tasty insects.

During the snowy season, the Woods Road becomes an open canvas, one shared by many travelers. Here and there, other paths enter the road from neighbors’ yards, and for a stretch, the road will be leveled by wide snowshoe treads, or marked for a ways by slender ski tracks. Sometimes I am the first one there after snowfall, leaving a trail for others to follow if they’d like, although the Woods Road is broad enough to accommodate more than one track.

Perhaps it’s because I can see more clearly what’s been sharing the road – if only in space, not time – but it seems there is more condensed travel along this route in winter. I like to think we human woods wanderers are helping the creatures who live in the wilder part of the neighborhood, packing out a trail so they may travel more easily during the hard winter months, finding food, evading would-be predators.

Once, a few winters ago, I was startled by a snowshoe hair who leapt across the trail in front of me. More often, I find the hares’ distinctive footprints hopscotched across the Woods Road. Also there are the split-heart-shaped tracks of deer, as well as prints from foxes (often), bobcats (more rare) and wild turkeys (by the flock).   
 
Game cam snap of resident porcupine
The porcupine trails are easy to spot; the needle-spiked critters seem to feel no need to hide their travels. If the snow is deep, a trough forms through it where the porcupines shuffle from den to
hemlock grove and back. If it is shallow, their pigeon-toed footprints show the way they have gone. They also leave the nipped tips of hemlock boughs along the ground and yellow birch trees with large patches of gnawed bark.

Where the wild ones go on either end of their Woods Road travels, I have little idea. Often, I look for tree hollows that may house barred owls or sleeping raccoons. I wonder where the deer bed down during the short winter days, until they come to our field in search of old, frozen apples. I imagine there are bears denned up somewhere not too far from our home.

The Woods Road leads down from our house to an old bridge over Bowen Brook, where in summer the thirsty dog pauses to drink, and children have been known to dip toes into cool water. From there, the dog and I follow the road around the bend toward the idle sugar house, up through a boggy area only easily passable when it is frozen and hard, and back toward home.

We come to the woods in all seasons, soaking in the quiet there. In spring, we revel in the unfurling of new leaves. In summer, we welcome the coolness of the shade. In autumn we find wonder at the vast colors of the trees. And in winter we look for glimpses of the forest’s secrets revealed along the Woods Road. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the February, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.