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Returning to Nature

Returning to Nature - Copyright Mark Lawler
Learn more about how exploring the natural world helps your family connect.

Returning to Nature - Copyright Mark Lawler

Being a paleontologist and natural historian, I truly enjoy exploring the natural wonders of our incredible and rare planet. What I like even more, in fact, what I am passionate about is sharing this joy with others—introducing them to the natural and geological beauty that is all around them. Sharing these wonders with my wife and daughter has provided lasting memories and the opportunity to spend quality time together away from the chaos that can be our day-to-day lives.

Hiking in the Snow and Caving Fun

Just before teaching my first geology class for a local community college twelve years ago, I did a reconnaissance trip to explore the local geology as I had never done before in preparation for taking my students on field trips. I invited my daughter, who was five at the time, to join me. It was January. It was a crisp, snowy kind of day, and we had a fantastic time exploring. Visualizing her running through the swirling snow squalls as we raced back to the car is as clear in my mind today as it was then. It concluded with a stop at Burger King to warm up with a cup of hot cocoa and some fries (always a good combination). To this day, it is still one of my favorite memories.

Just a couple of years later, I took my historical geology class for a trip to a system of caves and caverns called Howe’s Caverns, which was about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from home. My daughter accompanied us. We were guided through a series of winding passages, which included a boat ride on an underground river. Everyone really enjoyed learning about karst topography and how caves form but also just spending time together. The only downside was that my daughter forgot her little daypack, including her camera, at the caverns. Luckily, though, it was returned by mail a short time later—another top memory!

How Caverns - Copyright Mark Lawler

A Trip to the Mountains

It has been great sharing these experiences with my family, and I believe they have created a unique bond between us, but they are not shared with just family members. One of my passions is the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. I love the geology, the natural wonders of the six-million-acre state park, and also the cultural history. What I particularly like to do is introduce folks to these mountains who have never experienced them before. Often, they are students, but not always. For example, this past May, I took two young men who were from Barbados on a day trip to explore some of the lower peaks of the mountains. They were in awe and left wanting more; it is one of my favorite ways to spend a day.

Last fall, I took a small group of students on a trip to the Adirondacks. Many had never been there before. We climbed peaks with fire towers, hiked around lakes, and had a terrific day. The excitement and surprise at the beauty of the mountains and of their accomplishments really impressed some of them. It was clear that I had provided a really special experience. I loved it. I was definitely in my happy place.

Top of the Mountain - Copyright Mark Lawler

Do You Have To Be a Scientist?

The really cool thing is that you do not have to be an academically trained geologist or a natural historian to have these experiences with your family or with others who have similar interests. In fact, I think it can even improve the experience if you are not; this way, you are all learning together. When you have knowledge that others do not, you may find yourself lecturing more than what your companions may like (yes, personal experience here).

What Do You Need Before You Can Begin Exploring Together?

First, you need the desire—the interest to do it. It’s really quite simple. Get out there and explore. Some prior planning and organization will help improve the experience, but do not overthink it. Here are a few things to help you plan your trip:

First, you should decide what you want to do and what you want to explore. Are you interested in the geology (rocks, minerals, and fossils)? Do you want to merely see things in person, or do you actually want to collect them and bring them home with you? You will not be allowed to collect specimens in all areas, so be sure to check before collecting any. Do you want to observe the flora and fauna? Some locations are great for doing both, some for one or the other, so do a little research. The Internet is a great place for finding information on state, county, and national parks in your area. The blue pages of your phonebook is another good place to look, and you can also call your state’s geologist for suggestions about where to go; the state geology department should be found in the phonebook and/or online.

Exploring the natural world does not have to be expensive. A few things you will want to take include a good pair of binoculars; a good camera and a journal for jotting down thoughts, questions, and feelings that you might forget when you get home. A small digital recorder can also be used as an audio journal for you. You will want a daypack to carry your water, food, binoculars, camera, extra clothes, extra batteries for your camera (few things are more frustrating than discovering that your batteries are dead when out exploring), digital recorder if using one, and bug spray, depending on the time of the year. You will need a map of the area you are exploring (and the ability to read it), first aid kit, sunscreen, and lip protectant.

You will also want good guidebooks. I recommend Kids on the Trail: Hiking with Children in the Adirondacks by Rose Rivezzi and David Trithart. I have used this one, but similar guides that are also good are available for most states. The Peterson Field Guide Series is great for just about anything you want to identify (e.g., birds, mammals, insects, rocks and minerals, the stars, medicinal plants, animal tracks, amphibians and reptiles, butterflies, mushrooms, trees, shrubs, and flowers). For identifying fossils, I would also recommend Fossils (Golden Field Guide Series) by Frank H. T. Rhodes, Paul R. Shaffer, Herbert S. Zim, and Raymond Perlman.

You likely already have some of these things around your home. If not, you can certainly improvise and use items you already have and add to your explorer kit as you go. The things I have listed here are for the best experience, but beyond the issue of safety (water, map, first aid kit, phone), the rest are not absolutely required, so get out there and enjoy. You also need to use common sense. Start out slow, and work your way up to more adventuresome trips if that is desired. Many great adventures await you that are not wilderness outings and do not require much experience to enjoy them safely. If you are unsure, don’t do it, or find an experienced guide to go with you, and always let someone know where you are going and your itinerary.

The bottom line is that you need to get out there and explore with your family or others who are like-minded. You will produce memories and form bonds that will last a lifetime—and they may just bring you to your happy place. Enjoy!

About the author

Mark Lawler

Mark Lawler

Mark Lawler is an experienced educator who’s designed courses in the physical sciences for delivery both on and offline. He currently teaches classes at five different institutions spanning such topics as physical geology, historical geology, physical geography, and environmental science. He has also taught courses in environmental geology, oceanography, and archaeology. Mark is a natural historian whose passion for the Adirondack Mountains inspires him to share this natural wonder with others. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and teenage daughter. You can learn more about Mark, the courses he teaches, and the geotours he leads at

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  • Beth Kovinsky Blacker

    My love for hiking started as a young camper. Back then, they would send us off into the woods of Northern Michigan (including the UP along the Pictured Rocks which are spectacular) for days and we were expected to come out at the designated meeting point to get our ride back to camp. It was awesome! As an adult, I have done several “girls weekend getaways” hiking in various mountains and only wish I could do it more often. Living in Florida there just aren’t that many interesting places to hike around. I wish my kids would participate but I think the thought of being “unplugged” with no wifi would be more terrifying than meeting a bear in the woods 🙂

    • Mark Lawler

      Beth, those sound like great experiences. I know what you mean about being “unplugged.” Once my daughter became a teenager, she lost much of her interest in hiking, and exploring the natural world with us, which makes the early experiences we shared that much more special. =)

  • Ismet Bibić

    Really good article.

    • Mark Lawler

      Thanks Ismet. =)

  • Lisa Kerr

    My parents used to take my sisters and I to the mountains in Virginia when we were young, there is nothing like being outside with all the beauty around you! Wonderful article 🙂

    • Mark Lawler

      Absolutely agree Lisa – thanks. =)

  • Lynn Hensley

    Great article 🙂

    • Mark Lawler

      Thanks Lynn. =)

  • pixystik4u

    hiking is a blast. looks like you had fun!

    • Mark Lawler

      Indeed it is, and indeed we did. =)

  • Lee Wei Liao

    Nice article, makes me planning for another trip to NP sometime next year

    • Mark Lawler

      Thanks Lee, what do you mean by NP? Dos this mean national park, if so, which one(s)?

  • cindilu

    Great article. Makes me want to get outdoors. Can’t wait till Spring!

    • Mark Lawler

      Why wait for spring Cindilu, enjoy he inter season. =)

  • I want to do more outdoor exploring in our area. We live in the valley of two mountains and have only been on a short hike a couple of times. This can help us get more prepared for sure!

    • Mark Lawler

      Great Kecia, get out and enjoy, baby steps are great, you can always add to it, just as long as you are getting out. =)

  • Katie

    We are all nature freaks. Lol. I hate the heat and humidity of where we live so in summer months we don’t get out as much, but exploring in Spring & Fall is a weekly occurrence for our family. Would love to check out How Caverns! Sounds awesome 🙂

    • Mark Lawler

      Howe is really neat Katie, but of course I really like caves. =)

  • Taylor Speikers

    Our family is a bunch of outdoor lovers! Great read.

    • Mark Lawler

      Thanks Taylor, enjoy the winter snowshoeing, and skiing season. =)

  • Krystle Kouture

    I HATE the heat. So I’ve never given hiking a second glance. However, hiking in the snow sounds cold and beautiful!!

    • Mark Lawler

      Montana is a state I have yet to explore Christine, other than my brief entry into the state while visiting Yellowstone. Glacier is definitely in my list of places to explore. =)

    • Mark Lawler

      It is Krystle. =)

  • Christine T

    In Montana, where I was raised, there are lots of places to go in nature that I love. One of those places was the Lewis & Clark Caverns. I never did get to see it again before I left Montana and I hope to come back and see it someday!

    • Mark Lawler

      Montana is a state I have yet to explore Christine, other than my brief entry into the state while visiting Yellowstone. Glacier is definitely in my list of places to explore. =)

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