Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company Open House

As Bel Air and Harford County evolves, there are a few reminders that remain to show us a bit of what Bel Air used to be like and where it has come from. For me, one of those reminders is the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company. Formally founded in 1890, it currently consists of an all volunteer fire service and auxiliary and a combination of volunteer/paid emergency medical service. All together BAVFC has over 175 members and responds to over 8,000 calls for service each year. (You can find more statistics and interesting facts here.) Volunteer firefighting is a long tradition in the US with some 70% of all fire services being volunteer. That tradition is alive and carried on in Bel Air.

My initial idea for this post was to write some history of the department, but there is a tremendous writeup of the history of BAVFC on the website at It is a great read when you have the time and also tells a lot of the history of both the town of Bel Air and of BAVFC.

This Saturday, October 3rd from 10-3 at the main station in Bel Air (109 S. Hickory Ave.) is the annual open house for BAVFC. It is a great time to casually tour the fire house, let your kids climb through the trucks, look at the tools used and see several demonstrations during the day. It is a very family friendly day and there are typically refreshments available. There will be plenty of members on hand to answer questions. Your kid can even take a turn manning a fire hose on the front ramp.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Get Out There and Do Something

In case you missed it, Mr. Hayward Putnam has one of his classic articles in today’s Aegis that should be entitled “Get Out There and Do Something.” This is an awesome time of year and even though I hate saying goodbye to summer, I do love the fall and all it offers.

Here in Bel Air, the trees are just starting to get some color. Last weekend I was in West Virginia backpacking and the trees were ablaze in color, most notably the fiery reds of the maple trees. The colors of the trees right before the leaves fall is like the grand finale before the silence and gray of winter sets in. With mild temperatures, it is a great time to get outside for walks, hikes, and festivals during the day or settle in at night with a campfire, a camping trip or even a backyard camping expedition.

It somehow got past me that tomorrow (9/26/09) is National Hunting and Fishing Day. Thanks to Mr. Putnam for the reminder. Maryland DNR has a big event planned. For more information you can click here. Bow season is in full swing right now as is squirrel season. Good reports of fishing below the Conowingo Dam with reports of stripers, catfish and walleye. In addition to the Susquehanna, we are lucky to have Deer Creek, the Gunpowders and many ponds in Harford County. A great place to introduce kids to fishing is at the pond at Bynum Run Park on Route 22 by John Carroll. With a bobber, hook, and some nightcrawlers you can catch catfish and bluegill till the kids are tired of fishing.

There’s lots of other stuff going on like the Fall Festival at Steppingstone Museum. You can also see my previous post of things going on over the next few weeks.

One more note before I finish. I’m not a big TV watcher and it’s rare I actually recommend someone watch TV, but this Sunday (9/27) from 8:00-10:00 p.m. on PBS is Ken Burns’ new documentary series National Parks. The link takes you to the PBS page. From the trailer it looks like a phenomenal show. May you watch it and be inspired to get outside!

Friday, September 11, 2009

6 Events in 6 Weeks (read now and get a bonus event FREE)

It is Fall festival time and even though I doubt I will make a lot of blog posts about what's going on every weekend I wanted to list some of the stuff happening over the next 6 weeks or so. Some of it is pretty cool and a lot of it is family oriented. Most of it is a great excuse to get outside and do something.

Starting out this weekend, on Sunday 9/13/09 from 12-4 (coinciding with the Raven's game) is Music in the Vineyard at Fiore Winery. You can bring a picnic lunch and enjoy music with the family. Tasting and a glass cost $5.

Also this weekend is the Darlington Gun Show. Both Saturday and Sunday 9/12-13/09 at the Darlington VFW. Hunting season is right around the corner.

On Sunday, September 20th is the Annual Bel Air Festival of the Arts in Shamrock Park. Lots of local artists and vendors.

The same weekend is also the Maryland Wine Festival at Timonium Fairgrounds both Saturday and Sunday 9/19-20/09.

The following weekend is the Harford County Wine Festival at Rockfield Manor, Saturday and Sunday 9/26-27/09, Saturday 12-7 and Sunday 12-5. Normally I would direct you to Rockfield Manor's website for more information but apparently their website is down due to non-payment. Tsk-tsk. It's if you want to give it a try.

I'm not sure why we have so many wine related things to do and we don't have a half decent Oktoberfest. I'm really bummed they don't do the traditional Oktoberfest at the Baltimore Armory any more. That used to be really cool. I'd love to see an Oktoberfest come to Bel Air...not a cheap imitation at one of the bars, but the real deal at the Bel Air Armory or something. I know there is the supposed Oktoberfest at Timonium Fairgrounds on Saturday, October 10th, but that's more like a preakness drunkfest than a real Oktoberfest. Not that I have anything against preakness or drunkfests mind you. They're just not Oktoberfest.

Anyway...on Saturday October 3rd is one of my favorites...the Darlington Apple Festival 10-5 in downtown Darlington. You should make this trek at least once in your life. As you may have guessed, there are lots of apples, and apple pies, but there's also a lot of other fun fall festival stuff including tractor rides and vendors.

On Saturday, October 17th is the Harford Fall Festival at the Equestrian Center. Lots of fall fest and family centered fun that all benefits the Harford County's food bank and homeless shelter.

If I missed something (I'm sure I did) leave it in the comments or shoot me an e-mail @ belairlife @ and I will add it in.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The post that got me fired aka Fishing @ Conowingo on a Friday

All week long as I’ve driven to work in the morning, the voices in my head have nagged at me, “It sure is a beautiful morning. It would be a great morning to be fishing up at Conowingo.” All week, logic has prevailed over the voices, however this morning I must have been off (new coffee maybe?) and was suckered in by the final blow of “come on, you know a bad day of fishing always beats a good day of work.” And with that, the tackle was loaded into the jeep and off I went.

It’s been a long time since I fished below Conowingo Dam on a weekday. I was sure there would be other fishermen, but I was glad to see it was not really crowded. In the couple of hours I was there, the fishing was a little on the slow side (meaning I didn’t catch anything). I saw about a dozen rockfish caught with only one keeper. The only guys catching rock were the guys willing to crowd shoulder to shoulder to reach the dam tailrace. There were about 6-10 guys fishing that way this morning using inline weights and either a small spoon or a chartreuse jig. Although most of the guys fishing at the dam appear well weathered by life, they are real nice for the most part and usually more than glad to show you what tackle they are using and explain how they are fishing it. You’ll get a better response if you strike up a conversation when they are stringing up their line as opposed to during their cast and retrieve. There’s definitely a camaraderie among the regulars.

There were plenty of catfish being caught by the guys (and a few kids, has Cecil not gone back to school yet?) fishing further downstream from the tailraces. Most of the catfishers were using cut bait on bottom rigs. There were also a couple of fishermen in kayaks fishing the current breaks by the island, but I didn’t watch them long enough to see how successful they were. I enjoyed seeing a decent group of guys fishing for cats from the new fishermen’s wharf built by Exelon.

The new wharf is really nice and handicap accessible. To say it is solid would be a gross understatement. If water flow from the dam is low, the wharf isn’t quite at waters edge, but still fishable. It is very well constructed and offers much better access to the shoreline both for fishermen and for spectators. I know I speak for a lot of people when I say I really appreciate the effort Exelon has gone to in keeping the area below the dam accessible and fishable. If you go there, please respect the place and take your trash out with you!! Don’t leave line, broken tackle or packaging on the rocks.

As I ate my late morning lunch before heading out I sat and watched the birds, another popular past time at the park. I was pretty sure I saw one eagle, but it disappeared from my view behind the island before I was sure. There were plenty of turkey vultures circling overhead. The sea ducks were pretty successful at snagging minnows from the tailrace. And I saw a heron perched about midway at the base of the dam for a bit.

The best way to get current information on the fishing at Conowingo is to either catch one of Mr. Hayward Putnam’s articles in the Aegis or just go up there and see for your self. I’ve not found any other reliable reports for the dam, but if you know of any please leave them in the comments or send me an e-mail (e-mail address is on the top right side of the page).

Monday, August 31, 2009

Why Bel Air is a healthy town

With burger joints on every corner, candy shops in town and now a Vaccarro’s coming to Harford Mall, you may not think of Bel Air being the healthiest of towns. But Bel Air has plenty of opportunities to be healthy and I’d say it is a pretty fit town compared to a lot of places. I’ve broken it down by access, support and eating. More of the many reasons I love Bel Air.

To be a fit town, you need a combination of affordable and free access to activities, both indoor and out. And Bel Air (and the surrounding county) abounds with opportunities to be active year round. We have a couple of mega gyms and national chains if going to a gym is your thing. There are even 24 hour gyms popping up and most importantly, successful local gyms. The Ma & Pa Trail is an awesome destination for a walk, run or bike ride covering 5 miles of total trails. Many roads, like Route 1 north of town, have wide shoulders for biking or running. Communities boast miles of sidewalks. And it is encouraging to see projects like Southampton Road being planned with wide lanes and sidewalks to provide access to the school and the miles of sidewalks in town. We also have access to the many trails at Rocks, Susquehanna and Gunpowder State Parks for hiking, running and cycling.

Bel Air also offers local access to canoeing and kayaking in local creeks, rivers and the bay. You can go rock climbing at Rocks State Park. There are even both indoor and outdoor skate parks in or near Bel Air now (yes, skateboarding is a legitimate sport). There’s a gymnastics center. Throughout the year there are also many organized runs and races including the Bel Air Town Run which boasted 1,400 runners this year! And, Bel Air has insanely organized and popular both youth and adult rec leagues for just about every sport.

This isn’t the place to advertise or recommend one business over another, but Bel Air business offers tons of support to help us get and stay fit. There is a running store on Main Street that organizes frequent runs and training programs. On South Main you can find a shop specializing in nothing but lacrosse. We have access to several local bike shops that are a wealth of information and organized rides. There are local pools and swim clubs offering lessons, fitness classes and competitive swimming. There is a skate shop (at least for now) on Bond Street (okay, say it with me this time, skateboarding is a legitimate sport). And, of course, there’s always the big box stores.

Access to healthy foods is another area Bel Air excels, but it’s a choice, because there is also plenty of access to unhealthy foods here too. In the summer we are fortunate to have a wide variety of fresh and local foods available through the multiple farmers markets and road side stands. We have a nearby whole foods market and all of the grocery stores have increased their organic selections with several offering local options. Most of the restaurants in town offer healthy food options and salads. There is also no denying our access to fresh seafood and fish, too many options to even begin to list them. Bel Air can even boast both a smoothie and a yogurt shop.

So what’s your favorite place, activity or way to be fit in Bel Air? Share it in the comments section.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Weekend Getaway: Camping Edition

With the kids heading back to school this week and cooler temps in the forecast (where were those dog days anyway?) summer is sadly drawing to a close. While I love summer for trips to the beach, the pool and even thunderstorms, my thoughts are quickly turning to fall and I love fall in Maryland. If for nothing else than the return of camping weather. I know a lot of people camp in the summer, but we tend to camp in the other three seasons. The absence of crowds, bugs and heat makes the camping experience a lot more enjoyable with kids.

Camping has always been a great way for our family to reconnect. DSs, gameboys and DVDs are usually forbidden on our trips in favor of card and board games. There is always opposition, but they adjust quickly. I realize that’s not for everyone, but I really encourage you to try it for at least one trip.

Tips for 1st time campers or 1st time camping with kids could be a whole different article, but here is a rundown of some quick things to consider. Try backyard camping first to get the kids used to a tent, sleeping outside and to see where problems might occur. Don’t go out and buy $500 worth of camping equipment. Try renting, Craigslist, freecycle or a neighbor first. Make a checklist and use it. Think about taking a first aid class and get a good first aid kit. Remember it’s about having fun!

Okay, on to destinations. Here’s a list of some of my favorites and what makes them unique. If you have a favorite that is not listed or more to say about the ones below, please mention it in the comments section!

Susquehanna State Park It’s right in our backyard and a beautiful park. There are lots of trails and you can even hike as far up as Conowingo Dam and as far downriver as Havre de Grace on the Heritage Greenways Trail (and parts of the Mason Dixon Trail). There is a working mill, Deer Creek, the Susquehanna River and many events at the Stepping Stone Museum. Camping is weekend only May through September but there are bathhouses and water available.

Elk Neck State Park Another beautiful park bordering the water in nearby Cecil County. Elk Neck boasts some beautiful trails that go down to the cliffs and to Turkey Point Light House and an awesome view of the bay. Elk Neck also has a beach and a lot more campsites than Susquehanna. Certain camping loops are open year round and all have bathhouses and water.

Greenbriar and Gambrill State Parks I unfairly lump these two together because they are further away to the west in Washington and Frederick Counties. Both are beautiful mountain parks with the Appalachian Trail passing through Greenbriar and Gambrill resting in the Catoctin Mountains. They both offer tons of hiking trails, amazing views of fall foliage and bathhouses and water.

Greenridge State Forest My favorite place in Maryland to camp. Greenridge essentially has no amenities. You are lucky if you get a picnic table in your site, the sites can be a quarter mile apart and it can take 30 minutes on pot holed dirt roads to reach your campsite. Its 46,000 acres border the Potomac River and several creeks run through the forest. Greenridge offers canoeing, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding all in a primitive setting.

So there are my picks. Here is a list of all the public lands in Maryland and you can go here for a list of private campgrounds. I’d love to hear your feedback and your picks in the comments.

As a final note, regulations in Maryland regarding alcohol on public lands have changed this year. Effective November 1, 2009, you must pay $35 for a special use alcohol permit or face the possibility of being fined $55 for having alcohol in your camp. DNR has yet to say how this will be enforced, but it is a big change for many.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A night out at the Ironbirds game

Aside from a trip to Ocean City, no summer in Harford County is complete without at least one evening at an Ironbirds Game in Aberdeen. Last night was a perfect summer night for it and the BelAirLife family enjoyed awesome seats.

As a father, I’ve pretty much given up on Camden Yards for a family night, especially during the week. Ripken Stadium offers affordable seats (every seat in the house has a great view), reasonably priced food (including pizza, hot dogs, BBQ and even crabs) and a very family friendly atmosphere. I’ve never sat in the Crab Shack, but picking crabs, having an ice cold beer and watching a game is definitely on my to do list.

When our boys were younger we used to make mid-game trips to the kids play area which really helps younger kids make it through a game. Last night the boys had no problem staying into the game since the pitching was awesome and we were lucky enough to have seats in the second row behind home plate!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

BBQ Heaven in Bel Air

We took the BelAirLife family to the Maryland State BBQ Bash in Bel Air Friday and Saturday nights this weekend. There is no place else I know of where you can celebrate the wonders of BBQ and the art of grill cooking as well as you can here. We went both Friday and Saturday nights. After years of convincing, we also took my Dad (aka Master Griller) with us. The main event was spread throughout the State Courthouse parking lot with overflow for contestants and exhibitors in surrounding parking lots.

While Mrs. BelAirLife took the kids to walk over to the kids section my Dad and I wandered around the contestant areas admiring all the varying setups for cooking. Now my Dad and I can do some grilling, but the full trailer setups with multiple smokers and cookers were definitely out of our league. We learned a lot from walking around and asking different contestants about their cooking methods.

Over the two days, we had ribs, pulled pork and brisket that were all fantastic. Hess’s BBQ piled the pulled pork on so high you had to eat it with a fork before you could make it into a sandwich! The crazy thin sliced and deep fried potato thing was awesome. The only complaints I heard all weekend was about the beer prices. I have to agree $4 for a 12 ounce draft is certainly on the steep side although it didn’t appear to make the lines for beer any shorter.
It’s great to have a statewide event that is so family friendly here in Bel Air. Thanks to all the sponsors and the board that worked so hard to make the Bash happen and for keeping it in Bel Air!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Weekend Project: Staining the Deck

With the forecast of a few dry days for Bel Air, I decided it might be a good time to stain the deck. Well, actually, my Dad who sits still less than I do decided it was time for me to stain the deck. He stayed at our house to watch our dog while we were in Ocean City and decided to powerwash part of our deck so that all I had to do was finish powerwashing the deck and slap some stain on. As with most projects around the house, it wasn’t quite that easy.

Our deck is in two parts, an upper deck and a lower deck. Both decks have had different stains on them in the past, so powerwashing took the dirt and any mildew off the decks, but I had to use a stripper to get the remaining stain off. The stripper I used was a basic stain/paint stripper available at paint or hardware stores. I had a small plastic bucket I would pour some into, then I used a stiff plastic brush to apply and agitate it into the stain. I really, strongly recommend you use plastic gloves and safety glasses. This stuff is nasty. After about 15 minutes you powerwash the stripper (and hopefully the stain) off the deck. I own an electric powerwasher that works great for cleaning the siding and deck usually, but to get the stain and stripper off I had to use my brothers gas powered powerwasher. It did a great job as long as you make sure to use broad sweeping movements and not stop too close to the wood.

After powerwashing you typically want to wait 2-3 weeks to allow the wood to dry our well since you are really impregnating the wood with water. Once it is good and dry you are ready to start staining. I used a simple semi-transparent cedar stain that is allowable by most all homeowners associations and readily available at the local paint or hardware store. I stained decks and fences in the past using electric sprayers, rollers and brushes. By far, a brush leaves the best finish , it just takes longer. If your deck butts up to your house or concrete you probably want to tape off the exposures so you don’t get stain on stuff other than the wood of the deck. I used simple masking tape.

As you can see in the picture, I started in a corner and just worked across to the opposite corner spreading the stain evenly across the boards. There is an amount that is not too little (all the wood isn’t getting covered) to too much (you lose the grain of the wood) that you want to stay in between when applying the stain. After that it’s all patience and taking your time to cover all the wood and get into all the cracks and crevices. Afterward, clean up with water, keep all traffic off the deck for 24 hours and you should be good to go for another couple years!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

There's a waterfall in Harford County?

With summer finally here and the kids going stir crazy in the house (not to mention their mother!) I decided it was a good day to load everyone up and go to one of my favorite places in Harford County, Kilgore Falls, for the day.

Kilgore Falls, also known as Falling Branch, is part of Rocks State Park in northern Harford County. The 23 acre tract of land containing the falls was purchased by the state in 1993 with some help from the students of North Harford High School. It is the only waterfall in Harford County.

The falls is an awesome place to cool off for a couple of hours. There is a nice (albeit short) hike in to the falls and trails that take you up to the top of the falls. It can get crowded on weekends, but rarely so on weekdays. There was also a ton of “fools gold” in the creek that kept the boys busy competing to find cooler chunks in rocks than their brother.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Weekend Project: Solar Pool Heater

We love to swim…a lot. Our boys swim no matter what the pool temperature is. Unfortunately with Maryland weather it is mid to late June by the time the pool is comfortable for me and Mrs. BelAirLife. So to be able to start swimming sooner in the spring and later into the fall I started researching heaters. But I’m cheap. It helps to know that up front. Some people call it frugal, but I’m cheap. So early on in my research, after I got over the shock that heat pumps and gas heaters cost $3,000-5,000 (some even more) and can cost anywhere in the $200-800 per month to run them, I quickly ruled them out. Then I started researching wood heaters. Wood heaters are cool because I could get all the free junk firewood I would need to run one. But, they still have a $3,000+ price tag, have to be fed wood every few hours (because of the size of the firebox), and would constantly be pumping smoke across my back yard (the top of the smokestack is only about 5’ high). So that pretty much left solar.
I started looking at different solar heating systems and at some point decided I just had to be able to make my own solar heater that was better AND (more importantly) cheaper. So I started researching plans on the internet and I stumbled upon a plan I really liked and starting thinking of ways I could improve it. Since my pool is in ground and about 22,000 gallons I decided to double the plans and make it 4’ x 8’. Our homeowners association forbids solar panels on roof tops (stupidity and another reason I hate HOAs) so this would have to be ground based.
I started by going to Northeast Plumbing Supply in Rosedale to see if they had irrigation hose. Irrigation hose is more like a flexible PVC pipe than a garden hose and my theory was that it would be cheaper, solid black and effect better heat transfer while withstanding the higher heat condition of asphalt shingles which I planned to use as backing. Northeast had tons of tubing and in various sizes. I bought 200’ (although I only used 150’) of 5/8” tubing at about $22 per 50’ roll. The guys at Northeast (who were extremely cool and helpful) also helped me pick out the fittings and adapters I would need to both connect one end of the tube to the beginning of the next and break the tube down to a standard garden hose. The picture explains it better than I can in words and I am sorry I do not remember the names, sizes or thread patterns of all the fittings.
Then it was off to Home Depot for a sheet of 4x8 plywood, 3 2x4s, 2 contractor packs of wire clamps and screws. The bill at Home Depot was about $40-50. Thankfully I have a ton of leftover black shingles from my roof.
So once home I laid out the plywood on sawhorses, then laid out all my shingles onto the plywood but I did not attach them. Next I cut my 2x4s and framed out the plywood over the shingles. I planned on setting up panel laterally so I used a 1” drill bit to drill holes for the hose to pass through the 2x4s, one for entry on the top right and one for exit of the bottom left. The idea was to get a little help from gravity. I then fed the hose and began coiling onto the panel. I decided on two 4x4 coils to maintain a circle, that way water was never travelling directly vertical for too long. Every so often I would affix the tube with a cable clamp and screw it down through the shingle and into the plywood. To save clamps I spaced them out and used wire ties between to keep it all secure. I kept this up until my spiral was complete and then moved over to the next one, then out the exit hole.
I also decided not to make permanent changes to my pump set up which is why I used garden hose fittings. On the out I just have a garden hose that runs the water into the side of the pool. For the intake I have a section of garden hose that runs from the heater long enough to reach a jet on the side of the pool. At the end of the hose I cut it off and shoved a 1’ piece of the irrigation hose into it. I can then slide the pool jet over the irrigation hose. Then I cut off two ¼ inch pieces of garden hose to slide over the irrigation tube and act as stoppers. I can then screw the jet back onto the pool. I have very little pressure increase at my pump this way when running the panel s so I have been comfortable doing it this way. I do recommend priming the whole system (at the beginning of the season) from a spigot at the house before running it off of the pool pump.
My pump is on a timer so the panel kicks on each day with the pump. It has been extremely effective and allowed us to swim in late May and early June this year. Should also help us swim much later into the fall. By August we will have to disconnect it to keep the water from getting too warm and reconnect it again in September. When using I also recommend using a solar blanket/cover to help retain the heat at night so you don’t lose what you have created during the day.
I’ve never measured the temperature difference before and after the panel, but you can feel a significant difference. I’ve contemplated covering the panel to avoid wind loss of heat on the panel itself. Plexiglass is expensive and loses clarity too quickly in direct sun. They make UV resistant plexiglass, but it is big bucks and in case you have not caught on by now, I’m cheap. Glass, even tempered, is out of the question for me near a vinyl pool. My solution was to position the panel so it is fairly well protected from a breeze but to also get as much daily sun as possible. The panel gets direct sun starting about 10:00 a.m. through to about 4:30 p.m. most of the summer.
If you make one of these, leave a comment. I’d love to see how you make yours and what improvements you make.