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.