My kids love the Rocky River Nature Center in the metroparks. And from someone who’s been going to the center for more than 20 years, it has certainly come a long way. It’s always been a nice facility, but it is certainly first class nowadays.

There are a handful of live animals to see—turtles and the like—along with a bevy of stuffed and mounted animals in a diorama-like woodland scene. And strategically placed rocking chairs (both large and small for adults and children) allow visitors to cool their heels and watch the many birds than come to the center’s feeders. I could sit watching through the big picture windows for hours, but the boys never seem to want to let me sit still. But on one of our last visits, I saw a Baltimore oriole (my first, outside of the baseball team), which was quite amazing. A nice chart even shows what birds you’re likely to see which months of the year.

The center held a great daylong event, “Salute to Snakes,” in August, which my kids got a kick out of. They got to look at snakes, hold snakes, even hear a lecture about all the snakes that are native to Ohio. (Surprised that they sat through the almost-hourlong presentation, but they did well.)

Other favorite activities at the Rocky River Nature Center—for my boys, at least—are climbing in and around the plastic hollowed-out tree (complete with stuffed animals in various cubbyholes), pushing all the buttons on the 3-D relief map of the Rocky River watershed and looking in the gift shop.

Heck, even the walk to the nature center from the parking lot of a treat. A large swampy area with several overlooks is a great place to see turtles and frogs. Rare is the summer day that we DON’T see one or the other.

Check out the center when you’re on the west side; it’s just a few minutes from the bustle of Great Northern Mall, but it really does feel like a world away.

We took a family day a couple of Fridays ago to drive around the Marblehead/Catawba Island area. My wife hadn’t really been around this part of northern Ohio, so I suggested we just play it by ear and try out some of the touristy attractions the area has to offer.

After a late start (lunchtime; we’d hoped to leave earlier), we headed first to Catawba, where we drove around to get the lay of the land. We stopped briefly at the Mon Ami Winery, and perused the gift shop, taking home a couple bottles of wine. The winery also has a lovely indoor/outdoor restaurant, but it’s a little more geared toward adults.

Next, we stopped at the ever-popular Cheesehaven and African Safari Wildlife Park, which I’ve covered previously. But I’m happy to report that the giraffes are back from their hiatus at the park. Although I’ll admit to being a little terrified by how long the adult giraffe’s tongue was, as it stuck its head in our sunroof. My wife opted to leave her window closed for much of the ride!

Out next stop was checking out the city of Marblehead, which is really quaint and laid back. We drove past the gated entrance to Lakeside—the Methodist-owned “Chautauqua on Lake Erie”—and eventually made our way to the picturesque setting of the Marblehead Lighthouse. You can pay a couple bucks for a tour to the top (children under 6 are free), but we just missed one tour, and didn’t have the time to wait 40 minutes until the next one.

We intended to hit Train-O-Rama, which has one of the state’s largest model railroad displays, but were disappointed to learn that it closes at 5 p.m., even in the summertime (note that they have a dollar-off coupon on their website). So, instead, we let the boys choose a backup adventure. It wasn’t even a contest, they wanted to go to Prehistoric Forest & Mystery Hill, just outside Marblehead on Ohio Route 163. As a kid, I’d always wanted to visit Mystery Hill, which is advertised on numerous billboards throughout the area. As an adult, I knew it would be totally cheesy, but I was still intrigued to see how bad it would be.

Everything about Prehistoric Forest/Mystery Hill looks like it’s straight out of 1950′s America from along old Route 66. But that’s what I found appealing. We found a coupon in one of the tourist circulars and the four of us cost about $18 to get in. (We passed on the extra charges for the pitiful looking mini golf and some sort of water balloon thing.)

Mystery Hill mostly consists of a little shack that’s built at a 10 or 20 degree angle on a hillside. You walk through it and everything seems distorted. The tour guide tells visitors that it has something to do with strange magnetic forces on the hill, but it’s clearly just tilted. Still, the kids loved it.

Next, the Prehistoric forest consists of a walk through the woods with occasional fiberglass creatures. This was probably a lot more impressive a generation ago, but with the lifelike dinosaur exhibits like the Cleveland Zoo’s current Dinosaurs! attraction, these are a bit pedestrian nowadays. With one exception, these creatures don’t move, they’re simply large forest sculptures. The mythology here is that the Prehistoric Forest was not just home to dinosaurs, but also everyday creatures from today that are unusually large—a 20-ft praying mantis, for example.

Neither my wife nor I was impressed by the place, but our kids really were, and that’s the point. They talked about it for days afterward even as we rolled our eyes a little. They’ve talked about “the next time we go…” but alas, even if we could be talked into a return adventure to Prehistoric Forest/Mystery Hill, our time is running out. The owners of the attraction have decided that this will be the last season. So if you’re in the mood for some old-fashioned cheesy adventure, time is running short.

We ended the day with a great dinner on the outside upper patio at Crabby Joe’s Dockside, (loved hearing the live music downstairs!) sitting on the rocky shore of the beautiful East Harbor State Park, and an ice cream cone at the Pied Piper in Huron, as we traveled back east home. There’s so much to do in this area, I know we’ll be returning—a lot!

1st Aug, 2010

A peaceful park in Avon

We took one of our regular trips to Costco in Avon today, and it occurred to me that we should check out the Avon Parks & Recreation website, to see if there were any interesting parks nearby.

And one did look interesting. Just a couple miles west of the Avon Commons shopping area, off Route 611, is Northgate Park. While there’s nothing that particularly unique about this little park, it’s a delightful neighborhood reserve that’s worth a stop if you’re in the area.

We brought our dinner—Mmmmm, Costco pizza—to the park and ate in the very well-maintained pavilion. Then the boys tackles the playground, which had a few more activities than most parks of its size. It was a beautiful, warm Sunday evening, but we had the park mostly to ourselves for our whole visit.

Northgate has a good-sized (I’d guess three acres or so) fishing pond, complete with grass carp, snapping turtles, a fountain in the middle, even a little island. On the other side of the lake from the playground is a pretty formidable sledding hill, which also has a nice view of the entire lake and the cute neighborhood that wraps around the north of the park.

There were also some very friendly … uh, almost too friendly … ducks that patrolled the area near the pavilion. They’ve obviously been fed a lot by people and pretty much aren’t scared of humans. Both boys were very amused by them, but it did make me a tad nervous for a few minutes during dinnertime.

I didn’t realize it at first, but there is also a fitness track that wraps around the lake, and a couple of soccer fields way in the back (west) part of the park. And there is ample green space to just run around in—or it would be a great open area to play frisbee, too.

We did bring our fishing poles, but about 30-minutes of fishing didn’t result in even a nibble for the three of us. There are quite a few benches arranged around the lake (all facing it), so we picked one and that made for a nice place to sit while holding our poles. Saved us the trouble of lugging out folding chairs from the car!

The more I think about the vast swaths of green space, the more I think that we’ll be back to this park soon, but with some frisbees in the trunk.

24th Jul, 2010

West Side (Market) Story

I have only the faintest memories of the West Side Market from my childhood. I think my grandma took me there, although I can’t really recall how often. When I moved back to Cleveland from California in the mid-nineties, I rented a place in Ohio City for a year, and loved walking up the street to the Market for groceries. It’s become one of the things that I most tie to the Cleveland experience.

There’s so much to love about it—the architecture, the culture, the people, the haggling, the produce, the meats, the pierogies. And the little old elderly Eastern European women pushing their little shopping carts around are my favorite. (Maybe because they remind me of my own Bohemian grandma!)

So I’ve loved to be able to introduce the West Side Market to each of my boys. It comes a little closer to answering the “where does food come from?” answer than the enormous big box grocery stores that most suburban kids experience. And really, how many times do your kids bug you to go to the grocery store? My kids bug me to go to the West Side Market. Now, I’ll admit, part of that is seeing the bizarre foods like the completely skinned pig, the chicken feet, the beef tongue, the pig knuckles. Oh, and probably part is due to the fact that they know I’m a sucker for getting a big, chocolate-y treat there at one of the bakeries in the main building.

Matthew always insists on walking past the fish counter that’s snuggled into the far northeast corner of the main building, and tells me over and over—both before and after we walk by—that the fish there “really stink.”

Today’s trip was a bountiful one—blackberries, pierogies (including my favorite, chicken bacon ranch—they are awesome!), ravioli, apples, salsa, pork chops, and, uh, a slice of chocolate cheesecake. Yes, Josh talked me into that one. Big shocker. I would have bought even more, but the Market is not air conditioned, and we were nearing our melting point.

We actually went downtown first, for a chance to visit the recently renovated Terminal Tower observation deck on the 42nd floor. The observation deck, closed after 9/11, is only open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. for four weeks this summer. (The last day is August 1st.)

But the line was insanely long—maybe due, in part, to the extensive coverage that the Plain Dealer has been giving the observation deck’s reopening. The line snaked all around the entrance to Tower City and the security guard told me it was at least a 90-minute wait, if not 2 hours. I knew my boys would not stand for that, especially as the temperature in the lobby was a lot closer to the 95 degrees outside than 72-degree air conditioned comfort.

Instead, we visited the Tower City fountains under the big atrium. Now, I know that Tower City has had issues for years, struggling to keep retail space filled. But it was still sad to see that the fountains seemed in a bit of disrepair. I got to thinking how the space reopened as an urban mall, back in about 1991. At that time, the fountains, especially the main one, were a showpiece and seemed like something that was first class—a real “wow” thing to see in downtown. While my boys were still amused by watching them, I hope that maybe with the new connected casino development to be built in the coming years, some money can be invested in doing something new and exciting with the fountain space. 20 years is a long time, maybe it’s time to try something new. (I vote for new fountains, just more impressive ones!)

17th Jul, 2010

Look! Up in the sky!

About the time that Halley’s Comet was entering our collective imagination—say, about 1985—I was hit by the astronomy bug. I joined a local astronomy club, the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association and bought my first telescope. I also got into astrophotography in a pretty big way, spending countless hours under the stars, whether it was July or December. I suppose my father figured there were a lot worse things that I teenager could be doing at 1 in the morning.

Sometime after college, my participation in astronomy-related events waned. I kept my telescopes, but they gathered a lot of dust in the garage and basement. Eventually, I donated my larger one to the Olmsted Falls high school science department.

But all along, I looked forward to the day when my kids were old enough to be interested in the nighttime sky. Josh has shown interest on and off over the years, and even though Matthew is a tad too young, he at least “gets it” when we look at the moon in our driveway once or twice per year.
Tonight, I took the boys to the CAA’s monthly open house/star party at Letha House Park, part of the Medina County Park District. While the park may seem to be way out of the way, that’s the point. A lot of what astronomy enthusiasts look at are faint galaxies, nebulas, star clusters, etc. And many of those objects—not to mention the beautiful summertime Milky Way—are drowned out by city lights. So the club began a relationship with this park more than 20 years ago, as its country outpost. About ten years ago, the long-held dream of building a small observatory building at the park became a reality.

The public “star parties” that CAA holds are basically evenings where many members bring out their instruments—refractors, reflectors, enormous binoculars, etc.—and share the views with the general public (many other clubs hold star parties, too). It’s a fun and educational experience. I used to love doing it years ago, to help educate the public. It’s interesting being on the other side of things now, bringing my own kids and letting them learn all the things I’ve forgotten about the constellations and the “faint fuzzies” up in the nighttime sky.

Tonight, we only saw a few things—the first quarter moon (at upper left in the top photo), Venus (barely visible at upper right in the top photo, see the arrow) and Saturn, really. The craters on the moon’s terminator (the line between night and day, where shadows are longest) were stunning, and Saturn’s rings and two of its moons were easily visible, especially in the largest scope. Then clouds quickly moved in and it was sprinkling, causing most everyone to pack up their expensive optics.

Many of the club members bring little stepstools, and/or they will rotate the eyepieces on their telescopes downward for kid-optimized viewing. It’s a really great experience for children; they get so much out of it, even if you only come for a quick half hour after darkness sets in. And who knows, you might light a spark in them that brings out a passion for science in school.

For a listing of upcoming CAA events, click here.

Joe Thomas Browns fishing derby WestlakeThis morning, we attended the 2nd annual Joe Thomas Fishing Derby, held at the Westlake Recreation Center’s five-acre lake. What a great event this is—300 kids, their parents or grandparents, and one of the most genuine professional sports players you’re likely to encounter.

All the kids got free fishing rods, tackle boxes, bait, t-shirts, etc. Prizes were awarded for the first fish caught, the largest fish caught and the smallest fish caught. As luck would have it, a little boy right next to Josh—whose line was about 2 feet away from his—caught the first fish. But Josh did win one of the 15 door prizes, a nice collection of lures and an Applebees gift certificate, and he couldn’t have been happier.

The weather was less than ideal this year—temperatures hovered in the low 90s and there were only high, scattered clouds. And given that the derby itself started at 8:15 a.m. and ran for three hours, my little guy was over-broiled after a couple of hours. So we cheated and snuck out for 30 minutes for a milk run to McDonalds, enjoying the air conditioning the entire way (we’d run out of bait as it was).

Josh ended up catching just one little sunfish, but that was better than last year, when he didn’t catch a thing. It’s really surprising for my little fisherman, as he does a great job fishing the little 1/2-acre lake next to our home. I will say that the fish were biting a lot more this year and they cleaned up on stealing our worms without getting hooked. An enormous snapping turtle stole the show for a while in our section of the pond, attacking one unlucky fish and slowly feasting on it over the course of 20 or 30 minutes.

Thomas is a genuinely likable guy and walked the whole perimeter of the lake over the course of the event, visiting with the kids and the adults, signing autographs and having his picture taken. Just as at last year’s event, he was very approachable and took a real interest in helping the kids—and share his passion of fishing.

John “Big Dawg” Thompson, the Dog Pound superfan, was in attendance, roaming the shore wielding his enormous bone and wearing his #98 jersey along with dog mask and orange hard hat. We had a great chat (about snapping turtles, of all things!) and I give him credit for wearing that mask for the kids. As hot as I thought I was, I know it had to be about 120 degrees under that rubber getup!

The day ended with catering from sponsor Fahrenheit (delicious!) and the raffle of door prizes. All in all, I give Joe Thomas and the people at MAR Sports Marketing a lot of credit for this great family event. We can’t wait for next year!

16th Jul, 2010

Half a day at Cedar Point

I’ve long been a fan of the “twilight hours” special at Cedar Point. This gets you in generally at 5 p.m. for about half price … actually it’s $29.99 this year, though that seems a little higher than in the past.

But the thought of being at the park for 12-13 hours doesn’t hold the allure for me that it once did, so a five-hour run on the coasters with Josh seems like a pretty reasonable compromise. We went to Cedar Point a couple of Thursday evenings ago and we had a good time, save for the rain that fell from about 8:30-9:30.

Josh is finally tall enough for the Top Thrill Dragster, and has talked about riding it for years. He’s quite the little daredevil and isn’t scared of any of the coasters. This year, he surprised me a bit when, after our first couple of rides, he said, “Maybe I’ll ride the Top Thrill Dragster when I’m 10 (next year).” We’d come all this way and he was going to back out? I told him that we’d do whatever he wanted, but he didn’t have to decide right away, he could always change his mind.

And change it he did. It only took the act of walking past the hulking, 400-ft+ tall coaster for Josh to say that he really did want to ride it. The ride, which reaches 120 mph, is over in about 25 seconds, but it’s a pretty intense 25 seconds. Someone at school told Josh that there’s a similar roller coaster in New Jersey that reaches 128 mph, but he finally agreed with me after riding Top Thrill Dragster that when you’re at 120 mph, there isn’t a bone in our body that’s saying, “If only we were going just a little bit faster.”

Top Thrill Dragster was the longest line we waited in that night, but even then, we’re only talking 30-35 minutes. The fact that Cedar Point has so many roller coasters—17, to be exact—means that there’s always something (or multiple things!) with a short line. To ride Gemini, for example, (still a great coaster) rarely takes longer than 10 or 15 minutes in line. And Magnum XL200 can easily be ridden on many days with a 15 or 20 minute wait, tops. I can recall waiting hours to ride Magnum as a teenager. How times have changed for the better.

The other thing that’s improved since my childhood is the fact that there’s a Famous Dave’s at the park. Actually, the restaurant is just outside the park at the marina on the Sandusky-facing (southwestern) side of the peninsula. It’s about a 90-second walk from the gate, where you just get your hand stamped for re-entry. It’s just such a nice change to eat in a sit-down restaurant with air conditioning and get away from the park craziness for 30 or 45 minutes.

Hopefully we’ll get back at least one more time this season. I’ve always wanted to check out the whole HalloWeekends promotion they run each Fall. I wonder what 120 mph feels like when it’s 59 degrees outside?

11th Jul, 2010

So much to do this summer

Here are some interesting things to keep in mind over the next few warm months—hope to see you at one of these events:

July 17: ZooBlooms at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
July 17: 2nd Annual Joe Thomas Fishing Derby in Westlake
July 18: Family Fun Day at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park
July 23: Space Sleepover at the Great Lakes Science Center
July 24-25: Lake County Heritage Festival at the Lake County Historical Society
August 7: Cleveland Dragon Boat Festival in the Flats
August 9-15: Cuyahoga County Fair in Berea
August 12: Perseids Meteor Party 2010 at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center
August 13-15: The 36th annual Corn Fest in North Ridgeville
August 14: Creature Comforts at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
August 23-29: Lorain County Fair in Wellington
September 4-6: Cleveland National Air Show at Burke Lakefront Airport
September 11: Discover the Cosmos at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center
September 25: Teddy Bear Day at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
October 21-24 & 28-31: Boo at the Zoo at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

What events are you and your family most looking forward to this summer? Let us know! Cross out 23 movement LeBron James AWAY Get your weak stuff out of hereNow, this blog’s purpose is meant to be about kids and parents in Northeast Ohio, and I never intended to get political or caught up in news events. But please permit me this one rant on what happened tonight in Cleveland.

I took my older son to Cedar Point this evening, for a few hours of dad & son time, and as luck would have it, that coincided with the ridiculous LeBron James media circus/announcement show on ESPN. So glad I didn’t stay home to watch that ego-driven nonsense. I’m a lifelong, passionate Cleveland sports fan, but I became disenchanted with this whole thing weeks ago.

What really gets under my skin is that—I’m told—all the cable networks were showing replays of The Drive, The Fumble, etc., as though sports and sports alone define this city. They do not.

And that’s why I’m asking you to join me in this grass-roots effort to show the world what’s special about Clevelanders and our community.

I’m mad about what happened. But I refuse to channel all my energy into negativity. (Oh sure, I plan on having a backyard bonfire for s’mores and burning my Witness shirt this Saturday, but, hey, give a guy one release.) So, I hatched a plan on the way home from Sandusky. Let’s turn this negative into a positive for Cleveland and the surrounding communities.

Starting Friday, we have 23 calendar days in July. As we all get #23 out of our systems, let’s each pledge to do something for Northeast Ohio in those 23 days. I started tonight by giving $23 to the American Red Cross of Greater Cleveland. And I plan to take part of a day to volunteer, maybe at the Bishop Cosgrove Center downtown.

Will you join me in this movement? Please consider giving $23 or whatever you can to a worthy charity. Maybe Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland. Or the United Way. Or Our Lady of the Wayside. Or Hospice of the Western Reserve.

Or volunteer your time to help our community. Maybe you’re more apt to volunteer to educate kids or pick up trash at the Cleveland Metroparks (they have a charitable arm, too, if you’d rather give cash). Or give some canned food (23 cans sounds like a nice, round number) to the wonderful, deserving Cleveland Food Bank.

What LeBron did was completely without class. I, for one, will do my part to show him that this community deserves better than what his values show. Please consider donating or volunteering in support of the “Cross out 23″ movement—and in support of your town. Whatever you choose to do, please leave a comment, to help inspire others. And if you have other volunteer opportunities or charitable suggestions, those are welcome, too.

Go Cleveland!

An acquaintance used to talk all the time about how she would take her grandkids to the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center in Bay Village. I can recall thinking, “So what?” and wondering why she took them over and over. It just sounded—I don’t know, kind of lowbrow or something.

But my first time there, probably 6 or 7 years ago, was a real eye-opener for me. I forget what even prompted me to try it out. I’m so glad I did—it’s now one of my favorite places in the Cleveland area, and both of my boys just love it.

And what’s not to love? It’s hardly ever crowded, it’s free (though donations are accepted and encouraged), there are animals inside and out, and it’s very educational. The animals are surprisingly varied. Inside, you’ll find an assortment of turtles (both land and water), tortoises, snakes, bees, coral reef fish, Lake Erie fish, iguanas, and more. Outside, there is another interesting menagerie: Ducks, foxes, a bald eagle, raccoons, several types of owls, a cooper’s hawk, rabbits, turkeys, white tailed deer, skunks, mink, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. Oh yes, and turkey vultures, Josh’s favorites. (He loves their red heads and seems fascinated by the random bones they always leave scattered at the bottom of their cage after a meal.)

One of the main thrusts of the center is rehabilitating wildlife. In fact, if you find an injured animal that you can safely transport to the center during normal business hours, they will take the animal and try to nurse it back to health. Many of the animals at the center—particularly the outside ones—are animals on the way to rehabilitation or animals that they have helped, but for some reason cannot safely re-release into the wild.

The center also has a very nice planetarium (albeit with limited hours, so please check the schedule at the center website) and a lovely Wild Birds Unlimited gift shop that has an educational bent. There is a nice play area near some of the (inside) aquatic exhibits, with plenty of space for parents or grandparents to sit and just take a load off. Kids can play with books, a Little Tykes-type playhouse, plastic dinosaurs and myriad other toys.

As an added benefit, the center lies at the southern end of the Cleveland Metroparks Huntington Reservation. So, about  two-minute drive north of the center puts you at Huntington Beach, one of the best Lake Erie beaches in the area. Which makes me think, that would make a great blog post one of these days …