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Breathe easy

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Maintaining a safe physical distance from one another is still a priority, but it doesn’t have to mean staying cooped up this autumn. Here are three outdoor activities that are perfect for getting fresh air and engaging with the world — even during a pandemic — with tips from locals in-the-know on how to make the most of the experience.
Exercise physiologist and runner Katie Niebuhr gets some fresh air on the Zebulon Norton Trail in Honeoye Falls' Harry Allen Park during the pandemic. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Exercise physiologist and runner Katie Niebuhr gets some fresh air on the Zebulon Norton Trail in Honeoye Falls' Harry Allen Park during the pandemic.
Trail running and hiking

Early in the pandemic, Katie Niebuhr, a running enthusiast and exercise physiologist at UR Medicine Center for Employee Wellness, was apprehensive about jogging the trails at Mendon Ponds Park, a favorite spot.

“To want to hike and be out in nature, and not necessarily have to wear a face mask and do social distancing, I sought out those remote trails that wouldn’t be as populated,” Niebuhr says.

She opted for the Finger Lakes Trail south of Letchworth State Park, but also recommends the Crescent Trail, running through Perinton and Victor, as well as paths in Naples, Ithaca, and Livingston County as other out-of-the-way options for trail running and hiking.

“I think being outside, any sort of outdoor activity, where there’s a large area of land, I think is ideal right now during this pandemic,” she says.

If you’re heading outside of Monroe County, the Department of Environmental Conservation is an excellent resource.



But there is plenty of bucolic running real estate closer to Rochester. The Monroe County Parks system has an abundance of trails, with trail maps for 20 different parks available at monroecounty.gov/parks-trailmaps. The #TrailsRoc app, for both iOS and Android devices, is another valuable resource for local routes.

Niebuhr advises hitting the trails during off-hours to avoid higher foot traffic. Regardless of the location, having hand sanitizer and a face mask are essential, she says. If you’re going to a trailhead that requires a check-in, bring your own pen.

A neck gaiter — Niebuhr’s preferred piece of gear, even before COVID-19 — can be worn as a face covering, around the neck or ears during cold weather, or as a headband. When running on trails, shoes with more tread will help you keep steady on unstable terrain, and wool socks are a must.

“Wool is actually a temperature regulating material, so it keeps your feet nice and cool, and it also absorbs water,” Niebuhr says.

Geocaching

Geocachers have been searching for treasures since 2000, but the pursuit is picking up in popularity as smartphones and social media have made the time-tested, community-driven scavenger hunt even easier to enjoy.

Caches of all sizes, from tiny film canisters to large containers, are listed on geocaching.com and its app, and are often hidden in offbeat places — near urban landmarks, in parks, and trees. Following the GPS coordinates on the app, geocachers are notified when they’re within a 30-foot radius of their prize. While some caches are easy to spot, others require more nosing around. Once you track down the cache, you log that you’ve found it on the app (and on a paper log inside the cache), and move on to the next big find.

Geocacher Rhys Dawson with the cache outside of The Little Theatre in downtown Rochester. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Geocacher Rhys Dawson with the cache outside of The Little Theatre in downtown Rochester.
Evan Dawson, the host of the WXXI News radio program “Connections,” got his 8-year-old son Rhys the app for his birthday last year.

“It was instantly addicting,” says Dawson, who estimates they’ve found 60 different caches together.

Geocaching is a year-round pastime, though winter weather can make finding caches a challenge. When geocaching in the woods, the Dawsons recommend bringing a first aid kit, compass, a whistle, and long pants for venturing through heavy brush.

Complicating the hunt sometimes are “muggles,” non-geocachers who inadvertently disturb or move a cache. But such adverse conditions can make locating the prize that much more rewarding.

“It’s satisfying,” Rhys says. “When you find a cache, it’s very exciting. I don’t like giving up on any caches.”

Sometimes, the prize is a toy or trinket. You can take it or leave it, but the etiquette is to leave something behind for the next person to find. The Dawsons have found troll dolls, for example, and replaced them with Pokémon trading cards.

Also important is returning caches precisely where they were found and picking up after yourself. Being a responsible geocacher means applying the acronym CITO — “Cache In Trash Out.”

Foraging

Petra Page-Mann had a love for forests and gardens from an early age. Her parents, she says, taught her a life-changing lesson: “Everything is delicious, that so many things are delicious, and there are things that I can do to make the world more delicious.”

Petra Page-Mann of Fruition Seeds. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Petra Page-Mann of Fruition Seeds.
As co-owner and farmer at Fruition Seeds in Naples, Page-Mann now shares her passion for plants, herbs, fruits, and vegetables through Fruition’s Flourish Garden Club, as well as online classes and her Instagram, @fruition_seeds.

So it’s unsurprising that she’s an avid proponent of foraging, also known as “wildcrafting.”

“One of the greatest gifts of foraging is reconnecting with the world around us, which we have been systematically, deliberately in our culture, uprooted from,” she says.

Page-Mann says that larger spaces with fewer people make for optimal foraging locations. In the Rochester area, she points to Highland Park and Mendon Ponds Park.

“Mendon Ponds is amazing because it has so much diversity in its habitats — so you can find tons of mushrooms, you can find tons of berries, you can find tons of grains,” she says.

Outside of Greater Rochester, Page-Mann says watershed areas such as Canadice and Hemlock lakes, as well as the roughly 3,700 acres of land at Hi Tor near Naples, are prime foraging areas.

Wherever you decide to forage, it’s important to know what you’re harvesting and whether it’s responsible to do so in the first place. Leeks, for example, should never be harvested, Page-Mann says, since they grow so slowly that foraging for them could result in their elimination from the area.

“Yes, it’s a wonderful thing to do with other people, it’s a wonderful thing to do by yourself, too,” she says. “But the ironic piece is you’re not there by yourself, right? You’re there in a forest, part of a living, breathing, evolving ecosystem.”

There are plenty of plants and foods that are safe for foraging, however. If you’re a beginner, seek out species that are easy to find and identify, edible and without similar-looking types that are poisonous, and are not at risk of being overharvested.

Mushrooms that fit this bill include oyster, shaggy mane, and lion’s mane varieties. Page-Mann also encourages foragers to look for rose hips, for example, which are both highly edible and invasive.

Some wild plants, such as the sunflower species elecampane, can be wildcrafted and subsequently introduced into personal gardens. Wild luffa also has domestic purposes. This highly practical plant yields a green fruit that, once ripe, will decompose into a fibrous skeleton. The remains can double as a sponge for washing your face or dishes.

“It’s a wonderful way to connect with yourself, connect with other people, connect with the world around us,” Page-Mann says.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.
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