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Park it right here at Motts Run Reservoir with two upcoming winter hikes: one for early birds, the other for night owls.
A star is born: Learn about stars during Saturday's event.
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Though for many people the winter months signal a time for hibernating indoors, the folks at Fredericksburg Parks and Recreation invite families to Motts Run Reservoir to experience the season's unique natural treasures that lie in store for those who venture out.
STARRY, STARRY NIGHT
The Stargazing program offers a view of the celestial wonders above us as we scurry about our daily lives, while winter hikes take advantage of a unique time of year after trees release their leaves to reveal the homes and habitats of wildlife that are cloaked at other times of the year.
There could be no better guide to the majestic night sky than Myron Wasiuta, local optometrist and longtime astronomy buff, who generously shares a lifetime of knowledge and state-of-the-art viewing equipment--including his 14-inch Celestron telescope--with those inclined to learn.
Wasiuta, who was self-tutored in the science even in his elementary-school days, recalls the unforgettable sight of his first view of the rings of Saturn. He received his first telescope as a Christmas gift from his parents when he was 11.
"That's why I do these programs for families and children. I know how impressionable I was at that age. And I know how easy it is nowadays--with everything being computerized and with video games and television--for kids to overlook some of the most wonderful sights that are in the universe," he said. "And those are sights that are in the sky right in their backyard.
"All they need is a telescope. I hope to open the doors for them to explore the real world and the real universe. You can see the Orion Nebula or a quasar with your own eyes, and that is quite an adventure," he said.
Wasiuta's programs are offered at several times throughout the year and are typically theme-based.
For example, "The Life Cycle of a Star" provides a fascinating show-and-tell presentation of stars at different stages of their existence. Families will learn about their birth from a cloud of hydrogen gas and their time as a "healthy main-sequence star," glowing due to nuclear fusion, to their final stages as a planetary nebula or supernova explosion.
Another theme, "Cruising the Milky Way," highlights different celestial objects that would be found in our galaxy, including star clusters, nebulae, different types of stars and dust clouds.
This Saturday's program will include identifying the winter constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere as well as Jupiter, with its cloud bands and Galilean moons. Permeating all discussion is the introduction of an awe-inspiring scale and scope of time and distance.
Literally looking back in time, participants can view a star that exploded in 1054 and stars whose light, travelling at 186,000 miles a second, took thousands of years to reach the Earth.
"The purpose is to offer families an adventure--a bonding experience that just may spark an interest in exploration," said Wasiuta.
ON THE TRAIL
The natural wonders of terra firma will be revealed in two winter explorations: a Winter Night Hike and a Guided Winter Hike, led by Parks and Recreation staff.
Night hike participants will meet at the Motts Run Nature Center and begin with a hot chocolate treat as they prepare their flashlights with red cellophane to preserve their night vision.
"Nighttime in the woods is particularly magical as every sound and smell becomes more pronounced," said nature education coordinator Linda Bailey. "We'll stop to experience a few activities that test our sense of smell, hearing, and sight, often drawing comparisons to nocturnal animals. And we listen for owls and try a few calls of our own. It's a time-treasured event that many families come back for year after year."
The guided winter hike, led by nature education assistant Mimi Dempsey, will highlight the nests of squirrels and birds that are hidden in leafier seasons of the year and will reveal traces of our wildlife friends, including trees gnawed (or felled!) by beavers, bare spots created by skunks or wild turkeys searching for grubs, and deer tracks.
Though the content of the hike will depend to some extent on serendipity and the interests of participants, it will likely include sightings of cardinals, blue jays and woodpeckers.
Upon returning to the Nature Center to warm up with hot chocolate, hikers will craft a take-home bird feeder so they can continue their bird-watch in their own backyards.
Collette Caprara is a local writer
Saturday Jan. 12, 8-9:30 p.m. Participants should dress warmly and may bring a lawn chair and blanket. Ages 8 and above. $4 per person.WINTER NIGHT HIKE
Friday Jan. 18, 7-8:15 p.m. Dress warmly, wear shoes with good traction and bring a flashlight. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Ages 6 and above.
$5 per person.GUIDED WINTER HIKE
Saturday, Jan. 26, 9:30-11 a.m. Ages 4 and above. $6 per person, $20 for a family of 5.Where: Motts Run Nature Center/Reservoir, 6600 River Road, Fredericksburg. Info: 540/372-1086, fredericksburgva.gov or stop by the Dorothy Hart Community Center, 408 Canal St., Fredericksburg. Pre-registration required for all activities.