As bright clouds skim the top of Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire's White Mountains, a group of eager youngsters huddle around a plastic pan filled with lake water and denizens of the shallows.
After 40 minutes of wading, scooping, and hollering, they gather as volunteer naturalist Karen Murphy reviews what they've collected.
"See these? These are dragon-fly nymphs," she says. "You know, I'll bet they talk about us." To a chorus of giggles, she deepens her voice, then discusses the breathing difference between nymphs and humans.
The group has an enviable "classroom" - a glacier-carved depression that cradles Lonesome Lake, the site of a back-country overnight program for families.
Discovering the outdoors
Run by the 123-year-old Appalachian Mountain Club, the program of hikes, nature walks, and stargazing at its "hut" here aims to encourage families to venture out of the motels and commercial campgrounds that dot the Franconia Notch region and get a more intimate feel for the high country.
Hidden among the birch, pine, and spruce sloping up from the lake's southern shore, Lonesome Lake Hut is one of eight huts the club maintains in the interior of the White Mountains.
The network of bunkhouses and dining halls, each a day's hike from the next, was established as an alternative to tent-camping in the ecologically fragile back country.
"These are not just bed-and-breakfasts with a view," says Ron Burbank, spokesman for the club. "We feel we have a responsibility to introduce people to what's special about the outdoors."
For years, the club has staffed the huts with specialists who help make those introductions. But only within the past two years has the club set up a structured program for families.
Lonesome Lake drew the short straw as the program's site, because it already attracts families staying at a state campground in Franconia Notch. They tend to hike up for a picnic and a dip.
So how does the AMC's program play with families? Our party - two adults plus a 10-year-old mountain-goat wannabe who agreed to serve as a reality check on the program's appeal to kids - decided to find out.
A noon-time sun warms the parking lot as we haul backpacks and a day pack out of the car's trunk and hoist them for the hike to the lake. Among the contents: a change of clothes, swimsuits, toiletries, jackets, and sleeping bags. Although the huts' bunks have mattresses and blankets, you're on your own for the rest of your bedding.
The 1.75-mile trail crosses the state campground, then begins a set of switchbacks that work their way 900 feet up to the crown of a ridge that runs along the notch. Our destination lies on the back side of the ridge.
The day is warm, but the forest canopy provides shade for virtually the entire hike. The AMC's guidebook says the trek takes about 90 minutes. Your time will vary, depending on how often you stop to enjoy the brooks you cross or just to catch your breath.
Hint: Avoid asking people coming down the trail how much farther it is to the top. The best-intentioned err on the short side (these people are, after all, heading downhill). And those with a perverse sense of humor or who are navigationally challenged tug their chins, look back up the trail, check their watch, mumble a few incantations, and overestimate.
We manage the climb in 76 minutes. Once at the crest of the ridge, the trail gently descends into the bowl-shaped depression that holds Lonesome Lake. (At this point, our 10-year-old pronounces the walk "a nice hike" between huff and puffs - and after handing her day-pack off to Dad for the last quarter of the climb.)
When you reach the lake, just follow the sounds of splashing, squealing children. From ridge crest to check-in, you'll be at the hut in five minutes.
Some hut. Two detached bunkhouses sleep 20 people each in rooms that accommodate four people apiece. Midway between the bunkhouses sits the dining hall/check-in office/mini-library that serves as the hut's hub and housing for the staff.
The lake-side exploration doesn't take place for another hour. So most folks are down by the lake. A real estate appraiser from Sebago, Maine, swaps tales with a mortgage broker from Sekonk, Mass., while their children scramble over rocks and wade into the clear, chilly water.
Then, the high-country version of "The Undersea World of Jacques Costeau" begins. Under Ms. Murphy's direction, seven youngsters use small nets to scoop tiny creatures from the waters along the shore. Out come insect eggs, nematodes, a baby leech, and a fresh-water clam. Patiently, the ecology major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst explains the role each creature plays in the lake's ecosystem.
More free time, then dinner.
A word about the real meaning of AMC: It stands for Appetite-Matching Cooks. Breakfasts and dinners are served family style. (You're on your own for lunch.) We begin with homemade lentil soup, followed by fresh cole slaw, cinder-block sized loaves of whole-grain bread hot out of the oven. Then comes the main course: vegetable lasagna.
I cast a glance at my daughter, for whom away-from-home pasta dishes are anathema. She looks at the lasagna and says, "Maybe I'll just have more bread." I'm three embarrassingly large bites into my serving and she says, "Well, maybe I'll try it." One bite, and she passes her plate for a large helping. Score one for the cook.
Dessert? Homemade chocolate-chip cookies Mrs. Smith would envy. (The previous night, baked haddock topped the menu; the next night would be beef Stroganoff.)
After dinner, the staff puts on a quick orientation program, then passes out a booklet filled with puzzles based on local flora and fauna. Kids work one puzzle for every year since they've been born, hand it in to a staff member when they finish, and then "graduate" after breakfast the next day. They come away with a "junior naturalist" patch to sew on a jacket or day pack. This prospect sends everyone scampering into the twilight looking for everything from bug-eating bladderwort plants to animal tracks.
Clouds put a damper on the evening's stargazing, so people gather in the dining hall to chat, play games, or browse through some of the nature books.
Greg Bolton and his wife, Dale, join our table as their two children work their puzzle books. For the family from Hollis Center, Maine, this is the second night at Lonesome Lake.
"We've been looking for easy hikes for kids," Mr. Bolton says. "There are only a few places you can go with a six-year-old and expect him to pack his stuff in. This is the best thing we could have done."
The next morning after breakfast, it's graduation time for the kids who turned in their booklets before bed the night before.
Back down in Franconia Notch, as we heft our packs into the trunk and prepare for the drive home, I turn to our 10-year-old and ask: "Well?"
Her reply: "Can we come back next weekend?"
Reservations are required for the family overnight program, which is available daily during the summer. While it's possible to book bunks for more than one night, openings are subject to availability.
* For more information on Lonesome Lake Hut call (603) 466-2727. It's staffed 9 a.m. to 5: p.m. Monday through Saturday. Or check the AMC's Web page or hut availability at www.outdoors.org