Looking for an unusual way to start off the New Year? How about a free, guided "First Day Hike" in one of the area's state parks?
Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island will host a First Day Hike from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday, while Niagara Falls State Park will conduct its First Day Hike from 2 to 4 p.m.
For the first time, the New York State Parks Niagara Region is participating in a national program touting First Day Hikes in all 50 state park systems.
America's State Parks promotes First Day Hikes as "an opportunity to begin the New Year rejuvenating and connecting with the outdoors by taking a healthy hike," according to its website.
First Day Hikes began more than 20 years ago at the Blue Hills Reservation, a state park in Milton, Mass., but this is the first year parks in all states are participating.
"Winter is one of the best times to look for animal tracks and signs, and it's fun to get out in the snow," said Carol Rogers, an interpretive guide with the New York State Parks Niagara Region.
"There's no guarantee of what we'll see or won't see, but, for example, last year at Fort Niagara in the winter, we saw a red fox and an owl that we didn't expect to see.
"Winter doesn't keep the animals away," she said.
It doesn't keep the birds away, either, she points out.
"The swans are in down at Beaver Island State Park right now, and it's a good time of year for bird-watching, especially there, where you can drive around the island and get out of your car and look," she said.
There will be plenty of other opportunities to take in a state park this winter:
*The annual Winter Trails Day Walk will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 7 at DeVeaux Woods State Park in Niagara Falls, where a naturalist will give a presentation and conduct a walk through old-growth woods. Participants are encouraged to bring ice skates for the ice rink, weather permitting.
*From 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 8, a guided, cross-country ski tour through Lake Erie State Park in Brocton will take place on groomed trails. Participants must bring their own skis.
*"Glaciers and Creatures of the Ice Age" will be featured from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at DeVeaux Woods State Park. Hikers will learn where remains of mammoths and mastodons have been found.
*Another cross-country ski event is planned for 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 28, this time at Long Point State Park in Bemus Point on Chautauqua Lake.
*The staff is preparing for the 100th anniversary of the ice bridge tragedy from 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 4 at Niagara Falls State Park. Meet with a naturalist at the Visitor's Center to see an ice bridge display and learn about the 1912 tragedy that took the lives of three visitors. A walk to the falls to see if an ice bridge has formed will round out the day.
*"Ice Volcanoes of Lake Erie" will be the topic from 10 a.m. to noon the same day at Evangola State Park in Irving. Ice volcanoes can erupt, leaving a bizarre landscape of cones, vents, mounds, ice caves and craters to be explored. Take a guided walk to learn frozen Lake Erie geology and how the ice volcanoes form.
*Goat Island icicles will be the topic from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 18 in Niagara Falls State Park. Hikers are invited to an optional "buy your own lunch" at Hard Rock Cafe after the walk.
*"Ice Volcanoes of Lake Ontario" will be held from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 25, meeting at Fort Niagara for a presentation and visit to the shoreline, then it's off to Wilson Tuscarora State Park in search of more ice volcanoes.
*Carol Rogers will lead "Birding on the River" from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 3, beginning at Beaver Island State Park and continuing at Buckhorn Island State Park, both on Grand Island.
*"Maple Sugaring 101" is the topic from 1 to 3 p.m. March 24 at Evangola State Park. Park naturalists will give an indoor presentation about the process, and an informal, outdoor, hands-on presentation will follow. Learn how to tap a tree and see how sap is turned into syrup.
*"Night Sounds" will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 30 at Evangola State Park, where naturalists will listen for spring peepers, wood frogs, timber doodles, and screech and barred owls.
All of these programs are free and intended for individuals and families, but not large groups, as space is limited.
To register for events at Niagara Falls, DeVeaux, Fort Niagara and Wilson Tuscarora State Parks, call 282-5154.
To register for events at Beaver Island, Lake Erie, Long Point and Evangola State Parks, call 549-1050.