Ceci Danforth of Topsham skis downhill on her couch during a recent challenge to recreate her favorite outdoor activity indoors. (Courtesy Ceci Danforth)
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There’s a heart carved into the bark of a birch tree near my house. Around it, the bark is dark and rough and shaped like a haphazard blob.

But when I look more closely, it kind of looks like a woman in an old-timey dress, her hair piled into a bun and her scarf blowing in the wind. And wait, is she on a broom?

I’ve jogged and walked by that birch tree more than 1,000 times over the last 10 years. Not once did I notice the carved heart or the shape that looks like a lady (Was it on purpose? Or is it just the way our brains love to spot patterns and see things in otherwise random shapes, like a birch bark Rorschach test?).

The shape of a woman, and a heart carved into the bark, on a tree in South Portland near Willard Beach. It’s easy to miss, but an outdoor scavenger hunt might help focus your attention on things in your neighborhood you’ve never noticed before. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

But there I was last week, meandering that routine walking path for the umpteenth time, my eyes grazing the leafless shrubbery, the wooden fence, the dogs sprinting on the nearby beach, and I saw her. The Birch Bark Lady.

She didn’t “yoohoo” as I neared or wave her birch bark arms in the air to catch my eye. I was simply paying attention for once. I was on a close-to-home scavenger hunt.

This particular scavenger hunt is a homemade concoction – an idea whipped up in recent weeks as a fun way for me and my friends in the Fit Maine Social Club to keep our bodies and brains active and engaged while abiding by the state’s stay-at-home orders. (While we do need to stay home as much as possible, getting outside to walk, hike, and run is OK, as long as we’re keeping physical distance, steering clear of busy trails, and being gentle to the trails, especially during mud season.)

Now isn’t the time for peak-bagging or far-flung adventures (my current mantra: the mountains aren’t going anywhere and neither should we), but it is a fine time to admire the trees down our street and the shoreline of the nearby pond. Or marvel at our neighbor’s landscaping prowess and/or their creative use of garden gnomes.

Kelly MacVane of Westbrook captured this not-often-seen mural of trees behind Lois’ Naturals on India Street in Portland. (Courtesy Kelly MacVane)

While our daily routines grow increasingly mundane, a neighborhood nature hunt is a solid way to stay entertained. So is putting on a personal flotation device and pretending to kayak in our bathtubs. I’ve done both in recent weeks.

Creative ideas abound online if you’re looking for suggestions.

Around greater Portland, residents are posting pictures of bears or rainbows in their windows for kids to spot on family walks. Kelly MacVane, of Westbrook, did a mural hunt in the Old Port, taking photos of each one she saw (some well-known murals as well as a few she’s never seen before, which is pretty cool).

Among my social club pals, our outdoor challenges have included things like finding a “face” in nature, which could be a rock that looks like an old guy or seaweed in the shape of a smile. Or spot area “wildlife,” which might actually be the neighbor’s cat. We’re keeping our eyes peeled for signs of spring (daffodils!) and waking up early to watch the sunrise. I even printed out the face of one of my regular hiking buddies so I could take selfies with her Flat-Stanley-Style when I was walking outside.

My friends and I share our photos on social media in the Fit Maine Social Club Facebook group. Since the social club is social distancing and not getting together for events and adventures, it’s an amusing way for us to stay connected, too.

The author enjoys some bathtub kayaking, complete with rolling pin and spatula paddle. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

There are indoor challenges, too. My favorite so far: recreate your favorite outdoor activity, but indoors using household items. A good dose of creativity is required to pull this one off well, along with some extra time on your hands. Our current circumstances mean many of us have plenty of time to turn the bathtub into whitewater rapids and make a kayak paddle out of a rolling pin, two spatulas and some duct tape.

The social club did not disappoint, posting hilarious photos of downhill skiing on a couch, fishing in the family room and catching waves on a coffee table.

There’s no shortage of crafty ways to challenge your friends and family, indoors and out. Make a list of a dozen and see who can check them all off the fastest. Or roll the challenges out over time and see what everyone comes up with. You’ll hopefully be hiking and paddling and camping together again soon, but in the meantime, pretending in our living room is also pretty fun.

If nothing else, you can give yourself some interesting reasons to pay attention during your regular walk – there’s no telling what you might spot that you never noticed before. There could be an old-timey lady in a tree right now just waiting for you to spot her.

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

A face in the rocks in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Get outside safely

We can still get outside under the state’s stay-at-home orders, which allow outdoor exercise and activities like hiking, fishing, and hunting. But we need to be smart and safe about it. Here are some guidelines:

• Social distancing still applies. Stay at least 6 feet from others.

• Stick close to home and visit lesser-known spots.

• Get outside earlier or later in the day to avoid peak times, and keep visits brief.

• If the parking lot is full at the trail you’re visiting, then the trail is full. Go somewhere else (this is important for social distancing and to prevent excessive foot traffic from damaging the trails).

• Expect bathrooms and other facilities to be closed and avoid touching trailhead kiosks, portable toilets or any surfaces others may have touched.

• Keep your adventures easy and safe. An injury on the trail or a lost hiker puts responders at risk.

— Shannon Bryan

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