Experiences, anecdotes, tips, how-tos, hiking, nature, motherhood, memories.

Adventures in Camping with Kids

Camping with kids is like pitching a tent upside down. Both are bound to fill with laughter and raindrops.

--Victoria Marie

Monday, February 1, 2016

Snow And Sand Are More Alike Than You Think

My husband trying to be a tree and shade
 the children as we hike to the top of
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The snow piled up in New Jersey last weekend, painting the world in a beautiful whiteness.  I couldn’t help but think about how the ice crystals were like fine grains of sand in the wind as the snow drifted and swirled.  As I made my prints on the freshly fallen canvas later, the ice crystals stung my face whenever the wind kicked up.  Snow is ephemeral, I thought, although my neighbors wouldn’t believe it.  Not yet, not while we are all still shoveling slush and ice, leftovers from Jonas, the blizzard of 2016.

            I’ll admit it.  I’m odd.  I love trudging through the snow. 

            But the patterns I saw displayed in the snow from this storm on my walk with the children reminded me of another element in nature: sand.  Lots and lots of loose sand, undulating and dancing in the wind.             

We were camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado.    

My husband, in his great wisdom, announced, “Let’s hike to the top.”

The children and I stared at the enormous sand castles.  I looked over at the kids.  Nuts!  They had smiles on their faces. 

“Where’s the trail?”  I asked, grabbing my canteen for another drink.

“There are no trails,” he informed me.  “Nothing to worry about.”  He moved forward, the children following behind.

I wiped my brow and trudged along behind.  Nothing to worry about, except miles and miles of thick, loose sand, blowing, sweeping, giving way under my feet. 

Closed footwear is essential.  This sand can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit according to the park rangers.  It’s best to hike the dunes in the morning or evening in the summer.  We hiked in the morning. 

            We climbed and climbed, stopping constantly, it seemed, to rest and drink; sand stinging our flesh in the breeze, sticking to our sweat-drenched, sunscreened bodies.  I would always instruct my children to wait in the shade whenever we hiked the mountains.  Sand dunes have no shade.  My husband and I provided the shade for the children when we could, using our shadows.

Because the sands shift constantly, the trek is different each time.  That’s why the trails aren’t marked.  There’s nothing to mark, just shifting sand.  We blazed our own trail.  There’s no need to worry that you’ll get lost.  It’s open 360 degrees around.  You can see the world laid out before you on top of the Great Sand Dunes.  It’s breathtaking for two reasons:  climbing in the loose sand and gazing at the view.

            I was the last to make it to the top of High Dune, the tallest peak, breathing like an old nag on her last legs.  Wait!  I did feel as though I was on my last legs.  I felt like I was standing—barely, mind you—in the middle of the Sahara, except I could see the magnificent Rocky Mountain peaks in the near distance. 

It just stuns the mind to have all these sand peaks—waves really, about 700 feet tall according to the park ranger—with a backdrop of the mighty Rocky Mountains.  The Rockies are green with trees and shrubs, capped in rock and snow, decorated in lakes and streams.  The fragile Sand Dunes are trapped between two huge mountain ranges:  the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.  The Sand Dunes rest at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Of course, the Lees crew still needed to get down from these mighty sand dunes.  The children had a blast racing straight down the dune sides.  I, on the other hand, wished to survive this endeavor.  I plodded along the edges of the dunes when I could, like that tired old nag.  I took “straight downs” only when absolutely necessary.  You see, I knew there was a “straight up” on the other side.  Over two hours to climb to the top; we made it down to the small creek from which we started in about 40 minutes.     

Recreation?  Trudging through soft sand for almost three hours…uphill…both ways!  Yes, we could see forever, but the trek up nearly killed me.  I didn’t learn about a “dunes-accessible wheelchair” until after we made the trek to the top.  This wheelchair is loaned out free of charge for those in need at the Visitor Center. 

I made my husband buy ice back at camp.  And while they all swam in the pool, I bathed my feet in ice.  The eerie moon scape of the Great Sand Dunes invaded my dreams at night for days, at least until my feet stopped throbbing.  

I hope the weather is good where you are.  I always enjoy my seasons.  Okay…maybe not shoveling the snow.  Just hiking through it. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Visiting Family During Holidays or at Vacation Time

Slow and easy does it--even on a quad!
Happy New Year, everyone!

            Holidays are a time for visiting.  Families and friends get together to catch up on each other’s adventures during the previous year.

            So it can be during camping trips.  It’s easy to combine visiting family or friends who live in different states or even countries with your vacation plans.  You build your camping trip around the parameters of the visit.

You must remember, though, that you can’t assume your relatives or friends will be able to accommodate your family.  This much I know.  I have seven.  It is a burden to the hostess to expect her to provide shelter for your family.  So when we visited my cousin in Michigan, we camped at Metamora-Hadley State Park.  This is a beautiful park available even in the winter for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.  There’s a cross-country ski trek by candlelight on January 23!      

We visited in the summertime and one evening our son—ever the fisherman—caught yellow perch and catfish in Lake Minnewanna.  Ohmygosh!  There is nothing like fresh fish prepared and eaten within an hour of catching.  Since we were camping, we coated the fish with egg and crushed cornflakes.  It’s true.  When camping, there is no need to crush the cornflakes.   

             Camping and vacation are for trying new activities.  This can be done while visiting friends and family, too.  At my cousin’s home, she has over an acre of land…and an ATV.  Immediately, six people lined up in her driveway to ride.  Luckily my husband, who has a motor cycle license, decided not to get in line.  It took me most of the afternoon to get my turn!  The children enjoyed “driving” the ATV—albeit slowly—through a field complete with manmade hills and bumps.  Yes, I drove slowly too.  You couldn’t see all the moguls through the tall grass.    

Another good reason to visit people when camping?  Delicious food prepared by someone else…who has a full kitchen and oven at her disposal to bake homemade macaroni and cheese (my children’s favorite!), and whose husband has a fully operational barbeque grill that cooks in less than an hour what would take us days to cook on a propane stove, barbequed chicken, with zesty homemade sauce.  We ate like we had been camping for two weeks eating only hot dogs and hamburgers prepared at the campfire or on a propane stove.  Wait…we had been camping for two weeks by the time of our visit.  Aside from our son’s fresh catch of the day, this meal was a godsend!

            Visiting family and friends while on vacation can be beneficial for other reasons.  No one knows an area like the locals.  My cousin tipped us off about another great Michigan state park in the Upper Peninsula, the Tahquamenon Falls State Park.  She pointed out that there was nothing like the tawny brown Tahquamenon Falls.  And she was right!  This state park is also open in winter for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing with breathtaking views.  They’re having a snowshoe race in February!  

I hope your holidays are full of family and friends and visiting.  Enjoy! 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Is Camping Gear on Your Christmas List?

The troops putting up the Jayco Eagle pop-up. 
Notice how happy they are?  
Our oldest  
wears the smile.  It was her turn to crank.
If it is, remember that a lot of used gear can be had on local Craig’s Lists by just typing in your location and then “camping" in for sale.  This is a great idea for used large items, like campers, trailers, tents, or stoves that you want to inspect personally.  It’s best not to buy used personal items such as sleeping bags, bed rolls, or climate clothing.  They are always better bought new.  However, the internet does hold a wealth of equipment and information, to which I am about to add my small share from personal experience.
At the time we bought our Jayco Eagle pop-up trailer, it was new, a leftover from the year before.  Our Eagle is a hard-top, manual crank-up camper that you’re supposed to turn slowly, and pause to pull out the beds on the ends of the trailer little by little.

Patience.  The five children needed to learn patience and how to work together.  They needed to crank slowly and not fight over whose turn it was to crank, for which I kept a schedule.  See “Keeping the Peace with Schedules.”  The non-crankers yanked out—carefully, another learned concept—the two end beds and jammed in the support poles underneath. 

The two dinette tables had to be set up.  They convert into beds, which helps when you have five children.  There is no bathroom or shower in it.  We use a small camp potty when absolutely necessary—another thing to buy new although potties are usually plastic and completely washable.

While researching for this blog post, I came across a wonderful website for campers and outdoor enthusiasts.  Everything Outdoor Camping is a highly useful site where you can not only purchase what you need for camping and hiking, new, but also engage in conversation with an expert about the equipment or the camp trip you are going to take.         

Please remember that you needn’t purchase thousands of dollars worth of camping equipment before venturing out upon a family camping excursion.  We started out with a 1960’s patched up canvas tent on a trailer.  See the photo here.  Besides, amenities abound at many campgrounds.  KOA Kampgrounds offer basic to deluxe wood cabins, all with electricity and some with full kitchens.  KOA’s are located just about everywhere and all you need do is bring bedding, food, and cooking and serving utensils.   

Start with basic equipment, nothing fancy, no extras.  Go on nearby camping trips for a short amount of time.  Campers can be rented for the weekend or for a week at Cruise America or another RV rental place.  Read the rental contract; calculate the insurance expense and breakdown insurance.  Always get the rental insurance, whether you are renting a car or a camper.  Practice handling the rig as it will most likely be larger than your vehicle and definitely handles differently. 

            Camping is the perfect way to see the world, be it close by or at opposite corners of the country or adjoining countries.  Steve Trommer, an award-winning seasoned Boy Scout Leader and Owner of Everything Outdoor Camping, says that “Any time spent in a tent, opens the world to bigger adventures.”  And he’s right.  In our little home away from home, in our blankets and bedding, pots, pans, and potty, we explore the world one camping trip—and family adventure—at a time.  Maybe you should try it, too.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Finding Dry Shoes in a Camper When You’re Visiting a Land of Waterfalls

Okay, so maybe the children
still have some growing up to do,
like their mother.  Notice the “bunny ears.” 
“And the huge bear swatted at the earth,” I told the children one early spring night as we ate dinner, “as if scratching at tree bark to get at the insects underneath, catching New York in the west and leaving deep gouges that filled with his crystal clear tears when he found no bugs to eat.”

Nothing!  The children continued to chew their chicken and stare at me.  Finally our second daughter, the brainiac of the group, spoke up.

“Mom,” she began, “we’re not little kids anymore.” 

*Sniff!*  True, they were tweens and teens now.  The camper is getting cozier.

“Bears don’t live in space, so they can’t scratch the earth like that,” she continued.

“But,” I countered.

“Mom,” our son added, scratching at a mosquito bite.  “There are always bugs on the earth.  It’s their home”

“Yes, but…”  I liked this explanation of the Finger Lakes Region in New York State.

“They’re glacial-formed gorges gouged out of the rock,” my husband, the realist, told the children.  “With tremendous glens and waterfalls.  Would you like to see them?”

A round of “yeses” filled the room.  The direct approach seems better now.  My husband smiled at me and I stuck out my tongue.

Well…at least the children are growing up.  So is our laundry, by the way.  It grew tenfold this year, stinking up the little trailer.  We still use the old sea bag for laundry and throw it under the dining table as a foot rest. To discover one of our laundry experiences, please go here.

We traversed the trails at Watkins Glen State Park.  Lush green forests and ferns climb over thinly-sliced strata stacked in piles of charcoal and black, crying and dripping in front of us as we climbed to the top of the waterfalls. Gorge Trail is a manicured trail; perfect…except for the steps—over 800 of them!—rising more than 500 feet in a mile and a half.  We traipsed behind waterfalls, over waterfalls, and next to waterfalls.  We climbed into a cool cave, over stone bridges. 

From the narrow, ragged gorge of Watkins Glen to the towering Taughannock Falls, a steep-sided trough in a lighter shade of soft sedimentary rock, Finger LakesRegion is full of lakes, gorges, and waterfalls. 

Whenever you hike—especially with children as they like to run everywhere to show how much faster they are than you—wear sturdy closed shoes such as sneakers or hiking boots. 

Water sculpts and cuts the rock as if it were mere material for a Halloween costume.  It can even paint the rock a darker hue.  We marveled about the turquoise waters of this region and waded into frigid crystal clear streams at the base of waterfalls.    

By the time we returned to the cozy camper, we were happy to have dry shoes to change into as we prepared dinner.  The only problem was finding a matching pair.  I told the children to tie the extra pair of sturdy shoes together.  This way, we merely had to find individual sandals for pool and shower, not individual sneakers too.

But no, the sturdy shoes get nasty if you tie them together.  At least ours did.  They tripped us constantly in the trailer.  So we released them from their tethers and they wandered about the camper aimlessly.  Sometimes we’d kick them all under the other dining table during dinner, but they never stayed there long.  And whenever we went looking for the shoes, they went into hiding.  Sometimes it’s easier climbing mountains and steps than trying to find two matching shoes in a camper. 

            Do your shoes—or socks for that matter—have a mind of their own?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fun Things Camping with Kids in the Fall

Swim goggles may help keep smoke from children’s
eyes while marshmallows droop and tan to perfection.
If you haven’t tried family camping yet, autumn is a colorful season to introduce the children to short trips at local farms or forests.  As the temperatures cool, leaves deepen into crimson, gold, and tangerine.  And, if you’re really lucky, some of the peskier bugs have disappeared.  Aside from the tips I offered for Family Camping in Spring that also pertain to camping in autumn; dress in layers, bring warm bedding, etc., October holds other interesting elements.

In the United States, many campgrounds in October offer hay rides and campsite decorating contests.  I remember a camping trip when one of the twins needed to bring in show and tell that week and the letter happened to be “h.”  We gathered a few straws of hay from our ride around camp Saturday night and twistered them together.  She stumped everyone that day in school, including the teacher, with her show and tell bag of hay. 

Some campgrounds offer Halloween costume parades and trick or treating at the campsites as well as pumpkin decorating.  Sometimes, campgrounds offer haunted mazes as well as haunted hay rides.  Oooo…we did the haunted stuff after our youngest children reached 9 or 10 years of age, but all children are different.  As long as you are with them and remind them that the scary stuff is pretend, you shouldn’t have any nightmares to contend with in the tent.    

We remember seeing a young person wearing what looked to me like authentic camouflage gear.  He was hunkered down near the reeds by the lake with reedlike strands hanging across and down from his helmet and clothing.  The strands blended him into his surroundings.  I mean, if I wasn’t staring right at him, wondering why those particular reeds looked ever-so-slightly different from the surroundings, I wouldn’t have noticed him.  His father was very proud of his young son’s ghillie suit.  This was the first time my family had ever heard the term ghillie suit
Campfires are more inviting in autumn because of the warmth they bring.  Weenie roasts [hot dogs] and s’more toastings abound at campgrounds.  For tips on how to enjoy campfires with the family, look in Gotta Have-a Campfire.  I explain why it’s important to begin a campfire right after dinner and how to allow everyone to assist without mishap.

However, smoke will always be a problem with campfires, or at least it always follows me no matter where I sit around the family campfire.  My daughter decided to try her swim goggles to keep the smoke out of her eyes while toasting marshmallows.  It appeared to work.  In fact, I wished I had a pair. 

Remember to douse the campfire with at least two pots of water to be sure it’s really out.  And always finish the campfire before the children—or even the parents—become tired.

There are many reasons to camp in autumn.  Please share any memories you may have or offer some tips of your own camping with kids.  Thanks so much!     

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Size Matters in Camping and Nature

Finally...enough room at the dinner table
Finding elbow space at the dinner table is always a problem when you camp with seven in a small pop-up trailer, especially as the children grow longer each year.  We don’t notice it as much eating at the dining room table at home.  However, when we cram into the trailer for meals if it’s raining or if the children just prefer the soft cushions of our dinette seats after a day of hiking, it becomes an issue. 

This trip we journeyed to the beautiful and varied landscape of the state of New York.  We always learn something new when we camp with the family during the summer.  And I mean something besides the fact that the children are getting too long for the dinette tables.  We took the Uncle Sam Two Nation boat tour of the 1000 Island Region and learned why the Saint Lawrence River is so crystal clear.  Zebra mussels clean pollutants out of the water.  These tiny prolific mussels have few predators in the United States, and they are not good to eat.  The unfortunate circumstance of these invasive creatures, the boat captain explained, is that they cling to boat propellers and pipes and grates in many waterways and gum up the works of not only watercraft but also water treatment and power plants. 

            Nuts!  We discover a creature that cleans pollutants out of our water systems, but then they can in turn mess up the balance of the ecosystem.

            I tried not to dwell on this as I gazed into the glasslike, blue Saint Lawrence as we steamed around the luscious islands in the stillness of a sunny summer day.

            Then we visited Boldt Castle on Heart Island.  A masterpiece of architecture in the making.  But the owner, the creator of this work of art, never lived here.  Millionaire Boldt built this castle for the love of his life, his wife.  How romantic.  No expense spared.  [I know.  It’s easy if you’re a millionaire.]  Look at the size of that dining table!  And they only had two children.  There’s enough room at this table for the Lees crew to have a meal and not bicker…I mean bump elbows.   

            But then the wife died only months before the castle paradise was complete.  And Boldt abandoned the island project.  Another sad fact to learn in one day.  I was beginning to become depressed.  
Of course, there were many other interesting non-depressing facts given on the boat tour.  Like if there was a tree on rock above the waterline, it was an island.  However, those other two facts stuck with me.

            To brighten my spirits, my husband thought of a treat for the family.  No, we couldn’t eat dinner in Boldt castle’s dining room, but after a week of canned and boxed foods, we ate in an air-conditioned restaurant on the docks of the 1000 island region.  After baking in the sun while touring the 1000 Islands by boat, then melting on Heart Island exploring Boldt Castle, it took a while to “cool down” before we could enjoy our meal at the little island eatery.

            Even though we don’t have all the space Mr. Boldt had, we still enjoy our little pop-up trailer.  Besides, it’s easier to reach the cupboards or counters if we forget something or share foods between dinette tables when we eat now.  

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Exploring a new beach in Maine
“Mommy,” one of the twins asked, “why do we go some place different every summer?”

            I guessed, rightly, that she was referring to her friends who go to the same place each year for vacation.  Growing up, my family did the same.  My family took only day trips.  We went to the beautiful, sandy New Jersey beach or the rugged, forested Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.  It was familiar, comfortable, and fun. We had great times, wonderful memories, but somehow I needed more. 

I couldn't stop thinking, was this all there was?

I needed to explore and experience other regions, see what lay outside New Jersey's borders.  

Does the Atlantic Ocean look different in another state or another country?  What's the coast or beach like?  What about the mountains?  I was always curious about geology.  What are the Rocky Mountains like in the summertime?  Can you really see forever in Montana?  And what in the world is an aurora borealis?

What lay on the other side of the country?  What does the Pacific Ocean look like in California, in Washington state, in British Columbia, Canada?  Is the desert really painted with autumn colors?  Do the great lakes really look like oceans, vast with waves and currents?  Can islands sometimes be in lakes or rivers?  What about waterfalls and forests?  Fresh water and salt water?  Giant tides and giant trees?

I wanted experiences, not just information and pictures about these places.  I wanted adventures. 

            I need to go camping with kids—my kids, my family--to discover the answers to some of these questions together.  To help make my children become as curious about the world around them as I am.  To discover how landscapes change in different regions or what the locals do for fun.  

            I think parents are responsible for their children's education.  What better way to educate them than to go exploring together through family camping.  Not all who wander are lost.  Some, like me, are just curious.  

            I glanced back at my daughter, her eyes bright, expectant, waiting for my answer to her question.  It had to be good, I thought to myself.

            "Well," I began as I tried to make sense of all my thoughts.  "I think it's important to      
experience the world firsthand whenever possible."

            Now it was my turn to wait.  How'd I do?  Two minutes.  Three minutes.  She's thinking.  I can see her brows crinkle.
            She finally shrugged her slender shoulders.  "Oh," she said.  And then she went out to play with her friends. 

            And I began to breathe again.  What do you think?  How'd I do?