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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Quiet Drive for the Holiday: Child Occupation in the Car Part II

A parent is always a teacher to her children.  As the children became older, I would take a subject that one of the older children was learning in school and write about it on a pad of paper.  This can be anything from all you know about frogs to poetry and geography.  Then beginning with the youngest, each participant wrote one fact he or she knew about the subject and passed the paper on to the next person.  Or a person could write one line of a rhyming poem and then pass it on, the only rule being that the poem had to rhyme not necessarily make sense.  At the close of the day’s driving, we would share our creation with the family.  This can become quite comical. 

Try bringing along a small tape recorder [and lots of batteries].  The first person can pose a question or record a sound and the recipient needs to answer the question or guess the sound.  A story can be created this way with someone starting the story and the next person continues the story thread.  Just like the poem, the story does not have to make sense, just continue to build.  Then listen to it at the end of the drive.  [This particular parent is also a creative writer…can you tell?]

We have mixed and matched these ideas over the years, and because of them, we have crisscrossed the United States and have even visited some of the northeastern provinces of Canada and made it all the way out to Newfoundland.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Quiet Drive for the Holiday: Child Occupation in the Car Part I

            My family and I go camping every summer.  The key to our success camping with five children, beginning when our youngest, twins, were four years old, was to keep the children occupied during the long—long!—car rides.  The reason we go camping in the first place is to find quiet time away from the rush, rush of life.  I wanted to leave the television, computer, and video games home and give the children a chance to use their imaginations.  But first, I had to use mine. 

If you are like me, it seems that every few years the children “need” a newer character lunchbox.  Well, don’t throw away the old plastic lunchboxes.  They are ideal for travel occupation.  They store well and keep small parts together.  Of course, it is important to make the lunchboxes age appropriate.  You need at least one lunch box per child, and depending on the length of the trip, bring a few extra packed lunch boxes.  What you pack in them depends on what’s in the toy chest or what your children like to do. 

You are looking for smaller, imaginative-play type toys, like Barbie dolls, G.I. Joes, Match Box cars, rubber creatures and Beanie Babies.  Then stretch your imagination, and subsequently the children’s, by including a wooden-shaped block or a plastic donut-type ring or a large paste jewel or a finger ring, perhaps a colored feather or ribbon.  These eclectic objects will spark the children’s creative play on a small scale as the miles roll by.  Don’t forget Etch A Sketches, story picture books, listening tapes, and sharpened pencils and pads of paper for tic-tac-toe and hang the man.

            I would pack each lunch box differently and exchange boxes often to keep interests peaked.  Sometimes I would give each lunchbox a theme, like sports with sports cards and figurines or aquatic with underwater creatures and boats.  Make the play interactive and practice communication skills by writing notes to each other and passing them along via “child mail” to the recipient.  Tic-tac-toe and hang man can work this way also.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Future Enjoyment of National Parks

The climb to Balcony House, Mesa Verde
National Parks are the needed peace in a busy world.  The National Parks System brings education and family togetherness as well as providing recreation for all.  I know my family and I would be lost without them.    
I recently read a blog entry entitled WhoShould Be Allowed to Purchase Privately Owned Lands in National Parks? about private individuals living inside National Park boundaries wishing to sell their properties.  This is an issue worth talking about. 

Of course, any private property does belong to those individuals and they have rights here in the United States of America.  They have a right to receive an accurate offer of the land’s value from the government.  They have a right to sell their home/land to another private individual.  However, I believe commercialization of the land should be avoided at all costs.  Perhaps a clause could be introduced to prohibit further commercialization of land within the National Park boundaries. 
The reason why these lands are so precious is because in their beauty they provide an escape from the rush-rush of life.  What do you think?      

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

National Parks and Families

Granny apple doll making
Peaks of Otter, Virginia
My family has enjoyed visiting National Parks in the United States and Canada for years…and years.  Each National Park offers ranger-led programs for visitors on a daily basis in the summertime.  Programs continue throughout the year; however, they are more limited due to attendance numbers at the parks.  You can pick up a schedule as you enter the park or stop by the visitors’ center to speak with a ranger. 

From granny apple doll making at Peaks of Otter in Virginia to climbing the vertical ladders at Mesa Verde, Colorado, from trekking through the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington to learning about dinosaurs at the Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado, our family has enjoyed the adventures which the park rangers have provided. 

When visiting a National Park, ask about the JuniorRanger Program.  This is a nationwide program where children 4 or 5 years of age to about 12 years can learn about the duties and responsibilities of a park ranger as well as learn about the park itself.  The children become junior scientists, geologists, historians, or naturalists by following age-appropriate tasks outlined in a free booklet available at each specific park.  They receive badges and certificates upon accomplishment. 

My children have become junior meteorologists forecasting the weather with a park ranger on the top of Rocky Mountain National Park using a handheld barometer to measure atmospheric pressure and a psychrometer to measure the humidity.  It seemed that every day we were at Rocky Mountain National Park, it would thunderstorm at about 3 p.m. and we needed to be below the tree line.    

I would like to thank all park rangers everywhere for their tireless service in educating the public about geology, history, culture, and biology to name but a few subjects.  Besides, it’s fun for the whole family!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Stinky Neighbors

True Hikers
While I understand that not everyone, or everything, can smell like a new baby, there are some neighbors who possess a certain…um…aroma, for lack of a better word, that defies the neighborly protocol…even when camping. 

 We were camping at another primitive campground in the Peaks of Otter area of Virginia without electric and water hook-ups.  The children were beginning to enjoy this type of camping, with different park ranger programs and fishing available each night. 

After an arduous day of hiking in Blue Ridge Mountain muck, a hot meal that took too long to prepare, clean-up that took even longer, a campfire that resembled a solar flare, and way too many S’mores consumed, the family was ready for bed.

 As the stories died down and we all snuggled into our sleeping bags, the battery lamp was turned off in the camper.  A hush finally fell over our camper.  But not for long.  A small but potent visitor decided to stop by. 

Of course, I heard the rustling first.  I thought one of the children was stumbling around the trailer, but then I realized that the noise came from outside.  I unzipped the canvas window and tried to peer into the darkness that enveloped us.  Something was rustling around out there, but I wasn’t going to find out.  So I woke my husband and told him to go see what it was. 

 “Are you crazy?”  He asked wearily.

Yes, I was.  Never venture out into the darkness when you hear something rustling around your campsite.  Pray that it just leaves.

 But then we noticed a distinct odor coming from outside our camper. 
“I think it’s a skunk,” I told my groggy husband. 
“It’s the sneakers,” he grumbled.  “We should have put them at the next campsite.”
I shook my head.  “No, this is different.  It’s a skunk,” I said.  “Where’s the flashlight?”
Again came the “Are you crazy?”  But he’s correct.  It’s a good thing the children and I camp with him.  You do not want to startle a skunk.  It has long-living, nasty consequences.   However, now my husband was fully awake.  We peered into the darkness together, hoping the stinky little critter would move on.  We had disposed of our nightly trash before we came into the camper.  We knew that the skunk could not climb the step and venture inside the camper or roar, growl, or otherwise make a sound to disturb the children.  He just nosed around our campsite, finding nothing but ashes and smelly sneakers.  [Poor thing!]

 And then the giggles started, but this time they came from my husband.

“And what is so funny?”  I whispered to my husband.

“Did you ever stop to think how much tomato juice it would take to rid the camper, the car, the camping gear, clothing, and all the children and us of skunk stench?”  And then he chuckled some more.

 And then I chuckled as an image of my husband driving the van, dragging the trailer behind, with all our camping gear into an in-ground pool full of tomato juice.  We giggled all night long coming up with different scenarios on how to rid ourselves—and all our possessions—of the odoriferous skunk smell.   
We didn’t know at the time, that tomato juice just masks the smell of skunk.  To learn a real tip on how to rid yourself, your pets, or possessions of skunk spray, read this post on Animal Planet’s website.

In our case in Virginia, the skunk finally tired of rummaging through our campsite, finding nothing to eat, and left…leaving the smelly sneakers behind.  Who knows, perhaps it was those very stinky sneakers that called to him in the first place. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Don’t Want This Hug

Sequoia Nat'l Park
We love to camp at primitive campsites.  Okay, my husband and I love to camp at these non-electrical locales.  The children just put up with the fact that there is no pool or playground.  Without all the electricity, the brilliant stars fill the sky and the lightning bugs look like lace along the leafy edge of deciduous trees. 


Primitive campsites usually provide campers with “bear boxes” or places to hang food packs to keep uninvited guests from wandering into camp as “guests” can come in all sizes and strengths.  Bear boxes are strong, hinged, heavy metal boxes with a clamp or clip for security from hungry animals.  There can be one bear box for every two or three campsites.  As for hanging your own food pack, the campgrounds provide metal pole uprights with a line across the top.  Some campgrounds provide the rope and clips needed to hang your pack over the line.  Make sure you secure the rope to a pole or nearby tree. 


We were camping at a primitive campsite in Sequoia National Park in California and had just finished having a delicious dinner of roasted tube steaks [that’s what my husband calls hot dogs so that I’ll eat them] and were contemplating whether or not we wished to wait before having s’mores when we heard screaming coming from the campsite on the knoll below ours.  Even in the early twilight, we could see him.  A mature black bear had wandered into their tent campsite and the woman was trying to get into her car, which is what you should do, as the man banged pots together to frighten it away. 


Our children scrambled into the tent trailer like chicks hiding under the mother hen.  My husband hopped into the van and drove to the Rangers’ station in the campground to alert them of the bear’s presence.  The rangers came out to the camp site with a foghorn-type sounding device which frightened the bear away. 


Needless to say, the children didn’t want any s’mores that night and refused to brush their teeth at the bathroom located down by the people’s tent.       


Make no mistake.  A hungry bear can shred a tent or tent trailer easily to get at the food it smells.  To be safe, the park rangers told us to keep all food in airtight containers or packaging and use the bear boxes provided.  Also, be sure to leave a clean tent/trailer area.  Place all trash—especially food packaging—in a dumpster at night and before leaving your site for the day.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An Uninvited Dinner Guest

When camping in nature, you need to be ready for any uninvited guests who might drop by.  Oftentimes they invite themselves to dinner.

Back when it was just the five of us camping and my son was a baby, we went to Highpoint State Park in northern New Jersey.  At this point, we were still getting the children used to camping, with all the bugs around and dinner taking hours to cook on a two-burner camp stove where only one burner really works. 

Well, the smell of hot dogs called to more than just my girls.  A large buck came tromping right up to our Coleman stove.  Even my scream didn’t startle him.  It startled my husband and children in the tent.  The five-year-old unzipped the door and came out.

“Freeze,” I told her.

“It’s a reindeer!”

 “Yes,” I said, go back into the tent.

My husband shouted from the tent windows:  “Bang pots together!”

Right!  The pots that were on the picnic table, beyond the deer.  Right.

The deer wouldn’t back up from me and the stove.  So I turned off the stove and took the dog pot with me to the picnic table.  The deer followed.  I put the pot down and picked up an empty pot and lid.  I clanged them together at the deer.  He just looked at me as if to say, could you please move so that I can get a hot dog.   


By this time, my husband had come out of the trailer with a squeaky toy and started squeaking from a distance behind the deer.  I continued banging the pot from the front.  The deer’s body flinched.  His ears started twitching.  His tail flipped.  He lowered his head and I thought I would be sick.  But he stayed rooted in his position. 

My husband and I continued our assault on the peacefulness of nature and finally the deer gave up on the prospect of having a nice quiet hot dog meal and left.  I couldn’t carry the pot back to the stove; I was shaking so much, so my husband finished cooking the hot dogs. 

We ate in the tent instead of at the picnic table, all sitting on the floor, cross-legged, telling stories.  This was before our new camper with the indoor kitchenette and tables.

It is NOT a good idea to feed the wild animals when camping.  Also, never dump cooking pot water into the environment around camp.  The smell of food lingers to wild animal senses and draws the animals into camp.  Always wash cooking dishes at the sinks all campgrounds have available for this purpose.   

Monday, July 16, 2012

Night Prowls

The next night of our rustic camping at a state park in Virginia, the older children and I went on a night prowl with a park ranger.  My husband stayed with the twins who firmly believed that nothing could get them if they stayed inside the canvas tent trailer.  Hence the reason we needed to zip up the canvas windows at night.    

So the three children and I brought flashlights and met the park ranger and other guests at the pond.  We couldn’t miss the meeting spot.  Flashlights were blinking and shining all over the place.   

The first thing the ranger told the group was to keep the flashlights pointed downward on the path and not to shine the light in anyone’s face.  This permitted our eyes to adjust to the darkness so that we could see better what was around us.  If we heard anything rustling around in the forest, he told us to shine the light at the sound and scan the area to see what made the noise. 

Our first investigation was the pond where he showed us the bullfrogs hiding in the mud.  They stopped bellowing when the light was shone on them.  We discovered deer, bats zipping through the field in search of dratted mosquitoes.  We saw luminous fungi glow when our flashlights hit it.  Oranges, reds, and yellows shone from downed tree stumps.

            We saw so many interesting things.  The children couldn’t wait to return to the camper and tell their father and the twins everything they saw.  We chattered on about raccoons and skunks and turtles as we crossed the field to get to our campsite.

The children burst through the camper door, shouting to their father.

“Daddy, I found a boy and girl kissing,” our son proudly announced.

“Yea,” the oldest said.  “He blinded them right in the face.”

“They were sitting on the bench by the pond,” our other daughter informed her father.

My husband looked at me quizzically.  

I nodded my head.  I had forgotten as our son discovered the couple at the beginning of our night journey.  All the luminous eyes of the night creatures and the bug noises and the animal movement, and what do our children remember?  A couple caught kissing in the dark.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Nature, quiet?!

Friends will ask us how we can camp every summer out in nature where it is so quiet at night.  First, I try to explain that with our crew it is NEVER quiet ANYWHERE!  Although each year my husband and I keep hoping.  And second, I try to explain that nature is never quiet, least of all at night.

            We camped a few nights in the rustic setting of a Virginia state park.  No electricity.  No pool.  No playground.  The children weren’t too happy about it…at first.  But as the darkness blanketed the mountaintops of the park, they were filled with awe.  God dotted his canvas with dancing lights while we dotted our tiny space with Coleman and campfire light.  Battery-operated lamps were used inside the camper.  Fire flies danced in lace patterns against the summer trees surrounding our home away from home.    

            It was not quiet at night, even without all the children’s chatter.  A cacophony of insects sang us to sleep as acorns and sticks plunked onto our hard-shelled roof or soft sleeper ends of the camper.  We heard the bullfrogs calling for a mate in the nearby pond, and the birds settling down for the night in the trees.  Then the questions and the giggling would start in the trailer. 

            “Mom, I heard a snake slither under the camper,” our son said.

            All four of his sisters screamed.

 “First off,” I tried to explain to the girls.  “How can he hear slithering with all the bug noises outside?”

The girls quieted down.

Then I added, “Besides, snakes don’t slither under campers unless absolutely necessary.  Like maybe escaping from a fire.”

More screaming.  I started to giggle as all five children unzipped their canvas windows to check to see if there was a fire outside.

I guess this was why my husband slept with his pillow over his head instead of under, so that he could, in fact, sleep.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

When in a Different State, Do as the Locals Do

“Do I have to?”  I shrank back into the dirty laundry in the trailer.

“It’s free, Vic,” my husband reminded me.

 Once again, six eager faces smiled at me.  In fact they glowed with anticipation.

 “Everyone does it,” the children said in unison, “even Moms.”

 “Yes,” I told them, “but these moms have been doing it since birth.”

            Well, I lost.  The family went sliding down granite covered in icy whitewater, a local pastime in North Carolina.  Of course, like everything else, there are things to know when attempting an adventure of this type…besides “Where’s the nearest hospital?”

            I told the children to sit and watch the locals first and tell me what they observe.  Observation is a good skill to have in life.  Noticing what is going on around you and having the ability to process the information and pass along details to someone else demonstrates an understanding of the situation.

            The children relayed what they had learned by watching families slide down the waterfall:

Lean forward, heels up, legs together, nose closed, free hand close to side, steering like you’re sledding [a push here or there].

Funny.  I saw all that too.  But I observed further and saw the shivers along rigid bodies and felt the bruises sure to be on their rumps from the rippled granite slide.  I noticed the water moving in sheets down the granite protrusion in the stream.  There was enough water to whisk you away over the hump, but not enough to keep you buoyant, above the slight ridges along the granite hump.

I stalled all I could, discussing why we thought the person did this or that.  It was finally time to have my husband try it first to be able to get a personal account of how it felt.  Well, I couldn’t very well let the children go first, for it was scary even with all their talk of “wanting to do like the locals.”

So the children and I watched from below as Dad climbed the steep bolder to ride the water down.  We held our breath.  Dad climbed into the shallow water at the lip of the falls like the person before him.  He sat down in the frigid water—I noticed his shivering—and was whisked down the watery hump in a matter of seconds and plopped into the waist deep bottom of the falls rump and hands first.  He submerged and then swam out of the turbulence and walked in the calm pool to his waiting family with his verdict.

The ear-to-ear grin told all.  The children scrambled up the dry side of the boulder to wait their turn to step into the water and ride over the ridge.

Yes, I did it too, terrified that I’d hit my head or scrape my back.  Hence the reason to lean forward, hands and legs as outriggers.     

Well, my outriggers were scraped, as were the children’s, and we all sat on our pillows for dinner.  Another adventure for the treasure chest of memories! 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Time to Trust an Animal: Horseback Riding in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There is nothing like riding a thousand pound animal. But there is a difference between loving a horse and riding a horse. Most children love horses, at least mine do. However we did forget about hips, the children’s hips of course. Think about horseback riding with children: children astride horses wider than their hips, stirrups hitched way up high, children lurching from side to side in the saddle with every step of the horse along the path.
Once we got to the ranch and the children saw the horses up close, their eyes were truly opened.

“How do I get up there,” a twin asked me.

“Where are the seatbelts on the saddle?” I asked.

But the wranglers [cowboys to us] had a system. They walked the horse over to a platform with stairs. We simply climbed the stairs and stepped into the saddle. But then the wrangler said something to the children, his right hand resting on the saddle horn. I didn’t know what it was, but as the horse left the platform, my children’s eyes widened to the point of bewilderment. Then I heard the wrangler when my turn came.

“Rawt, left, -n- stop,” a mere twitch of the wrist for the wrangler. My horse plodded away from the platform. Then it came to me. I shouted to the children as my horse entered the cluster of riders.

“The cowboy is telling us how to steer the horse! Reins to the right, turn right, reins to the left, and then pull back on the reins to stop,” I said exultantly. The riders applauded. I guess others had been contemplating explanation as well.

Guiding a horse was difficult for a family of tenderfoots like us. We held the reins up high—with a death grip—as we bounced along the trail. The path was narrow, maybe five feet in width, littered with the shale so common in the Appalachian Mountain Chain. The horses negotiated the path easier than our young family could have. The shade was welcoming as we wore long pants, knee socks, and sneakers to ride the horses.

We finally adjusted to the sway of our bodies in the saddle, ascending and descending the mountainous terrain, lurching turns, and gripping the saddle horn. But then the children’s horses became thirsty from all the work and drank from the streams and creeks we crossed. This caused gaps in the horse train so that the wrangler who followed behind us instructed the children to “yank the reins.”

So my little lightweights attempted to yank the thousand-pound horses’ heads out of the stream. The horses balked and yanked back on the reins as if to say, “I’m drinking here!” I was afraid the horses would unsaddle the children and told the wrangler so. He finally dismounted and pulled the children’s horses from the stream.
Then he instructed the children to click their heels against the horses’ flanks, shake the reins, and bounce in their saddles. First of all, the twins’ feet barely made it over the horses’ backs, let alone reach any “flank” material. Then, the children would perform the steps one at a time. When the wrangler said to do it all at once, the children simply reverse the process still doing one step at a time.

Then my son’s horse began ripping bites out of the saplings along the trail. Don’t they feed these horses, I thought. Eyes wide, my-ten-year-old makes a feeble attempt at yanking the horse away from the tender, delicious sapling he was sampling. The horse merely went to the next sapling. The wrangler had to lead the horse past the tempting saplings and back to the riding party.

After our exciting experience in the control and guidance of a thousand pound animal, we dismounted at the platform once again…and found that our hips would never be the same. We bow-legged over to the front of the horse and stroked its nose and patted its neck, a thank you for an adventure never forgotten.