Family anecdotes, camping tips, how-tos, hiking with children, nature, motherhood, memories.

Adventures in Camping with Five Kids

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

--Victoria Marie Lees

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Big Difference Between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean According to Our Children
Our chilly children and their “dark,” 
“crumbly” California sand castle.
The verdict is in. The Pacific Ocean is colder than the Atlantic Ocean according to our children. True, we weren’t visiting Southern California. We were staying in Pacifica, California, just south of San Francisco.

“The water’s too cold!” Our son proclaimed as we shivered trying to allow the waves to wash over our feet.

I got up to my knees. The children, however, ran back to dry sand. And that’s another beef the kids had.

“The sand is too thick!” The twins complained as they tried to make their sand castles stick together.

“We’re not on a tropical island, you know,” I told them.

My husband put it another way.

“You guys have come all the way across the United States—a whole continent—and all you can think of is how much you like our warm South [New] Jersey beaches better than this northern California beach?” My husband asked them, dumbfounded.

I had to agree with him. Look what we’ve just done. We’ve traversed a continent. This was ridiculous!

But it is interesting. Although Pacifica is warmer than our little piece of New Jersey, the Pacific Ocean is indeed colder.

So I told the children we should research a bit. “Let’s stop at one of the marinas to question the experts about it.”

All of them—including my husband—rolled their eyes at me. It must have been the “r” word I dropped. I didn’t realize it at the time.

“We’re all about learning new things together, remember?” I told them. “Right, Dear? I looked for confirmation from my husband. “Especially when we camp with five kids in nature.”

A hush fell over the trailer. We were getting ready for bed at the time. Then the whispering began. My husband started it. He whispered something to our family Brainiac, our second daughter.

“It’s the warm gulf stream in the Atlantic that keeps New Jersey’s beach water warmer,” she spouted.

My eyes widened.

Then our son piped up. “The Atlantic Gulf Stream goes north along the coastland.”

“Really,” I asked, impressed.

My husband steamed up his ear again.

“Yes, Mom.” Our son beamed. “It comes from the Caribbean and heads up to Greenland.”

“But why was the Atlantic so cold when we visited Maine last summer?” I asked him.

It was his turn to widen his eyes. “Dad?”

I tried to conceal a smile but couldn’t.

My husband rolled his eyes again. “Because the warm gulf stream bounces off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and heads out to sea,” he finally said. “Any beach north of the Cape is colder.”

“But what about the Pacific Ocean, Daddy?” Our oldest daughter asked.

My husband addressed all of us in the trailer. “In the Pacific, the current runs down the coast coming from Alaska.”

“That’ll make it cold!” The oldest said.

I looked over at the twins. Their eyebrows were still knit. “What’s the problem, angels?” I asked. “I think Daddy answered the question pretty well.”

“But why is the sand so dark and heavy?” One twin asked.  

“Well now you’re talking about the geology of the land,” I said. I looked at my husband. He just shrugged. “Hmm,” I said. “Maybe we should find a geologist or a museum.”

“No!” The other children chorused.

I looked at the twins. It was their turn to shrug. So I told them what I thought.

“It’s probably from the waves hammering at the dark rocks along the coastline in California. I’m sure the thicker shells and the forests and plant matter along the coast help to make the sand darker and thicker too.”

They seemed to be satisfied with this explanation. As long as their sand castles held together!

Children are sponges. They really do want to know everything. It’s just that they don’t want to search for information while on vacation. Our children didn’t mind my seeking out a park ranger for clarification, but they didn’t want to make a specific side trip to a museum to find out further information.

When we got home, I researched on my own about why the water was colder in the Pacific at California beaches and found an interesting explanation here. It has short video links attached. The kids and I found it interesting and thought you might like to look at it too.

It was more difficult to find a good site about California’s sand. Sand is indeed a product of its location, from rocks, plants, and sea shells. This site offered some pictures and explanation of sand in general. 

Have you ever shared the extent of your knowledge with your children? They’re a great audience and can easily ask enough questions to surpass what you know. Do your children like to research with you for answers or would they rather wait for you to figure it out and explain it to them? 

Enjoy your holidays!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Ups and Downs of City Life in San Francisco, California

San Francisco and the cable car go together like our family and camping. There are ups and there are downs, and ups and downs.

The first down—literally—came when we were looking for the Visitor’s Center in San Francisco. The campground told us we could buy cable car passes for the day there.

Seriously! This shouldn’t have been so difficult. We drove around and around the city in search of this mysterious Visitor’s Center.
I clung to the cable car as my children clung to its poles!

My husband was driving. The kids were chattering behind us in the van. It was my job to find the Visitor’s Center sign. I saw this sign with the right colors, brown and white. It said Visitor’s Center in small letters. But it had this wiggly line next to it. The line looked like pyramid steps the closer I got to it.  But there was no Visitor’s Center. No specific building with a sign.

“I’ll have to get out and explore on foot,” I finally told my husband. “Because if we come around the corner one more time, trying to follow that blasted brown sign, and see this wrought iron fence and then some bland gray buildings with no signs on them, I’m going to scream.”

“Maybe it’s in one of those gray buildings. Maybe they don’t need to mark things out here.”

I glared at him. “That’s okay for the Californians, but how about us New Jerseyans?”

He stopped for yet another traffic light. I glanced back at the kids, they were getting restless. They needed to explore the city on foot as well. I hopped out of the van.

“Please be careful,” he cautioned.

“Right! Please come back to identify the body.”

“Not funny,” he said though the window as the light changed and he moved forward.

I headed back to where that goofy brown sign was supposed to tell us where to find the Visitor’s Center.

It was a fresh, cool day to explore a new city. People, deep in conversation with each other, strolled all around me as I traipsed back to the sign. As beautiful as San Francisco is, there are reasons why I prefer the quiet of nature. For one, I always know where I am if I stick to the trail.

Staring at the Visitor’s Center sign, I sighed and glanced back at the street, searching for our big blue van. Where was my husband? I shook my head and leaned against the wrought iron fence. Well the sign did look like steps. But steps up to…where? Then I noticed people walking in front of me with city maps and cable car schedules.

“Hey!” I accosted one of the people.

She jumped.

“Sorry! Where did you get the map?” I asked.

“At the Visitor’s Center.”

The mysterious Visitor’s Center again. “But where’s the Visitor’s Center?”

“Right behind you.”

I whirled around, finally looking through the bars. Then I looked down. There was a huge hole in the ground. And down below—the steps—were buildings: stores, cafes, and the mysterious Visitor’s Center.

I raced down the steps and rushed into the Center, purchased seven cable car passes with a time schedule, and picked up a map of the city. I was back at street level in about 15 minutes. I was afraid of missing my husband as there was no place to park in this area.

Breathless at the street light, heart hammering in my chest, a guy came up behind me and screamed at the back of my head at top volume. My heart stopped instantly, and I thought about the last thing I’d said to my husband. Did I have any I.D. on me? 

I was afraid to turn around. Did he have a weapon? Would anybody come to my rescue? The city was jam-packed, but no one approached me. Then I saw the blue van and ran to the curb.

My heart resumed beating, and I climbed into the van. “Where were you?” I screamed at my husband.

His eyes widened. “I…I went around the block. It went on forever. Caught every red light, like usual. You okay?”

I decided not to frighten him or the kids, telling him about the guy who screamed at me since that’s all the guy did was scream at me. He never touched me. Was this a normal thing in cities? I guess the guy thought it was funny or was trying to get a rise out of me. It worked, by the way.
Lombard Street, one of the “crookedest” streets in San Francisco.
The rest of our day was uneventful. We traversed this bustling city on foot and by cable car. I must admit. I sat in the middle of the narrow cable car while my children clung to the poles pointing out the colorful buildings and nearly vertical hills the car flew down and climbed up. The children especially loved Lombard Street, billed the “crookedest” street in the world. It’s not! You can find an interesting history of Lombard Street and other crooked streets in San Francisco here.  

Have you ever had an odd experience exploring a new city? Feel free to tell me about any of your own city adventures in the comments section.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Fourth of July Celebrated in a Desert

We were camping in the desert by the time 4th of July rolled around. We were in Nevada this time camping at Casa Blanca in Mesquite. The children—and yes, the parents!—loved the water park that the campground shared with the casino hotel. Curvy slides, tunnels, palm trees, fountains and waterfalls donned this pool area.
Cool, crisp mountain water cascading downward into the pool.
Even manmade, it's refreshing in a desert clime.

After exhausting ourselves at the water park, we showered to wash off all the sunscreen and chlorine before dinner. But the heat soon surrounded our freshly-washed bodies again as we sat in the screen house trying to figure out what to eat.

“Do they do fireworks in a desert, Mom?” Our son asked.

Good question, I thought. I wasn’t sure because it’s so dry in the desert and water’s at a premium. However, before I could answer our son, Miss Know-It-All piped up. Every family has one!

“It’s 4th of July,” our second daughter reminded us, in typical fashion—hands on skinny hips. “Of course they have fireworks tonight. Right, Mom?”

I looked over at my husband, who was fanning himself with a plastic plate. He shrugged his shoulders and leaned toward me.

“I don’t know where to go around here,” he whispered. “I just want to go to an air-conditioned restaurant to eat.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. My children had taught me well. “I’m going to the air-conditioned camp office to see if they do fireworks in town. Does anyone want to…”

Before I could finish my statement, the children were fighting to open the zipper on the screen house to get out. My husband had dropped the plate. Thank goodness it was plastic. He butted in line and released the children from the confines of the screen house.

            “Great idea, Vic,” he said over his shoulder.

            I wonder what the magic word was that garnered all this help.

            We found out that they had a 4th of July celebration at the Mesquite Recreation Center in town. The camp clerk gave us directions. So we packed some beach towels and water and two canvas camp chairs for my husband and me and headed to town. We ate Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner slowly in the air-conditioned restaurant and then moved on to the park. 

The park was huge and even had a grassy playing field. Families staked out spots on the grass with blankets. As my husband and I took up a spot on the grass facing the tall orange cliffs like everyone else, our kids made fast friends with other kids who were slipping and sliding in and out of a huge, dark, tented slip and slide nearby.

“Just remember where we are,” I called out to the backs of their heads. They nodded, the only indication that they even heard me through the loud music and the laughter and screams coming from other children. The good news is that they continued to check in with us about every 20 minutes or so, telling us about all the kids they met. Our kids raced around playing flashlight tag and water balloon dodgeball.

By the time the fireworks were about to begin, the sky had filled with brilliant stars. The orange cliffs were mere outlines in the blackness of night. The music had quieted slightly and our children were all panting beside us. So much for the showers. I leaned back into my husband as best as I could in a canvas camp chair and sighed.

“You know, maybe I could handle the desert if it had a night sky like this every evening,” I told my husband.

He chuckled.

I turned and peered at him through the darkness. “What’s so funny?”

“Who are you kidding? You’d be pestering everyone before lunchtime, trying to find out where the nearest forest is.” He smiled and hugged me.

It’s tough being married to a rock hound who knows my dominant trait is tree hugging!

The fireworks seemed to last forever. Splashes of orange, red, and crinkly gold filled the sky. Full choruses of “ooos” and “ahhs” rang out. By the time we returned to camp and crawled into our bunks in the coolness of a desert night, we still couldn’t stop talking about the memories shared when we New Jerseyans saw fireworks against the orange cliffs of Nevada.

Have you ever experienced fireworks or any traditional celebration in a different state or country? Did you enjoy it?

I think the most beloved music in the world is the sound of human laughter, even when it come from seven exhausted people hiking in the 104-degree desert sun where everything seems funny—rocks, bugs, even footsteps!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Camping Coast to Coast with Kids: How to Make It Work

            When we took the troops west from New Jersey the second time, we made it to the Pacific Coast.  For a little over a month we traversed the United States, a beautiful country, taking in the Painted Desert, the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers, icy mountain lakes in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in California and Olympic National Park in the state of Washington, and the forests of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the mighty California Redwoods, and the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington state.
One of the great sites in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
An alluvium fan at the bottom of the mountain left after a flood. 

Yes, it’s true! The trailer became very… how shall I say it? “Cozy?” The trailer could “sleep” seven, it said in the owner’s manual, not sustain their sanity. By the time we got to the west coast, we had it down to a science. 

There was a floating schedule of who sat where in the travel van and at the dinner tables. See my post entitled “Keeping the Peace with Schedules where I talk about how to create schedules to keep parents from tearing their hair out while driving and camping with kids.

The people with the longest arms in our family; i.e., my husband, our second daughter, and our son, sat on the ends of the dining tables as they could pass things between our two tables and reach things on the counters that couldn’t fit on the tables. 

The “thing” that we could never find when we needed it was the toothpaste, and the “thing” that was everywhere was the dirty laundry.  In fact, it ran around the camper at night. I heard it!

Our towels and bathing suits dried instantly while we camped in the desert, and the towels and suits stayed sopping wet once we reached the coast.

But we saw the county together.  The great Milky Way greeted us each night, stretching on forever as if God swished his wide, white paintbrush through the Heavens for all to see.  We saw shooting stars and the space station moving steadily across the night sky. 

We had black bear visit the campground in Sequoia National Park some nights, although never to our particular site.  We locked our food in bear lockers provided by the park. This is addressed in my post “Don’t Want This Hug.” 

Food should not be left in campers or tents as bears have a keen sense of smell. They have been known to slash through tents and campers to get at food, or what they consider food. Cosmetics, perfumes, and some shampoos have strong fragrances that bears can’t distinguish from food.  These items must be stored carefully if you bring them along on camping trips.

Our family went on nature hikes through the forests and mountains with rangers and saw black bear up close on this lengthy coast-to-coast camping trip.  The mighty Sequoia trees towered above us like sentinels standing guard over all the earth.  We stood inside their massive trunks, scarred by fire, yet still they tower and survive.  These broccoli-topped evergreen trees give new meaning to the word “awesome!” I describe some of our experiences in my post “A Real Live Giant:The Mighty Sequoias.” 

Fourth of July fireworks exploded amid orange cliffs in Nevada.  The Pacific Ocean and California and Washington beaches were windswept and brisk.  San Francisco really is straight up and straight down.  The roller coasters they call cable cars should come with seat belts.  They allow “goofy kids” (mine) to hang on the outside pointing and shouting, “Look Mom!  That road goes straight down.”  Mom couldn’t look.  She didn’t want to lose her place on the Rosary. 

America the Beautiful?  Yes, indeed. I plan to share more stories from our cross-country adventures in future posts. I hope your summer was exciting and memorable. Please feel free to share some of your adventures. Enjoy your Labor Day weekend!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Camp Under the Stars with Your Family

            Camping under the stars at national or state parks works best at primitive campsites. These are campsites with no electrical and water hook-ups or limited hook-up capabilities. At primitive national park camps there are flush toilets available, but not many. And you need a flashlight if you go at night. These bathrooms usually have sky lights, but that doesn’t help at night unless the moon is brilliantly full and you’re camping in the desert with no trees to block out the light.

You can still see millions of stars at camps with electrical hook-ups, though. What the children liked most was when they got to see a shooting star in the black of a moonless night. But there are many activities to do at night at national or state parks. In my Night Prowls post, I discussed ranger-led walks in the dark. And in my Summertime Means Family Camping And Star-Gazing post I talk about the Aurora Borealis we saw while camping in Newfoundland.

In this post, I’d like to discuss how night creatures navigate in the darkness. Hint: They listen to their surroundings, which is impossible to do with children because you’re too busy shushing them—even teenagers.
The mighty Sequoia trees do fall.
But the huge beasts last forever
even on the forest floor.

            We were in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and a naturalist took us out to the field to watch the stars pop out at night. But so did the night creatures. This time, only the adults were armed with flashlights to assist with night vision on this mile-long walk.

Our twins still didn’t like to venture into the darkness at night because we were deep in bear country. Yes, we saw lots of bear this trip to California. So I understood their apprehension. Consequently, I journeyed with only my two oldest daughters and my son. My husband stayed with the twins.

Now you’re thinking “less to shush,” right?
            The older ones are the loud mouths. The twins just follow along.

            The naturalist had us form a circle in the darkness of a field as she talked about the echolocation of bats. And while the symphony of bug noises grew, so too, did my children’s whispers. How could I hear the “chit” of a bat with my own batty-brained kids yammering in my ear?
            “Guys—shush!” I whispered.
            And, yes! Everyone heard me—except my children—even with the crescendo of bug symphony playing.

They “shushed” my “shush.”

I decided to watch the lightning bugs dress the sides of the forest trees surrounding the field. Their lighted bottoms made a pattern of lace against the dappled blackness of the leaves.

            Then the naturalist proceeded to help us noisy humans listen better in the night by standing in the center of our circle and tossing a deflated beach ball to one or another of our group without warning.

            Yep! She knew who the noisy ones were. She smacked my boy right in the kisser with the deflated ball. It didn’t hurt, only startled, but it got my kids to shut up.

            Back and forth, the naturalist tossed the deflated ball to our group, and as the night progressed, so did our ability to catch it. Our group finally quieted down.

            As we continued to look up at a black velvet sky studded with rhinestones, waiting, hoping to see a falling star, the naturalist informed us about the eyes of the night creatures and how the size of them are made to capture any light, any movement in the night. She told us that about 70% of animals are nocturnal. And that they’re sensitive to noise and light. That’s why we need to respect them. The National Park Service has a great website with information about the night sky here  

            I glared at my children, even though they couldn’t see me in the darkness. The crystal clear night sky, the sounds of nature had finally awed them into silence. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason to camp under the stars with your family.

            Thanks for visiting my Camping with Kids blog. Please let me know in the comments section if you’ve ever seen the Arora Borealis, the colorful clouds that mute the stars at night, or a shooting star. Where did you see one? When you see a good shooting star, meaning one that lasts about 5 to 10 seconds, we think it looks like a long white cigarette with the lighted orange tip burning into the Earth’s atmosphere. Or do you just like to gaze up at a night sky to watch for satellites, which we call “calm moving stars” as the pinprick of light flies on its trajectory around the Earth. Happy star gazing, everyone!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Protected Lands for Future Generations: State parks, National Monuments and Forests, National Parks

As I’ve said through all my blog posts, we’ve camped and visited state parks, national parks and even national monuments and forests. I thought it might be time to offer some general explanations about the differences between these parks and where you can find specific information about them.

            State parks are an economical camping destination for families just starting out. Usually, there are no fees to visit the parks. However, camping in state parks does require nominal fees, depending on amenities available.

To find information about specific state parks, try googling “state parks in [state you wish to visit].” When I did this, a list of state parks appeared with a picture of each park. I could then click on the park to find information. 

Most times, it is first come, first serve for campsites at state parks and some are primitive, which means no electrical hook-ups, pit toilets, no showers or pool or playground. But there is fishing and hiking and swimming in lakes or ponds and star gazing. You can bring your canoe and rafts, but you need to check park rules to be sure you can use motorized boats in the water. The larger lakes and interconnected waterways have rules about washing water craft so as not to spread invasive shell creatures. See my post about the zebra mussels in New York State waterways. 

A National Monument is established by presidential proclamation. No vote in Congress is necessary, although Congress can create a national monument by legislation.

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of National Monuments in the United States. It also has a good definition and history of the classification of a park being called a National Monument. Mostly, they are places of historic, prehistoric, and/or scientific interests. 

National Forests encompass national grasslands and national recreation areas and wilderness

Wilderness areas have no buildings or amenities and are left raw and rugged. Some of these forests and recreation areas lie inside or adjoin national parks and monuments. Some forests cross into state parks as well. I just learned that New Jersey is among the ten states that do not have a national forest. Our forests are state parks.
A National Park is set aside by an act of Congress. After approval from Congress, the president's signature is required to make the land a national park. You can find a National Park in a particular state here.  

All national parks have fees. You pay at toll plazas. Purchasing a National Park Pass is good for a year and depending on how often you visit national parks throughout the year could bring a wealth of savings. Remember, a park pass or any fees paid is for one vehicle to pass into the park. This is where we made out well, with seven people packed into our travelling van.
America the Beautiful passes, the National Park Pass, information can be found here.
An annual pass costs $80. These passes can be purchased in person at federal recreation sites; i.e., at national parks.

There are a few other specialty passes available:
Current US military and their “dependents” get in free with documentation.
Seniors, those over 62 years of age, can purchase a lifetime pass for $10, but these must be bought in person only.
An Access Pass is for disabled persons and can be purchased with documentation of disability.

            Parks and recreational lands are protected by the government, be it national or state, so that future generations may enjoy them. I hope this information about the differences between state and national parks and national monuments and forests helps in deciding where to set your adventure this year.

Feel free to let me know a favorite park or place you have visited and why it’s so special to you. Thanks so much for visiting Camping with Kids. Please stop by again!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Dangers of Letting Children Lead

            Parents, it’s important to remember that many times kids have no fear. Each time we go camping I try to remind myself of this fact and still I follow my kids anywhere. This particular adventure takes me right up a rock face.
The dark woods on the hike to Zapata Falls,
Colorado. Raw and rugged!

            We got up early to hike the cool, dark trail to Zapata Falls, which is just south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado.
You can read of our adventures in the Great Sand Dunes here

When we got to the falls, our son climbed up an almost vertical rock to the top. The girls soon followed. They follow their brother everywhere. But this time, my husband climbed up, too.

Me? I was admiring the crystal clear, icy mountain rapids tumbling over rocks, boulders, and logs. The frigid water burbled by my feet as if it had forgotten all about the tumble it took off the cliff ledge.

Then the family called to me from atop the rock face. I pretended I couldn’t hear because of the sound of the rapids. But then my husband did his famous whistle. You know, that whistle that all dads use to call home their children in the neighborhood.

I started to tremble. Why couldn’t they just leave me to my terra firma? Loose rock, dirt, no footholds or handholds. That’s not my idea of adventure. But then I heard all the children encouraging me. My son came back down a ways to help guide me up, the little angel. I couldn’t delay any longer.

Wearing a ball cap limited my vision. This was probably a good thing in my situation. Like I’ve said before, I’ve got this thing about edges. I couldn’t look up to see my son; so he guided me by his black shoelaces. My son’s shoelaces are always untied, and in this particular situation, they were hanging down below his shoes. So I followed the little bits of laces I could see in front of me as I clung to the rock. I focused on his tenor voice, the directions he gave—even though I couldn’t find those blasted foot ledges and hand grips he spoke of.

Suddenly a deep bass voice penetrated my consciousness. “No son! You’re taking her off the cliff ledge!”

My husband, my hero! 

But the tenor voice was back, calm as ever. “Okay, Mom,” it said. “Move to your right.”

Instinctively, I looked left. Nothing but air! And for some reason, I couldn’t get that air inside my lungs. I went back to staring at the rock face two inches in front of me. My nails scraped the rock trying to get a better grip.

“Where are the shoelaces?” I screeched.

“Where are the what, Mom?” My son asked.

Little drips of black came into my vision again. “Come lower.” I told my son.

            For the love of black shoelaces, the lengths of which finally dangled into my view. Cautiously, slowly, I followed them up the side of the rock.

            Once I got to the top, my family cheered and I finally started breathing again.

What a spectacular view—once I was sitting down with my family. The San Luis Valley, mountains, sand dunes in the distance, lakes reflecting a powder blue sky.

 Ah, but we needed to get down too.

We faced the rock and climbed down slowly. My husband went first and helped the girls and then me. My son the Billy goat had his own way down—which I don’t recommend to anyone. What an exhilarating climb!

Always pay attention to your surroundings and your abilities. Within reason, live adventurously. The memories and excitement stay with you and your family forever. Do you have any exciting adventure you wish to share on Camping with Kids? Please leave a note in the comments section. Thanks!