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

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Cape May County Park and Zoo in New Jersey

            Another wonderful place for children of all ages to visit is the free Cape May CountyPark and Zoo in New Jersey. The zoo has a wide range of interesting animals; like African lions, giraffes, and zebras. But what my children loved most were the unusual animals.
Watching giraffes at Cape May Zoo.

“Mom, look!” My son called me over. “Bongos!”
“What?” I walked over to the grassy open area my son was standing in front of. “They look like chunky gazelles with skinny white stripes.”

“No, Mom.” My son shook his head, always pleased with himself when teaching me something new. “These are Mountain Bongos from central Kenya,” he read.

“Then what are they doing here in New Jersey?”

My son, in classic style, rolled his eyes. He surprised me with a great reply. “They like the shore, too.” And he ran after his sisters.

My husband laughed. “He’s learning a lot from you,” he teased.

But that’s the idea. Children are supposed to learn from their parents. Hopefully, good stuff. That’s why we go camping with five kids and explore interesting places, like zoos.
The many boardwalks, trees, and
pens at the Cape May Zoo.
It soon became a game. As we walked the many shaded boardwalks to discover what was in the pens or monkey and bird enclosures, the children wanted to be the first to identify a strange animal, bird, or reptile for me. And they did.

We saw Ankole Watusi from Africa. The Watusi have thick, long horns. They are a breed of cattle. We found many unique and colorful birds and monkeys. We glimpsed cheetahs and tamarins. My favorite was the snow leopard with his huge paws and muted, spotted coat. He didn’t stay out in the sun long because of the heat. I suspect his hut was air-conditioned.

If you are visiting the southern New Jersey shore, the shady, cool, free Cape May County Park and Zoo is a great change of pace from the hot, sandy beach. The animal habitats are open and spacious for the most part. We watched the herbivores, the animals who eat plants and grasses; like American Bison, alpacas, and elk, roam the grass and tree lands. The carnivores, of course, are more contained. Signs and fact boards offer the viewer more information about the animals. 

            Although we usually go in the summer, this zoo is open every day except Christmas. The park also offers playgrounds and a few rides; picnic pavilions and trails. Cape May Safari CafĂ© offers “healthy choices” for snacks and meals. But we opted for our own picnic lunch. There are seven of us, remember?
The playground and slides
are through the woods.

            Feel free to share your favorite zoo to visit with the family or any aquarium or place to see and learn about animals. Perhaps you know of a good website on the internet that offers photos and facts about unique animals. Just leave a note in the comments section here at Camping with Five Kids. It would be truly appreciated. Enjoy your family adventures in 2020!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, New Jersey

            Happy New Year, Everyone! We wish you health and fun adventures in 2020.

            The Stone Harbor, New Jersey, Wetlands Institute teaches people about the need to keep our precious coastal salt marshes clean and protected. This is a special ecosystem for many creatures; such as, coastal birds, diamondback terrapins, and horseshoe crabs to name only a few. This is their habitat. We are only visitors.
Seeing Santa at the Holiday Bazaar
Wetlands Institute.

            The Wetlands Institute performs “research, education, and conservation through a variety of community-engagement projects, educational programs, and field studies.” [from website] Recently we learned that with the concern about the rising sea level, the marshlands are in danger of drowning and sinking. The grasses are disappearing. Sediment is important to these coastal ecosystems. We discovered that now when they dredge the main channel for shipping, they are using any “clean sediments” from the dredging to enhance the height of the marshlands to counter this rising sea level, according to Dr. Lenore Tedesco, the Executive Director of the Wetlands Institute. Dr. Tedesco has an interesting TEDx talk about nature and climate change. You can access it here.

            But the Wetlands Institute isn’t all work and no play. My mother-in-law used to volunteer in the kitchen at some of the functions. She even took us along, sometimes, to pass out plates, utensils, and drinks and clear tables. But one time they were short-handed in the food line, so they asked if we’d help out.
Helping our Grandma at the Wetlands.

            “Of course!” I said. I knew it was best to keep my son close by so I could keep an eye on him. I was in charge of hot dogs and buns. My son was in charge of offering sauerkraut to customers who purchased hot dogs. The girls handed out the cookies nearby. The problem was, my son got so excited about offering sauerkraut to people that he offered it to everybody, whether they purchased a hot dog or not.

            “You want sauerkraut with that?” He’d ask anyone who passed him.
            “Son,” I’d say, “they’re having cookies.”
            He didn’t care.
            Someone would come through the line and have only coffee. And my son would ask if he wanted sauerkraut with it. We sold a bunch of hot dogs, but mostly what everyone in the food line remembered—and commented about—was how this young salesman was very excited to offer sauerkraut with anything they purchased.
Face painting at Wetlands.

            In other visits to the Wetlands Institute, the kids would join in the fun at the festivals. They’d have their faces painted. They got a chance to climb up into the “osprey nest” in the learning center. The kids made nature crafts in the activities room. Sometimes I helped out with the crafts.  

            There is so much to learn about our wetlands. Just as we would go to all the park ranger events at our national parks when we went camping with five kids, we’d go to talks and events at the Wetlands. Our kids got involved with a few hands-on experiments presented there. They loved the touch tank as all kids do. Life is about learning new things, and I learned right along with my children.
Climbing up to the
Osprey nest.

            We’d watch the Livecams to check on any nesting osprey. We’d walk all over that salt marsh nature trail. Now you can listen to up-to-date information on your smartphone by paying a small fee to use their call in number and punching in the stop number. We learned about diamondback terrapin turtles in the museum. We learned about estuaries and why they are necessary. Truly this is a great destination to visit for families. I love learning about nature. Why don’t you see for yourself?   

            Feel free to share your favorite family places to learn new information, whether it is in a state or national park or at a museum or even at a good website on the internet. Just leave a note in the comments section here at Camping with Five Kids. It would be truly appreciated. Enjoy your family adventures in 2020!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

4 Tips to Combining Holiday Chores and Family Time

The holidays can be such a hectic time of year, so difficult to find that much-needed time to have fun with your family. I mean there are gifts to buy, cards and letters to write, homemade goodies to bake, meals to plan, and a home to decorate. All this combined with holiday concerts and parties and cookie exchange parties. Sometimes quiet family time gets lost in the shuffle. So I try to combine both preparing for Christmas and spending quality time with my children.

Nope! It’s not easy. As long as you realize this, you can move on with your attempts at “family” time.

For gift buying and wrapping, as the children got older, I invited them along to help make surprises for other people. We took labels from the Giving Tree at church and bought gifts for the less fortunate. This taught our children to compare prices and manage money as they grew. But it also taught teamwork and how to combine resources and make decisions on what to buy. And they’ve always loved wrapping gifts. –Inside tip: Buy extra wrapping paper and tape! If your kids are anything like mine, they will use inordinate amounts of paper and tape. And some extra pairs of scissors will help, too.
Our End Result!
Holiday cards and letters can be more difficult to get the kids involved in. So I tell my kids they have to help me remember all our adventures during the year. The kids crowd around me at the computer and we start. Memories fly at me from all sides. Laughter fills the room. We sift through the stories and *hopefully* make a coherent, entertaining family letter to accompany our Christmas cards. After printing out some copies, the kids help by writing out the cards or envelopes or putting on the return stickers and stamps. We stuff them and head to the post office. 

Baking, oh my gosh, the baking! It has definitely improved since the children were little. You really need patience with this one, especially if the kids are still very young. This is a learning experience for both parent and child. At my house, whoever wants to help with the cookie bake helps with combining ingredients and forming the dough and cookies on the tray.
My master roller for pies!
Sometimes another crew of children will sign on for baking homemade cinnamon breads. Try to allow for some fun; like flour fights. The big thing to remember here is to make extra to pay your help in goodies. Otherwise there is nothing left for guests and cookie exchange parties. Always remember to allow children to help plan a holiday meal. You’ll have a better chance of them eating that way.
Flour fights can be fun!

Decorating the home and Christmas tree. Here’s a real challenge to teamwork. Yes, we need a leader, only I consider them more like a director. Depending on their ages, allow one of your children to take a turn at being director. We are not talking bossy here. The situation is to show your children how to work as a team and direct where things should go. They are a designer, creating a special holiday feeling for their home. It doesn’t matter if it’s not like last year. You put on the Christmas music and “Deck the halls!” Of course, our Christmas tree still doesn’t get up before Christmas Eve, when the extended family and friends come for dinner and to visit. It’s finally become a Lees Family tradition.
Decorating the Lees Family Christmas
tree on Christmas Eve.

The holidays are a time to catch up with family and friends, to share stories, to enjoy delicious homemade baked goods with tea or coffee, and linger over dinners.  It’s a time to enjoy one another’s company.

With all the gift buying and card mailing; the home decorating and meal planning; baking cookies and breads, pies and cakes, do you ever feel the added pressure of trying to find quality time for the family at Christmastime? Please let me know how you fit everything in during the rush of the holidays. Just leave a note in the comments section here at Camping with Five Kids. It would be truly appreciated.

Have a wonderful Christmas and Holiday season! Enjoy your family.

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Importance of Taking Time

            In today’s rush-rush world, it’s so important to remember to take some time for your family. This couldn’t have been made clearer to me than this past week. The children had been tempting me to walk around the lake for weeks now.

            “The sky’s so blue,” my son said. “The humidity’s down.”
            “The trees are full of bright colors, Mom.” One of the twins reminded me.
            Like I didn’t already know this. I’ve got to move away from the windows when trying to make my writing deadlines.
            “There’s a carpet of gold leaves on the ground,” my oldest told me.
            The other twin brought a bag into my writing space at the dining room table. “Your decorations are all crumply. You need new leaves!”
Leaves dry fast in the house!

            She knows how I like to collect the colorful leaves to decorate the porch and dining room tables. Leaves dry up fast! There’s always a need for fresh, natural fall decorations at my house.  
            Then my second daughter came into the dining room and sat down with a whump, scattering the dry leaves onto the floor. “The leaves outside are ready for crunching, Mom,” she said like a sergeant to the commanding officer.

             They won. We finally took that walk around Laurel Lake. And the trees were indeed full of color. And my feet did drag through piles of leaves, crunching every last one of them.
A Beautiful Lake!

            Even with all our chattering and crunching, I heard it. A peculiar sound. I told the children to wait.

            “Listen!” Then it came again. It sounded throaty.
            “Is it a bird or a bear?” One of the twins asked.
            “A bear?” I asked her. “In South Jersey?”
            Her answer was to bend down and pick up more red and yellow maple leaves. I walked over to a sweet gum and picked up a bunch of the plum-colored star leaves. Then I saw them. Four wild turkeys came out of the woods, all gobbling away. 

            My oldest laughed and took out her phone to take photos. “I want to show my friends. They’ll never believe this.” The turkeys came right up to her. “I wish we had some food for them.”
Unusual friends to meet on a walk!
            “Darling,” I told her, “they’re going to be food if they don’t hide.” Don’t these birds know Thanksgiving is coming? I tried to shoo them back into the woods. “Save yourselves, guys!”
            We did not touch the wild birds. It’s never safe to chase or attempt to touch any wild creature, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog. Even the safest looking animal can hurt you if you’re not careful. My guess was that someone from the homes around the lake must be feeding them, like we feed the wild ducks at the shore.                 

            When we showed the photos to my husband, he was surprised. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t with you,” he finally said. “We’d have fresh turkey for Thanksgiving.”

            The children thought it was funny. I was glad that, even if he were with us, he couldn’t “hunt” the turkeys for our dinner in a neighborhood. I knew I’d be the one plucking the thing. I like my turkeys “fresh” from the supermarket. Thank you very much!

            Our short adventure walking around the lake led to a fun “meeting” with some unusual friends. And it couldn’t have happened unless I took some time to enjoy my family. The real gift of Thanksgiving is time. Make some time for family and friends this holiday season. Remember: The dishes can wait. Gift shopping can wait. Your profession can wait—at least for one day.

            Feel free to share your favorite Thanksgiving memory with us. Just leave a note in the comments section here at Camping with Five Kids. It would be truly appreciated. Enjoy your family. Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Camping with Five Kids in Autumn

            Autumn is my favorite season. I love the crisp air and the host of brilliant color on deciduous tree leaves. It’s the best time to go camping. For one thing, the kids—and parents—don’t complain about the heat. It’s a perfect time to spend a long weekend camping with the family in the mountains or forests. Most of the crowds have thinned out at state or national parks. It’s quieter. Peaceful. And fun!
In the Catskill Mountains in New
York, we found an interesting

            Now it’s true that the Lees crew usually makes their own fun, both at camp and hiking in the forests, but campgrounds and park rangers offer much to see and do in autumn. We’ve learned about the changing of the season in nature; trees, fish, mammals. We’ve made apple dolls and painted pumpkins. Just because the pool is closed up doesn’t mean the fun’s over at family friendly campgroundsMany campgrounds offer crafts, haunted mazes and hay rides, and costume parades. Remember to talk to your children about the haunted stuff, that it’s fake and just meant to scare people, to be sure there won’t be any nightmares. I waited until my twins, my youngest, were about 9 or 10 before we participated in the haunted stuff as a family.

Overlook Mountain trail
had a surprise, an abandoned
hotel with golden birch trees
growing in it.
Campfires are more inviting in autumn because of the warmth they bring. Weenie roasts and s’more toastings abound at campgrounds. It’s important to begin a campfire before everyone gets too tired after a day of adventure hiking or horseback riding or playing at parks. And you want to allow the kids to assist. Always monitor children around fires. The reason to start a campfire early is because it takes time for the fire to get to coals which make it easier to roast hot dog pieces, I always cut them up in hunks, or marshmallows.

            Then there’s that beautiful night sky! Autumn is a great time to watch the stars pop out at night. There are fewer bugs around because of the cooler temperatures. We usually dress warmly with sweatshirts and long pants and lay out under the night sky with blankets in fields or at the playgrounds, wherever we find the wide open sky. Now we have those star apps the kids like to look at to understand the constellations. I use Star TrackerLite. We recently watched the International Space Station come into view for a few minutes as it headed northeast across the night sky here in New Jersey. 

            Like any camping trip, you need to remember to pack for the weather. Dress in layers for warmth when hiking; wear bed clothing designed to retain body heat at night and sleep in sleeping bags appropriate for cooler temperatures. We have both 20 degree and sub-zero sleeping bags; good in 20 degree or zero degree weather. And always bring rain coats. The quilted ones are great for cooler temperatures.            

            The whole reason to go camping with the family is to enjoy each other’s company while traveling and seeing this beautiful world of ours. Have fun on your next camping adventure, no matter the season. Feel free to share your favorite season or family activities. Just leave a note in the comments section here at Camping with Five Kids. It would be truly appreciated. Enjoy your adventure! 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Follow the GPS: It Knows Where We Are!

            When you plan an unfamiliar road trip with the family, how do you find your way? I’m sure we all agree that you need to know where you are going even if you haven’t visited the area before. When we first began our camping journey with five kids in tow, we used physical maps and TripTiks from AAA, our automobile association. Do you remember them?
We started every Camping
journey with a pile of maps
and Tour Books.

            My husband is amazing with directions and somehow knowing where he is and the way roads and highways work—even in states we haven’t visited before. However, he literally will not ask for directions if for any reason we get off track of our destination. And I’m about as helpful with directions as the children when they were very young. I keep saying, “Shouldn’t we be there by now?”

            What usually happens in these instances is that I irritate my husband so much he finally stops at a convenience store. I run inside with the children and the map to see if anyone can help us find the waterfalls or a hike in the area we’re looking for. But sometimes it’s not this simple. Remember those five children? Well they’ve been sitting in the van wondering when we “get there” too. So they are hyper and want to buy snacks, and I have no sense of direction. None! In other words, we’re not much help to my husband.

            So I made my husband come in with us and stand near me to hear as I ask for directions. I told him to leave once he understood where to go, and then I’d thank the person and leave with the children. This will work, but the children and I decided to go one step further. We bought my husband a TomTom GPS, a global positioning device, for Father’s Day. He was ecstatic! While I realize today the iPhone and the Android phones can become GPS’s, my husband prefers his TomTom.

My husband's pride and joy, his
TomTom GPS.
The good thing now is that many “places of interest” offer coordinates to plug into GPS’s—even trailheads and waterfalls in rural areas. The kids think this is magic, and many times it is. However, you need to remember two important things when planning a route on a GPS to spare you from a car full of “are we there yets.”

            Update your maps regularly. With all the roadwork going on in the United States and the creation of new highways or the re-naming of old ones and roads popping up in rural areas where we like to hike, updating your GPS maps will help you avoid traffic jams and road closures. In other words, any new highway or street sign you find will match your GPS.       

            Always check the settings for each trip you plan on your GPS. If you don’t check your settings each time you plan a trip, you could add miles and miles to your trip simply because you still have “avoid tolls” set from the last trip and you need to cross a bridge for your current route. And whatever you do, please remember that “shortest route” actually means shortest—to the foot. Sometimes the map of our route on the GPS looks like the tangled rope we try to set up our tarps with at camp. All to save maybe two feet off our journey. And the “fastest route” means every minute counts.

            New technology can be great if you remember to update your machine regularly. But I’m still old fashioned. I insist on carrying a map of the area we will be visiting just to be able to see the whole area at one time. It also verifies that you are heading in the correct direction. I like helpful machines, but I don’t mind a second opinion. How about you?

            So enjoy each other’s company while traveling and have fun on your next travel adventure. Feel free to share any tips you may have about finding your way in unfamiliar areas. Just leave a note in the comments section here at Camping with Five Kids. It would be truly appreciated. Enjoy your adventure! 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Entertaining Kids When Camping in the Rain

Sometimes it can rain all week when you’re camping, and you can feel like moist potato chips: limp and yucky. But you don’t need to pack it all in and head for home—or a hotel. Even if you didn’t bring along the Legos, board games, coloring books, or cards, you can be creative and entertain the kids when it’s raining while you’re camping. Here are five suggestions for you.

            Bring raincoats and rain boots and hike anyway. As long as the weather is not severe, just don your boots and raincoats and take a walk in the woods or along a beach. There’s no need for sunscreen or bug spray during a light rain. My kids love the squishy mud. Splash through puddles. Have a contest to find the biggest puddle at the campground. Discover what kind of animals or bugs come out when it rains. If you find worms, go fishing.
Hiking in the clouds
and rain in Maryland.
However, never hike or fish during thunder storms, especially on mountaintops or in open areas. Never invite danger, only adventure. While hiking in the Colorado Rockies, we were told by the park rangers to be off the mountaintop by 3 p.m. because thunder storms happened almost daily at that time in July.

            Find campground or park activities under cover. Depending on where you’re staying, there are activities for children to enjoy. Adults too! Some are supervised or led by experts. At state or national parks, my kids have made dried apple dolls, learned about geology from park rangers, and watched nature videos at Visitors’ Centers or even movies provided by campground personnel in their activities’ center. Most parks offer activity guides including indoor and outdoor things to do. Most family friendly campgrounds have activities for campers to do, too. Just check at the office to find out.
Dried apple dolls made
inside the hut.

            Create games inside. If you’re stuck in the camper or tent, play charades. My kids love this game. A player tells the participants the topic; a song, movie, or book title or an object or person and how many words there are, all without speaking. Then the player acts out the words.          You could sit around the table and make up stories with each person adding to the story. These can be a lot of fun. Remember the stories do not need to make sense. You can choose a genre; adventure, fantasy, or science fiction. And then let your imagination go. It’s okay if your story starts to sound like a movie the children like. I like to bring a battery operated tape recorder along just for these types of situations. The kids love to listen to the crazy stories we all came up with after our camping trips.
            Play “guess what it is.” Give one person a paper bag. Make everybody else close their eyes while the person puts something in the bag from the camper, tent, or one their possessions. Then that person needs to give clues to everyone about what’s in the bag. Whoever guesses it is the next person to put something in the bag.
            Or build something with things that are available in the camper and have everyone else guess what it’s supposed to be. Set a timer to rush the builder. We’ve used marshmallows and colored pencils or crayons, bent paper plates, cups, spoons. Be creative!

Discover what’s around you. Take a scenic drive in the area where you are staying to see the sights. The mountains are still impressive; forests lush, waterfalls full. The ocean or river or lake may be peaked in whitecaps from the wind; beaches are windswept.
The drive will help you find indoor activities in the area, too; museums or discovery centers to visit, indoor playgrounds. 
            Whether you’re camping with kids in the rain or sunshine, be creative, enjoy each other’s company, and by all means, have fun. I hope you found these few suggestions helpful about what to do when camping in the rain. There are many more; like, hang-the-man using trip-specific sights or sentences. Please share any experiences you may have about entertaining children when it’s raining outside. Just leave a note in the comments section here at Camping with Five Kids. It would be truly appreciated. Enjoy your adventure!