Monday, August 27, 2012

Family Trip in Canoe Country + Tips

In June, we went to the Boundary Waters for a week-long camping trip.  We had perfect weather.  I thought the bugs were normal, everyone else said they were horrible. 
I want to share a bit of our experience and some tips for camping with kids.  

Left to right, Back: Jess, Willem, Libby, Steph. Front: Gibbie, Ezra
 This was our crew, minus Paul because he was taking the picture.   Here we were on the top of the Palisades on Seagull Lake.  Seagull is at the very end of the gunflint trail, which meanders north out of Grand Marais.  The Boundary Waters is designated a wilderness area.  It largely has no roads or buildings.  When we camp there, we carry all our stuff in canoes and live entirely outdoors.  There are designated campsites on the lakes.  Good maps are available of all the lakes, and along with a compass, they are absolutely necessary.  I straightened out one group of paddlers who were completely disoriented!  Each campsite has a fire grate and a latrine, which is just a seat over a hole in the ground.  We call them "ranger boxes" but I've never heard anyone else use that term.  My dad always mentions it to rangers when we run across them, and the rangers don't seem to appreciate it.

The Palisades are a tall, sheer rock cliff on the edge of a large island.  Passing by in the water, ancient petroglyphs can be seen on the rock face, though we couldn't find them this year.  We hiked to the top to take in the view.  I love seeing the island-studded lake, and the patterns of the wind on the water like stretchmarks riffling across the lake, and the giant cloud shadows sliding over the lake and islands.  There are blueberries at the top.  The hike up is short and easy.
 One of our favorite activities was reading The Lord of the Rings aloud.  (We read selectively; lots of parts had to be saved for after kid bedtime or out of earshot!)  It was so exciting to read this book that is so dear to us with friends who are so dear to us.  Which brings me to 

Family Camping Tip #1
Bring with other Helpful Adults

The inclusion of other adults tips the balance of the trip in favor of the adults.  It gives more people to share the workload and the child supervision.  We took turns cooking, cleaning, getting water, reading aloud, steering, duffing. (for the uninitiated, duffing is the coveted position in the canoe where one does not steer but one's butt is wet for the duration. Duffer may be in charge of snacks, drinking water, sunscreen, leading songs, and navigating, if duffer is not a child)

In our experience, it is not fun to go camping with another family with little kids so that the kids can play together.  In reality, kids are a delightful liability on a camping trip.  They need constant supervision around the ever-present dangers of fire and water.  They get hot and tired and they may whine.  They can't carry much stuff or steer.  
With the help of an awesome grown-up, kids can be tons of fun.  They can build a fire, paddle, sing, gather firewood, fish, remind us to be awestruck, set up tents, and do everything around camp that they couldn't do on their own.  
If there are more grown-ups around, we can take turns being the awesome kid-helping grown-up and relaxing.  Okay, not that much relaxing happened because we had some sickness which threw a wrench in our plans.

 Family Camping Tip #2
Expect Stuff to Go Wrong
People can get hurt, crabby, and sick, and weather can threaten.  Except for the weather, all of these things can make you equally miserable at home.   When we go camping, we know we will be working hard.  Since we don't expect leisure, we can enjoy it when it happens instead of being mad that we can't expect complete relaxation all the time. 
Family Camping Tip #3
Be Well, Well Prepared
The Boundary Waters is not the place to go if you have never outfitted yourself on a trip before.  It might be dangerous to be unprepared in the wilderness.  You want to know what you are doing, and have all the right stuff.
Having the right stuff will make your trip more fun, relaxed, and carefree on any camping trip with kids.  Having the right stuff can prevent you from having way too much stuff, one of the most common packing errors.  The more experienced we get, the less we bring, because I'm not packing three of everything just to make sure, or because each one has something wrong with it!
I recommend the book Canoe Country Camping: Wilderness Skills for the Boundary Waters and Quetico by Michael Furtman.  He has excellent lists for clothing, gear, and food, and this is an all-around great guide to going to the BWCA.  First Aid Kits in particular, need adapting.  They aren't stocked with a week in the wilderness in mind. I think it would be wise to start with a decent small wilderness first aid pack and beef it up.  You just want enough supplies that you can keep likely accidents clean and freshly bandaged for your whole trip.
When I say the right stuff, I do not mean the most expensive stuff.  Lots of pricey camping products are no better than cheaper ordinary stuff we already have.  On the other hand, most cheap camping stuff isn't worth the tears you will spend over broken zippers letting thousands of mosquitoes into your tent, or the shivers, blue lips, and tears of kids in rain gear whose seams burst during the first portage.
Family Camping Tip#4
Make Merry and Drive Dull Care Away

Bring along a great book to read aloud.  Sing songs, tell stories and jokes, take time to be silly and do stuff you like. 

The women who came with us were great for lifting every one's spirits.  We were with beautiful people we love in a beautiful place, doing what we like.  

 Family Camping Tip#5
Plan Your Route Wisely
With our kids, ages 7, 5, and 1 on this trip, we didn't move camp every day.  We Base-camped, meaning we set up camp in one place and stayed there all week, taking day trips as whimsy or ambition directed.  
Base-camping eliminates a ton of work, and makes a trip much simpler.  It also allows us to make a wilderness home.  The kids get to know the campsite intimately, and the little area around us.  That helps them feel more comfortable and less stressed about being away from home.  
It's important to be realistic in planning a trip. We plan to do less, and if it takes longer than expected,  we're fine.

Family Camping Tip#6
Be Flexible
I had an idea in my head that we were going to go on long day trips every day.  On our trip health didn't allow that, often weather or the ages of kids will impede our plans.  Just camping is fun and beautiful and exciting.  I had a lot more fun when I let go of my expectations and enjoyed the people I was with, in the place where we were.
To paraphrase the woman in Perelandra, instead of wishing for the good that you thought God would give, enjoy the good that he does give.

Family Camping Tip #5
Be the Grown-up

Sometimes being a grown-up is hard.  I don't always want to be in charge.
Camping is a good time for me to practice sucking it up and doing more work than seems fair.  Life is full of work, and that work can be beautiful and good if we choose to embrace it rather than sidling away from it.
I worked this trip on communicating well, asking for help, cooperating, listening, making decisions, and trusting my gut.  It was worth it.
On the shore of Lake Superior

Family Camping Tip #6
Make the most of the Car Ride
Leave early in the morning, so the kids can sleep for a good stretch of the road. (We left around 3:30am, and had three hours behind us before they woke up.)
 Plan for Meals on the road.  We like to eat a simple picnic breakfast on the shore of Lake Superior.  Then we plan a bathroom break not long after that.  Then we stop at the ranger station in Grand Marais for the permit, and pick up forgotten supplies in Grand Marais, and a quick lunch at the put-in point after the boats are loaded.  
Even given all this, going to those northern lakes is about a seven-hour car trip for us.  We bring read-aloud books, favorite toys, novel toys, audio books, and fun music.
Family Camping Tip #7
Car clothes and Big Splurge
We pack a full set of clothes for each person to change into after the trip.  Some trips really destroy clothes--it's nice to have something clean waiting in case everything we brought is dirty, ripped and smelly.  We cleaned with soap (bucket shower away from lake, then swim) the night before, and feel all good and clean.
Then we drive into Grand Marais and have a big wonderful meal at the Angry Trout, really my favoritest restaurant in the world.  That pretty much takes us all the way back home, with a stop or two for gas and bathrooms on the way.
Random people having a romantic lunch at the Angry Trout.  We were too busy having fun to take a picture of ourselves.  We opted for shade and air-conditioning with a lake view from inside after our week in the sun.

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