Chengwatana State Forest

chengwatana state forestThis weekend we camped out in the Chengwatana Forest, about 30,000 acres of birch, aspen, and white pine along the St. Croix River in east-central Minnesota. Like the rest of the state, the forest is flat and wet, with an elevation around 900 ft. and lots of marsh, river, and lake.

In February that means lots of ice. The road was covered in a thick layer because of the recent snow melt. The foot of snow that remained on the ground had a shell of ice on it as well, strong enough to support the first half of a footstep but then break under the second.

It got down to 5° overnight, otherwise the temperature stayed in the teens and twenties with only a slight breeze. We couldn’t ask for more in the middle of February. Actually, with a few more degrees we could have ventured, comfortably, more than 5 feet from the campfire. The cold really limits campout activities to survival, i.e., maintaining core body temperature, fending off frostbite, and such. But, like I said, it’s the middle of February in Minnesota, where the average high is in the twenties and the average low just above zero.

chengwatana ice shelvesOnce again, it was too cold for young kids. I’ve drawn the line at 10°. Single digits mean frozen digits. The age range for that threshold depends, in part, on the availability of winter gear. The standard boots and mittens for young kids (pre-K) seem to be designed for the warmer months of winter, the beginning and end, rather than the frozen middle.

We’ll be back once the weather improves. Chengwatana is 20 minutes further from the Twin Cities than Sand Dunes, but it’s bigger, more isolated, and contains less private land. Plus, it has a sweet name.

Snow Day

Education sciences building

Bikenstien in front of the Education Sciences Building, in front of the 10th Ave Bridge, in front of downtown Minneapolis.

Campus was closed today on account of the snow, a rare occurrence.

About Me and Life

kidsLike I said here, I’ve been a dad since my son was born, logically. What a monumental day. Whereas my wife took something like nine months to mentally prepare herself for the reality of parenthood, I, not having grown the baby in my womb, had a few seconds before my mind imploded and I slipped into limbo. I made it, barely. (I’m writing this after seeing the movie Inception.)

That was the day life stopped being about me. My wife had born me an heir – many kudos to her – and it was time for me to establish an inheritance, that is, finish school so I could get a job and keep feeding him his rice cereal and such. Very long story short, I finished the first round of school but started a second, during which time two other children appeared. The rice cereal disappeared quickly, along with other things like my socks and my keys, and both of my wits. Now, I’m still in school. But at least I’m not in limbo, or so it appears.

My kids’ inheritance, at least the tangible portion, consists of my baseball cards, my bike, some cool rocks I found on the beach, a box of wire scraps, and about seventy gallons of camping gear. Also, my tools and my original Nintendo, with games and controllers. Most of the value is in the camping gear and a few of the baseball cards. Once I get a job this list may grow to include more camping stuff. Otherwise, their inheritance will, hopefully, be an intangible but more valuable one. Again, like I said here, our goal is to accumulate experiences, adventures, rather than things.

And so, pondering the depths of life and lots of other profound things, I’ve come up with a proverb: Give a kid a fish, and they’ll have something to play with for a day. Then it will get stinky and gross. Teach a kid to fish, and they’ll probably get the hook stuck in your ear. Then, after you get the hook out, you probably won’t catch anything. But it will be really fun.

Teaching Kids to Enjoy Tomatoes and the Outdoors

camping with dad

Growing up we always had a small garden in the backyard, and it was always dominated by tomatoes, or dermaids, as we called them. My dad would eat a dermaid straight off the vine, with a little salt and pep (we abbreviated a lot – pep for pepper, sammi for sandwich, dermaid for tomato, etc.).

Once he offered me a quarter to eat a single slice. Eww… slimy and mushy, with weird seeds coming out of the middle? Plus, my dad liked them? But I had done worse for a quarter before. I plugged my nose and gagged it down whole. I’m sure I bought some candy with the quarter.

I think I was 19, living in Sicily, the next time I ate a fresh tomato. So delish! I can eat them like apples, until my mouth is full of sores. The old man was right, as usual. And now I’m the old man, trying to teach my kids to enjoy tomatoes, and camping.

There are some things, like vegetables and classical music, that people won’t appreciate until adulthood, if at all. So, I don’t punish my kids for picking out the onions or the tomatoes. They just need time. However, with other things, like camping and sports, I’m resolute. No mercy, no excuses.

My goal isn’t to get them out, it’s to teach them to enjoy it, at least before they’re teenagers. Having grown up camping, and having spent some difficult nights out with the boy scouts and with my own kids, I’ve settled on two principles of outdoor enjoyment:

  1. Be Prepared – The famous Boy Scout motto is critical to happy camping. Too simple or too hasty can translate into unprepared, which may lead to starvation, frostbite, or worst of all, boredom. Thus, know what your getting into and what you’ll need to conquer it and enjoy it. For some people, including kids and spouses, camping may not be inherently awesome. You have to teach them to appreciate it, and sometimes ease them in by bringing a little comfort into the wild. Thus, know your audience, step into their boots and be prepared to help them have fun.
  2. Be Responsible – Another key feature of successful outings is responsibility – outdoors we are completely in charge of our livelihood and survival. The deeper we go the more self-sufficient we have to be. Camping can be empowering and gratifying as we overcome challenges, some of them personal weaknesses, and as we commune with nature, whatever that means. Our less outdoorsy family members or friends need to take on as much responsibility as possible, so that the experience is a personal success. Have them join in the preparations, setting up camp, cooking, and such. They may cramp your style or ruin everything, but kids, in particular, will benefit from having some ownership in every outing.

The photo: Dillon’s Beach, CA, circa 1991 – me, my sis, and my pops.

Backyard Campout in the Snowcave

sledding on the snowcave

After three more hours of carving we deemed our latest snowcave to be habitable. The inside dimensions were about seven by ten, and my son could stand in it. The temperatures started in the teens and dropped to about eight, at the lowest.

One of the major challenges of camping with kids is sleeping. Many of us make the classic novice mistake of enforcing regular indoor bedtimes. At home it’s a simple process – tuck them in, close the door, then go downstairs, put on a movie and bust out the ice cream. I think I was twelve when I realized that 1) my parents didn’t have a bedtime, and 2) a person could have ice cream more than once a week, even every day.

sleeping in the snowcave

Outdoors, without an actual bed or bedroom, the kids aren’t fooled. After stuffing our faces with candy, s’mores, and cocoa, we usually compromise on bedtime – a couple hours later for them, and a couple earlier for mom and dad.

Unfortunately, in this case with all the sleeping-pad sledding, my daughter was exhausted by about 7:00 PM, so she didn’t get to join us. Major bummer, because she had actually expressed some interest – impressive, for a three year old. So, we had a nice campfire with our neighbors and then packed out the sleeping gear and hit the hay, aka snow, around 9:30 PM.