Urban Campout

Last night the thermometer read 40°, which called for a campout in the urbs, despite the 40 mph wind gusts and the soggy snow.

There’s a lot of movement in the urbs at night. Who are all these people driving around at 2AM? Aren’t their kids going to wake them up soon, demanding breakfast? They must be out getting pedialite or emergency wipes.

Besides the cars, there’s a train or a jet going by every few minutes, so it’s hard to forget your tent is pitched in the city, not the woods. Still, it was a good time. The kids tested out their custom sleeping bags, giving them pretty good reviews: Me, with much excitement and encouragement – Do you like your awesome new sleeping bags? The kids, nonchalant – yeah. Can we have some more hot chocolate?

urban campoutWe told stories for a couple hours, about biscuit the bear, carbuncle the crab, and an anonymous ostrich, all of whom were good friends and very helpful to one another. Around 9PM my son and I dozed off while my daughter continued telling us about the volcano that was going to boil, which would feel really hot:

And there was a big rock that was going to roll into it and fill it up and then the planet would crack because the hot lava couldn’t get out.

[Laughter, followed by what sounded like a monkey, dying…]

I was talking like a funny monkey. Dad, can you do something for my finger to feel better? For my finger to be, um, not ripped?

She had a hangnail. That’s all I can remember.

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.

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.

Another Snowcave

Huge snow bankIf our first quinzee were an RV it would be a popup tent trailer – functional, but cramped and drafty. Today we upgraded to a class A motorhome with popouts. To build a class A quinzee you need a massive pile of snow, and to add the popouts, i.e., additional bedrooms and den, you need multiple connected piles. I think the snow cleanup crew had just such a cave suite in mind when they plowed our complex this week.

Super quinzeeThe photo doesn’t quite do it justice. I’d say it’s ten feet tall, twenty wide, and maybe thirty front to back – the grand teton of snow banks. The problem with quinzee construction in a week-old snow mound is the ice. After two hours of hacking and carving I was spent, so my son took over for about two minutes, but we ran out of light. The campout will have to be for another night, to his dismay, and mine.

For some reason my daughter, who’s three, isn’t so jazzed about sleeping with a few hundred pounds of snow looming over her. In response to an invite my wife said, thanks for the invite. Sleeping on the snow, in a cave, in the cold, a hundred yards from our apartment… seems silly. But it’s not. It’s awesome.