Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping

Another sleepless starry night at Vedauwoo. Over the past five years, the annual Vedauwoo campout has become a tradition for us, a brief but important interruption in our 1,500 mile road trip from the waterlogged Midwest to the drought-stricken west coast. Our first time through was in 2011, en route from Minneapolis to Sacramento. We’ve stopped in twice per summer ever since.

The scene doesn’t change much from year to year, whether we’re heading west, excited to get on with our vacation, or returning east, worn out and missing home. Our tired van sputters into the campground in the early afternoon, its brakes squeaking as it eases into the familiar parking spot at campsite 4. As soon as the van door rolls open the cheers and crying of countless children disrupt the peaceful serenity of the campground.

Kids scatter in every direction, each knowing almost instinctively where to go: the nearby bathroom to pee, the bush 6 inches from the van door to pee, down the hill to find a stick sword, or up the mountain because we’re here to climb and time is short.

This was Echo’s first time at Vedauwoo and first time out of Nebraska. He also knew exactly what to do: run and smell. Glorious freedom, just like on his first campout at Indian Cave. Sadly, he kept sneaking off to beg or borrow food from other campers, so we had to tie him up while we set up camp. Not everyone appreciates a 50-pound puppy hopping onto their picnic table, tongue and tail a-wagging.

With the tent staked and firewood gathered, we were ready to hit the crag. I took the oldest three and Echo straight up the most accessible of the reddish orange granite hoodoos that characterizes the area, while my wife spotted the littlest two as they bouldered on the massive scree at its base. The dog did surprisingly well, scrambling up with us no matter how high we went. I had to boost him up a few ledges, and carry him across a few crevasses, but his four paws gave him excellent traction on the slab.

The actual rock climbing at Vedauwoo is almost entirely crack and off-width (see Mountain Project). The slabby granite boulders are rounded and featureless, leaving very little to grab. We have fun for now just hiking, scrambling, and exploring. But I am looking forward to climbing Edward’s Crack and some other routes on Walt’s Wall, once my oldest is comfortable belaying.

Tradition has it that, after hiking and climbing until dusk, we cook hot dogs and s’mores over the fire, and then settle down for few hours of star gazing and not sleeping. This time, after telling stories, and then spotting a few satellites, everyone dozed off close to midnight as I tried to explain to a five-year-old what a satellite is.

Every hour or so, when I’d wake up to rotate my back or shoulder off the hard ground, I’d check on Echo, who was leashed to a large tree stump close by. For most the night it was too dark to see, and I could only hear him rusting around on his cardboard mat, not sleeping. Toward dawn, the full moon and approaching sunrise revealed his sharp profile silhouetted against the glowing horizon, as he stared and listened attentively into the darkness.

A few times Echo sent a low warning growl toward the forest below our campsite, but I don’t think he stayed up all night in fear. I think his curiosity was just overwhelming. To a puppy, everything is exciting and new, especially on his second campout. The nighttime only amplified the mystery of the unexplored outdoors that surrounded him.

Paddling the Nishnabotna River, Iowa

preparation canyon state park

A few weeks ago I joined a youth group from church for some hiking and paddling in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. We camped two nights in Preparation Canyon State Park, which boasts 344 acres of thorny locust trees and stinging nettle, and is home to thriving populations of mosquitoes and ticks.

At one point someone commented, “at least ticks can’t fly.” That’s looking on the bright side, I thought, as we pushed through swarms of hungry mosquitoes clouding the trail ahead of us.

And therein lies the simple truth we hope all our campers learn before returning to the comforts of home and mobile device, that happiness is a matter of perspective, a matter of seeing the forest for the bugs and weeds that live there.

This youth had figured it out after only a couple hours of suffering, that it could be much worse, which means it’s still actually pretty good.

Of course, some outings get much worse. Storms rage, canoes sink, and ticks follow us home. But at least we have a home.

The float trip went surprisingly well. We pushed into the west branch of the river at Hancock around 10AM and disembarked around 3PM at Carson, 15 river miles to the south. Those 15 river miles meandered mostly through corn and soybean fields, separated from one another by an occasional thicket of trees. Aside from the fisherman cleaning his catch with a machete, it was uneventful, but also peaceful, with only the swishing of paddle blades to accentuate the silence.

It’s a good thing ticks can’t swim.

preparation canyon state park

Backpacking at Indian Cave State Park

Yes, we finally made it happen: a campout, with all the dirt, unconditioned air, and unmanicured trees and shrubbery of an organically grown forest. It was glorious.

I should start by announcing that we recently got a dog. Echo is about five months old, and mostly resembles his black lab mother, with subtle features from his German shorthaired father, like a narrower face and build and patches of white fur on his chest and paws.

It turns out, raising a puppy is an absurd amount of work. Although I was familiar with the basics of dogs, having grown up with a few, my main responsibility as a kid was scooping up the poop with a shovel and catapulting it into the field behind our house. Spooping is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll save the details, like the number of socks he has ingested, for later. For now I’ll just say that, without a fence on our yard, we have to keep him on a short tie out. He endures it well, but it’s sad to restrict such a free-spirited animal to a small circle of grass.

Old longings nomadic leap, chafing at custom’s chain;
Again from its brumal sleep wakens the ferine strain.
John Myers O’Hara, in Atavism

I know how Echo feels. Since moving to Nebraska our time outdoors has been limited to a small radius from our house. We play in the yard or at the park, but we rarely leave the confines of the city, the concrete and the habitation, the business and daily routines. I feel like a dog on a tie out, in a “brumal sleep.”

Last weekend we unclipped ourselves from custom’s chafing chain. We broke through the circumference of Lincoln and the gravitational pull of the daily grind, to spend a brief but welcome night out at the remote Indian Cave State Park in southeast Nebraska.

After parking at the trailhead, we set Echo free and watched and laughed as he rocketed down the trail, only to hurry back moments later, and then sprint away again. He never stopped running, up and down, back and forth, to and fro, as if trying not to miss a single leaf drop or bird chirp. He had to see and smell it all, be everywhere and part of everything all at once.

Echo’s adjustment to the “wilderness” of Nebraska reminded me of Call of the Wild, where Buck reverts completely from domesticated to wild, from farm dog to alpha male in a wolf pack. Jack London highlights the beauty of this backward evolution to our simple primitive origins.

He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

The pure joy of a puppy unleashed outdoors is inspiring.

The main attraction of Indian Cave State Park, besides graffiti in a cave that we didn’t get to see because of road work, is the backpack camping. The park boasts both remote backpacking sites and Adirondack shelters. From what I could tell, both options are free. And both include the simple amenities of primitive man, space for shelter and fire, and then, lots of space.

From the trailhead, we hiked in through a forest of swamp white oaks just waking up to spring, with their leaf buds slowly opening like millions of tiny green eyelids. The trees were undisturbed by Echo as he crashed by, scouting a quarter mile ahead and behind, and in all directions, continuously on the lookout for something interesting. After walking an easy mile, with Echo probably covering ten times that, we claimed the first shelter we found, about an hour before sunset.

Remnants of a fire, still warm from the previous campers, quickly ignited the leaves and sticks we piled into the fire pit. We boiled water for some freeze-dried backpacking meals that have lurked in our basement for years, lasagna, chicken teriyaki, and apple crisp, all a little soupy but still tasty. After dinner we hiked around camp, shot the BB gun, and got ready for bed by the light of my phone because I forgot a flashlight.

The kids fell asleep to a bedtime story about dragons and unicorns, and then I lay awake for most the night listening to coyotes singing in the distance. The howls would start as individual yips, and then a chorus would crescendo together from different parts of the river valley below us. After a few minutes of this, the howling would slowly subside and we’d enjoy thirty minutes or so of quiet.

Through the night, Echo paced back and forth in the moonlight, tripping over us and stepping on our heads, as he watchfully protected us from those primordial beasts, his Canis Lupus kin. He would often pause to listen, his silhouette still and attentive. Did he want to join them? Was he scared or curious? I wondered what it was like for him to encounter, by sound at least, his undomesticated counterparts. Could he sense the difference?

Exhausted, I think I finally fell asleep a couple hours before dawn, only to wake up around sunrise to feed Echo his cup of kibble. For breakfast we humans had granola and dried fruit, and we broke camp soon after. And less than 24 hours after leaving the city’s gravitational pull, we were back.

Inquiry-Based Experiential Parenting and Rock Climbing With Kids

rock climbing with the kids

I sent my daughter off to preschool this week with a carabiner and chalk bag for show and tell. It was a proud moment. I’ve instilled in my five-year-old a love for rock climbing, one that she’s not ashamed to share with her Disney princess friends. Now I just have to teach her and her siblings to be creative, caring, self-reliant, responsible citizens, who value their faith, education, and good work, and my job as a father will be complete.

Also, I have to teach them to climb safely.

Much of what I write at Dad vs Wild deals with encouraging kids to do difficult and sometimes dangerous things, like winter camping, catching snakes, and, most recently, rock climbing. Obviously, I buy into the hands-off parenting notion that when kids explore, discover, and overcome their challenges, especially without parental intervention, they become more competent and confident.

I’m not sure how I came to embrace this DIY, free-range parenting philosophy. Some of my research as an educational psychologist has explored what’s called inquiry-based learning, an approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to explore, pose questions, discover, and derive conclusions themselves, with minimal guidance. A related term is experiential learning.

Evidence doesn’t really support these as replacements for more structured, guided teaching and learning, but for some reason they resonate with me. Maybe because I don’t like being told what to do. I like to figure things out on my own. And I assume my kids are the same way. The result is what I’ll call inquiry-based or experiential parenting.

More on helicopter parenting and managing kids’ risks.

Of course, kids would never survive without some amount of guidance. At some point, a parent has to draw the line. Some snakes are poisonous. Some inquiry will only end in disaster. Some experiences aren’t worth the risks. Returning to my point, I think rock climbing is.


My oldest recently moved up to 5.9s in the gym. He’s only nine, but I’m already dreaming about big trips to southern Utah and the Sierra Nevadas, backpacking and climbing until we can’t remember anything else, until our blisters have blisters on them, but we don’t care. Just us and our blisters, on a remote mountain peak, under an unpolluted sky.

Speaking of dreams:

I thought climbing the Devil’s Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

I think Krakauer figured out that we shouldn’t define our lives in terms of our outdoor accomplishments. Though the mountain may inspire us and build us up, we shouldn’t hang our hat on it, because it can also let us down.

Still, the mountain may not capture our dreams, but it does give them context and provide a setting for learning, bonding, and memory making. For experiential parenting, the possibilities are endless.

Here’s what I love about climbing in particular:

  • Climbing is a great way to establish kid cred.
  • It’s simple, the objective is clear, and the difficulty can be tailored to the skill level.
  • After the initial investment in training and gear, costs are minimal.
  • Climbing teaches kids to overcome fears, giving them an immediate sense of inadequacy followed by an equal measure of accomplishment.
  • It also teaches about trust. Your kids put their lives in your hands. You have to be the type of person who can catch them when they let go.

Related to this last point, it’s not easy for kids, or anyone, to just let go once they get to the top of a sixty-foot wall. All of my kids struggled with it at first. I’ve seen the panic in their eyes as they wonder if I’m really going to catch them. It’s a huge trust fall, wiht only me at the bottom. It reminds me of Finding Nemo. You just have to let go. It’s going to be OK. This is what DIY, experiential parenting is all about – trying, trusting, letting go, and being there for each other in the end.

Rock Climbing With The Kids At Taylors Falls, Minnesota

rock climbing with kids at taylors falls minnesota

I just digitally unearthed some photos from a trip to Minneapolis last summer with the kids. We took them back to our old stomping grounds, where we spent countless muggy summer evenings digging in the sandbox, or playing hide and seek, under a canopy of caterpillar tents.

We walked around our old apartment and wondered together how another family could be living there, just making themselves at home, as if we hadn’t claimed those four walls by filling them with our closest memories, our laughing and shouting and hide-and-seeking, our diaper changing and potty training, our reading and praying. This was our first time returning to territory that we had really marked as our own. It brought a mix of nostalgia and emotions, and we could only console ourselves by remembering how we had outgrown our Minneapolis apartment life. We had moved on.

Going back to the north start state also reminded us of our many outdoor adventures, camping, canoeing, and playing in the snow. Just as the four walls of our apartment had absorbed our domestic memories, the forests and waterways, the iron-ore dirt and entrenching snows of Minnesota had captured our earliest outdoor memories as a family. So it seemed fitting that we returned for the kids’ first rock climb on actual rock.

The quaint town of Taylors Falls sits on the Dalles of the St Croix river, about an hour north and east of the Twin Cities, on the border of Wisconsin. Taylors Falls, from our experience, is home to a pizza and ice cream parlor that appears to have once been a saloon, and Interstate State Park, where you can explore billion-year-old glacial potholes, some over fifty feet deep, and where you can rock climb amidst throngs of excited but nervous beginners who bus in from the city.

The climbing at Taylors Falls/Interstate is perfect for beginners. Mountain Project lists 139 total routes, all trad or top-rope, bring your own anchors, and the majority at or under 5.9 and having roughly 60-foot to 80-foot pitches. The holds are mostly basalt ledges, and the simpler routes are full of them. We spent most our time doing 5.5s in what’s called the Tourist Rocks section.

There was some initial trepidation, and only my oldest ever made it to the top. But, overall, they all did well and claimed to enjoy it. For young kids, even putting on a harness and tying in is a success. Someday, we’ll return and reminisce, and maybe try something harder than a 5.5.