State Forest Campgrounds

Frog huntBack before the shut down of our state government and DNR, a huge crew of us dads and kids spent a night at Kruger campground, just off the Mississippi on the Zumbro river. With our uncoordinated efforts combined we probably had a hundred hot dogs and enough marshmallows to sculpt a life size Micheline man. As should always be the case when car camping, it was a veritable smorgasbord.

Campfire at KrugerAfter the food frenzy we went on a night hike in search of frogs and fireflies. Then, we spent a few hours around the campfire. The younger kids started getting delirious, begging for bed, around ten o’clock. The dads were spent, from chasing mallow-fueled children and from finishing off the hot dogs. My son and I pushed it to midnight – the last ones to hit the sack.

Anyway – here are three things about state forest campgrounds that make me a happy camper:

  1. The price is right – the going rate is $12 per night per non-reservable site. State parks range from $20 to $30.
  2. There’s more space – a site typically maxes out at 8 people in 2 tents, though we fit 18 people, 6 tents, in 2 sites and the ranger didn’t mind. State parks usually draw the line at 6 people, 1 tent.
  3. Fires are ablaze – you can gather wood, and it’s usually in abundance.

S'moreeseoKruger is one of many MN state forest campgrounds. The DNR refers to them as primitive, where only the basic needs are met – a picnic table, fire pit, tent pad, and toilets. Usually there’s access to potable water as well. Besides hotdogs and s’moreos, maybe a s’moreeseo or two, what more do you need?

Ann Lake Parts I and II

three hikers

This month we nearly got the entire family of five, with one on the way, into the woods for a campout. It wasn’t until we pitched the tent and set up camp at Ann Lake, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, that we realized we had forgotten one of the most crucial items – pullups. Crap.

I was ashamed to call myself a boyscout. So much for my 5 kid-camping essentials.

What to do? Our two oldest are potty trained, but only by day. I was willing to get up every two hours, all night, to avoid an accident in the tent, but we had also brain-lapsed on the baby’s diapers. Could I fashion some out of leaves and sticks? Does mother nature provide nothing that’s waterproof on the outside and absorbent on the inside? Moss? Lichen?

What did parents do before pampers? After 20 minutes of debating with myself I reluctantly struck the tent and packed the gear. We had dogs and s’mores and sat by the fire until 10 before returning home.

The next week we were back for a sequel – the Batman Begins kind, not the Batman Forever or Batman and Robin kind. We had a stockpile of pullups and diaps, enough for Jon plus Kate and 8. But this time my wife couldn’t join us, so it was just me with the three kids.

Total chaos, hoards of ticks, lots of fun.

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.

Really Cold at Sand Dunes

campfire at sand dunesThis weekend I set a personal record for winter camping: a high of 0 and low of -26 degrees (confirmed with the UMN climatology database, coordinates 45.29970, 93.58346). Pretty ridiculous, but only slightly dangerous – we were armed with many trees worth of firewood and many layers worth of clothing.

I still haven’t decided on a minimum temperature for the kids, but negative degrees Fahrenheit seemed like the no-kids-allowed zone. My son cried when I declared it to be too cold for him to join us. I didn’t want to suggest he wasn’t tough enough, so I tried the distraction-with-new-information strategy, explaining the phenomenon of frostbite. But the threat of losing body parts didn’t phase him. That made me proud. He is a tough kid. I bet he would have had a great time.

oak at sand dunesThere were only a few moments of pain, mostly in my toes as I was stupid enough to wear hiking boots. Otherwise, the campfire was always blazing and if you situated yourself nearly in the flames it was quite comfortable.

Here are a few more pics: Sand Dunes – January 21.

And here’s my pertinent gear: insulated jacket, heavy fleece, thermal t-shirt x 2, long johns, wool socks x 2, snowboarding pants, hiking boots (bad idea), ski mask, beanie, sleeping bag x 2 (zero and twenty degree), closed-cell foam pad (the blue one).

Backcountry Snow Campout

hiking in the snow
Yours truly, posing for a pretended candid shot by the bonfire.

Last week we kicked off the new year with an overnighter in the “wilderness” of central Minnesota – Sand Dunes State Forest. In our three years here I’ve always settled for the state parks, despite the multiple expenses: $16.00 campsite + $8.50 reservation fee + $5 parking. The last straw is paying $10 for two bundles of approved firewood. Contrast the state park with the state forest: $40.00 vs $0.00. No fees, permits, or amenities.

My first attempt at dispersed camping with the kids was a hard-earned success. The main obstacle was finding an entrance and a place to pitch our tent. The DNR offers little help. In fact, they discourage camping outside designated sites. We found a parking lot on the state forest map, but it turned out to be a dirt road which subtly reduced to a trail the further you went. So we opted to park near the highway and hike in.

hiking in the snow
Starting the walk in with kids and sled.

We hiked for about a mile, at about one mile per hour. You can do the math. The kids were tired and whiny. I was relieved to finally find a spot where the snow was cleared down to the dirt. Some trucks and tractors had apparently come through to do a little deforesting, which meant solid ground and ample, free firewood. Ample frozen, free firewood, that is. I had to use my stove like a blow torch to get it going.

Besides finding a spot, the main challenge was keeping a three-year-old and five-year-old warm and happy when there’s not much to do. My daughter was grouchy most the time. She wanted to go home. She wanted her mom. She wanted more fruit snacks. While my son and I cooked and ate dinner, she cried in the tent for an hour.

Still, weather permitting, I’m glad we went. It was a “good experience.” Camping, with its discomforts and unfamiliarities, doesn’t come naturally to kids. They’re used to heating and air conditioning, backup and double-backup menu options, and generally getting what they need/want when they need/want it. Outdoor trips, in their different forms, can approximate the comforts of home. But the unprocessed, organic, backcountry provides the most nutritious outdoor experience. Most importantly, the kids were proud of their accomplishment.