Muddying it Up in Big Bend National Park

I’ve been organizing some old photos from our 2011 trip to the National Parks in the Southwest.  One of the great surprises of this trip was Big Bend National Park.  It may be a one of the lessor-known parks, but we loved everything about it… the smells, the silence, the window views, the wide-open spaces, the hot springs, and of course, the one and only, Ranger Dan.

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But what we loved most?  Playing in the mud!!

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Our hike along the Santa Elena Canyon trail on the banks of the Rio Grande started off ordinary enough.  But then the magic happened.  The magic of what kids do when they have the freedom to just… be kids.  They discovered a particularly muddy bank next to the rock face and the antics began:  the chasing,  the swimming, the slipping, the climbing, the laughing, the playing.  Even my 13 year old daughter had a blast with her younger siblings.

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And when we climbed out of that particular section of the trail, into the wide-open mud-flats along the river, they were actually crawling their way across the bank on their hands and knees, playing mud monsters.   I thought at first the well-dressed Japanese tourists were shunning me and my parenting methods as they watched my children crawl their way back to the car caked in mud from head to toe, but soon enough one of them pulled out his video camera and started recording their hilarious progress.  We were all, adults and children, Japanese and American, sharing the laugh together.

I will never, ever, ever forget that day.  What is one of your favorite National Park moments?

~Cassie

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Our Backpacking Debut: Part 1

“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  ~A.A. Milne

Can we do it?

The question rolled through my head for months.  My family of five on a four day backpacking adventure in an unknown park, two thousand miles away, without experience, and without a guide was a somewhat overwhelming adventure to plan.

But my kids were undaunted.  As soon as I said “backpack” they were assured of their success before I even had the opportunity to convince them.  The challenge exhilarated them, and inspired visions of Alaska wilderness survivors naked and fishing in streams as they built brush fires by rubbing two sticks together.   Thank you reality TV.  However, the adults in the household were teetering on the far side of fear.  My husband had nightmares of kids falling down cliffs and I did the mom thing where every potential danger is magnified to a situation of certain doom.

I mean, we were planning to hike 45 miles!  Someone was bound to twist an ankle, strain a muscle, tear a ligament, or simply collapse under the weight in a fit of tears and irrevocable stubbornness.  Or what if one of them became dehydrated, or suffered heat exhaustion, or got sick from water contamination?  What if we had a bad reaction to the insect bites we were sure to get?  What if we ran out of food, or couldn’t find water when we needed it?  What if we were eaten by wolves in our sleep?  I mean, anything could happen.

And there’s no doubt about it, anything could happen.  But is that reason enough to not do it?  I guess we all need a challenge at some point.  I mean, we’re American, it’s practically part of our moral code.   Eventually, I stopped worrying, started planning, and set my wild fears aside.  We talked safety, we read, and we prepared for the trip of a lifetime.   For in the end, a complete four-day immersion into the incredibly wild and remote wilderness of Isle Royale National Park is worth every bit of effort, and bravery, it takes to get there.

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2014 – Isle Royale National Park, Greenstone Ridge Trail

Getting Prepared

One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.”  ~A.A. Milne

Surprising discoveries are always nice, but not with your kids, in the middle of an unknown wilderness, with no cell service, two days hike from any help.  Be prepared for this trip.

Logistically, you have to think of this almost as planning for a trip within a trip.  Our entire 2014 road trip consisted of 33 days, 8 states, and seeing everything from parks to skyscrapers.   However, more people visit Yellowstone in a day then do Isle Royale all year, for good reason.  It is remote, difficult and expensive to get to, and fairly short on comfortable resources.  Do not expect ice cream shops and clean restrooms evenly distributed across the backcountry.  There are no motor powered vehicles allowed on the island, and in fact, if you can’t walk or paddle to it, you aren’t going to see much beyond the visitor centers.  Everything you need has to be carried in, and out.  However, there are other things infinitely more valuable to be found here:  untouched wilderness, astounding beauty, and solitude.

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2014 – Getting ready to cross Lake Superior!

Here are a 5 tips for getting prepared for Isle Royale:

1. Decide how long you will be on the island.  Spend some time studying trail maps and websites in order to determine which route you want hike and how long you think it will take.  Tally the number of miles you plan to hike each day and where you expect to camp each night.  I chose the Greenstone Ridge Trail, divided among four days.

2. Purchase your ferry tickets as soon as you’ve decided the dates that  you will be travelling to and from the island, as space fills quickly.   Unfortunately, this will not be a cheap park to visit.   Round trip ferry tickets for the five of us cost $700.  Then, you will have to pay a per person, per day, park fee in cash to the captain when you board the ferry.   Our fees came to about $60.

3. Acquire your backpacking gear:  a backpack with water bladder (for each hiker), a backpacking stove and fuel (nobody is gong to carry that huge Coleman double burner across an island), and the water filter are the absolute necessities, each ringing in at about $100.   Also, if you haven’t purchased durable hiking boots yet, now is the time.  Taking care of your feet is the most important thing.

4. Decide everything else you are going to carry in your packs.  I used the Isle Royale backpacking list that is on their webpage, as it is concise and tailored to the conditions on this Island, but you can find packing lists anywhere.  Aside from food, sleeping bags, and proper clothing, these are the things I would definitely not leave without:

  • Bug Repellant – and maybe even a face net.  Be prepared to do battle with an army of insects.
  • A small first aid kit – We used a lot of Cortaid and Ibuprofen.
  • Sandals – being able to remove your boots and wear a pair of sandals around the campsite is your new definition of bliss.
  • Cook pot, cup, and spoon – for boiling water, eating, and hot drinks
  • A plastic bag – for your dirty clothes.  They stink.  A lot.

5. Finally, before you leave home, make sure that everything you need, you’ve acquired, that everything you’ve acquired actually fits in your packs, and that once the packs are filled, every hiker can lift and walk in their pack.  Cheryl Strayed taught us all that this is no joke.  If you wait until you are on the island to pack and lift your backpacks for the first time, you might just turn around and take the very next ferry back to the mainland.

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2014 – Andy’s head net kept the bugs off and made him really happy while hiking!

You will have to make a decision about a tent.  All the really helpful and lovely people at REI will rightfully suggest for you to purchase a backpacking tent because they are very lightweight and take up much less space in your pack.  However, we had already spent a small fortune on this hike and decided to use our perfectly good, extra-large, pop-up, six-person car camping tent instead of buying two new backpacking tents.  We split the poles, the rain cover, and the tent body among our five packs.  Yes, we sacrificed weight and bulk in favor of frugality.  This may be the cardinal sin of backpacking.

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Many of our camp neighbors were laughing at our “huge” tent! ~2014 Isle Royale N.P.

Plan your meals for each day to determine how much food to pack.  We ate our last handfuls of dried fruit at our very last rest on our very last day.  I would advise carrying a little extra.  Instant oatmeal packets were great for breakfast.  For dinner, we split three dehydrated meals between the five of us and found it to be plenty.  For lunch and snacks we carried granola bars, beef jerky, dried fruits, and trail mix.  Make sure to add some M&M’s into your trail mix!  It was very motivating to have that little bit of chocolate during an afternoon rest.  Finally, make sure to carry hot chocolate or tea packets.  Whether it’s the end of the day and the total and complete exhaustion has set in, or a cool morning where you’re trying to get your sore muscles moving, the hot drinks are incredibly warming and comforting.

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2014 – Packed and Loaded:  Four days of gear, food, and clothing for five people.

Should We Practice?

When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure than an Adventure is going to happen.” ~A.A. Milne

Uhhh.. Yes.

Physically getting ready for backpacking takes time, and nothing prepares your muscles and joints for carrying the extra weight through day after day of hiking, unless you do it.

I planned on getting our backpacks and gear by April, and then doing progressively longer hikes together on the weekends with the weighted packs.  Great plan.  Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to great plans.  Extenuating circumstances like travel ball schedules, homework, real work, summer camps, and every other thing that pops up when you have three kids got in the way.  I think we bought our last backpack and pair of boots two weeks before the trip.  In an act of final desperation, the weekend before we left I forced everyone to drop what they were doing so we could go for a hike and at least try everything on.  Predictably, it rained and we couldn’t find the trailhead.   Thank you procrastination gods for that one last lesson in planning ahead.  We were “suddenly” out of time.

Within a few days, the house-sitter arrived, the truck was packed, we drove for 48 hours into the Eastern horizon,  saw a Twins game in Minneapolis, fished in Voyageurs, canoed Boundary Waters, relaxed at the Grand Marais Fisherman’s Picnic, packed our gear, and then boarded the ferry.  We had arrived.

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2014 – Arriving at Windigo!  The before picture.  So very excited for the unknown!

I’ll be back soon with the story of our adventure!

Happy Planning!
~Cassie

 

One Week Out

“Let’s have a family meeting!”  my dear son says to me tonight when we are finally all back under the same roof.  Because here we are again.  Just over a week out from another thirty day road trip.  It’s crunch time.  A week for motivation and determination.  A week for preparation.

How do you leave?  How do you pack up a car, turn off the computer, and just drive away?
For a month.

The short answer is this:  You just do.

It’s not that we don’t have a lot of other things that we have to do.  And it’s not that we don’t have a lot of other things that we want to do.  It’s just that of all those other things, we’ve decided that this thing, this one trip, is the priority.  Everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING else, is planned around this one single block of time.  And then we do it.  I stick with the plan.  I don’t change my mind.  I don’t use all the real and valid and reasonable excuses I have to not go, and then not go.  I just keep moving forward every day, until the day we drive out of town.

The long answer is this:  You make a lot of lists.

We leave in 10 days.  My current TO DO list consists of 27 items.  I know… how do I live with myself?  The number 27 is bothering me just as much as it is you.  Do not be alarmed.  I’m positive I will have a cool 30 items on the list before I’m even done writing this blog post.

Although… this is just my “Home” To Do list.  My “Work” To Do list is down right alarming.  The first item states  “1.  Clear All Emails.”

hahahahahahahaha… ohmygod.. bwahahah.  I can’t stop laughing.  lol.. no really… haha.. Ha.  No… wait.  Whatdidshesay?   No emails?   No little red flags?  No bolded unreads?  No “awaiting responses?”  No color-coded follow-up email categories?

Nada.  Nothing.  Empty.

heh… heh..  uuhhhhh… #arethosetearsoflaughter? lol…  I mean… What?

Yeah.  I’m for real.  A clean slate.   If your work is anything like my work, then you get at least 75 new emails a day.  That’s where the bulk of the time goes this last week.  Get caught up.  Wipe the slate clean.  Delegate some new stuff.  Stop procrastinating.  Deal with the tough issues that seem to NEVER GO AWAY and make them go away.  Set your plan for emergency contacts while you’re gone, and write the outgoing message baby.  Yes, we all know the emails keep coming whether you are backpacking in the wilderness or not, but it will be easier to sit down along the way and plow through the new ones if you don’t have old issues lingering on the mind.

And finally, I have the packing list, which I have been diligently creating while driving back and forth across the Cascade Mountains these last couple weeks carting my children to summer camps.  I won’t bore you with the details now, but it is extensive, and currently consists of three separate columns:

1. Camping/Backpacking Gear
2. Clothing
3. Food/Other.

So, back to the all-important pre-trip family meeting.  There is only one thing on the agenda moms:  get them excited.   Excited children (and husbands) help more.  I guarantee that someone somewhere has proven this a scientific fact.  We talk about seating arrangements (Aubrey asks if she can drive, ha) and shopping lists (btw, which dehydrated all-in-one meal is your favorite?), what books we’re going to bring to read (I don’t remember the last trip where we didn’t cart all 7 Harry Potter’s along), and what music we want on our playlists (oh for the love of all that is holy, stop with the country!).  We talk about all the places we’re going to explore (The Great Lakes!), and the people we are going to see (cousins!), and all the things we’re going to do (Segway tour anyone?).  We all wonder a little anxiously if we are prepared for the more challenging adventures (now, the Greenstone Ridge Trail is a beginner 42-mile backpacking trip, right?) .  But mostly, we just build anticipation for another great family adventure coming our way.   Because they are always, always, worth the effort.

I hope to have time to write a blog or two along the route, but considering the number of posts I’ve made since January (zero), I wouldn’t bet the racehorse on it.  You’re busy.  I’m busy.  There’s no reason to list excuses here.   Instead, I will sign off with a little photo of the next National Park the Clemans’ clan will be visiting:  Voyageurs!

Happy Trails Everyone!
~Cassie

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Voyageurs National Park ~ stolen from www.nationalparks.org (I’ll have my own photo in a few weeks!)

 

Travel the US for $18 a Day

I would like to spend the next few posts focusing on the travel budget.  When we take off for thirty days at a time, we get a lot of questions about how it is affordable.   To be honest, the hardest part is simply carving out the time, which I talked about at length in Thirteen Summers.  Finding the money to take a trip like this is surprisingly achievable, and considering all the usual kids activities and family outings, we often travel for not much more than what our family would normally spend at home over the course of a month.   For today’s post, I want to outline the basic travel budget.

A budget can be the crux or the creator of freedom, entirely depending on attitude.  I tend to look at it from the latter perspective as I believe that the experience of travel is one of the most important things we can give our children.  It teaches them to take an interest beyond their own walls, to look at the world they live in from a new perspective, to gain a better appreciation for the country they live in,  to wander in the wild places,  and to feel the Earth in their soul.  However, there is also no enjoyment in a vacation if you are breaking the bank.  Among all the rising costs of living, rising taxes, and stagnant wages, a budget-friendly vacation is necessary for everyone.  Let’s look at two very different types of vacations.

If I were to take my family of five cross-country on a six night, seven day, what I would call hotel vacation, I would estimate the essential costs for this travel using the simple budget below.

The Hotel Budget…
 ACTIVITY      ESTIMATED PRICE    TOTAL COST
Airfare             $300/person                 $1,500
Car Rental      $30/day                         $210
Hotel               $120/night                     $720
Lunch              $10/each/day                $350
Dinner             $15/each/day                $525

Expected cost for 7 days of necessities is $3,305.
Average cost per day is $472.00.  Average cost per person per day is $94.00

Now let’s look at a basic budget I might create when preparing for one of our road trips.  I’ve replaced airfare with the cost of fuel and dining out with buying groceries.  Also, camping prices vary greatly depending on how many amenities you would like at your site.  A typical forest service or park service campground is only $5-$20 per night, but a KOA tent site can run you anywhere from $30 – $50 per night.  I tend not to use KOA’s often for this reason, but their pools, clean showers, and laundry facilities are enticing, and I will add a few of them into our trips in place of the more expensive hotel option.

The Camping budget…
ACTIVITY      ESTIMATED COST              TOTAL COST
Camping        25 nights (~$20 each)           $500.00
Hotels             3 nights (~$120 each)           $360.00
Groceries       $150/every 5 days                 $870.00
Fuel                ~4,000 mi/18 mpg/$4.00       $889.00

Expected cost for 29 days of necessities is $2,619
Average cost per day is $90. Average cost per person per day is $18.

Yes, you really can take the kids on a month long trip that costs LESS than a typical seven day vacation.   In fact, if we were to travel by air, stay in hotels, and dine out for our meals, it would cost my family five times as much as our camping trips. I look at it as we can spend five times as long travelling for the same price.  If you only have the time to take your family on a 7-Day trip, the camping budget will start you at $630 per week instead of $3,305 per week.  And if you have the time to take your family on a  fourteen day vacation, the camping plan gives you a starting budget of only $1,260, which is pretty reasonable for a family of five for two weeks!

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2012 Trip – Our trusty tent and minivan in the dusky shadow of Devils Tower National Monument, WY

Next, you will want to estimate the costs of your extra activities, or the things you actually want to do while you are travelling.  Hiking, playing at a beach, going to a ranger talk, fishing, playing games in the woods, or having a picnic in the park are all wonderful activities that don’t cost anything extra.  This is just one reason we do a LOT of hiking on our travels.

However, travelling is also about participating in the cultural activities of the area you are visiting.  You may want to eat some authentic traditional cuisine, or go to a famous theme park nearby, take lessons to learn a new skill, or see a museum that showcases an important piece of history.  I’m not saying don’t do these things just because they cost extra cash.  In fact, by saving money on our essential travelling expenses, we have more to spend on the special activities that make our trips unique and memorable!  In the table below I’ve compared average pricing (again for my family of 5) on some of the typical types of activities that we do on vacations.

ACTIVITY                     ESTIMATED COST         TOTAL COST
Kayak/Canoe Rental    $20/2 Hours                    $40
Gardens/Museums       $15/Person/day              $75
Motorboat Rental          $100/Day                       $100
White Water Rafting     $60/Person/Day             $300
Six Flags Entrance       $60/Person/day              $300
Disneyland Entrance    $100/Person/day            $500

I’ve provided a complete budget, including the extra activities, in the itineraries I publish.  Although our trips are focused on getting to the National Parks, I think its important to explore other cultural and recreational opportunities in the area.  When else would you have the time to see the infamous Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, raft the Rio Grande in New Mexico, walk the pathways of the Japanese Garden in Portland, take the kids to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, eat TexMex in San Antonio, learn to windsurf in Corpus Christi, or ride the waves at Schlitterbahn?  As expected, these day trips do add a considerable expense to the total budget of your trip, but by saving money on travel and lodging we are able to fit them in.

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2011 Trip – Rafting the Rio Grande in New Mexico

No matter what your budget is, the most important thing to do is to plan it ahead of time, and then stick to it while you travel.  Fit in the extras  when they are possible, but remember that it costs us virtually nothing to explore by foot our countries greatest of treasures, our National Parks.

Happy Planning!
~ Cassie

A Southwest Road Trip Itinerary

I am excited to be publishing my 3rd itinerary!  It’s difficult to think of just one word that sums up the places we saw in the Southwest…  perhaps Vast.  Timeless.  Humbling.  Beautiful.

I will never forget the rock formations of the Chiricahuas which seem forgotten by time and society, but are waiting to amaze you, strewn out in the middle of a lonely desert; or when we ran wild across the endless stretches of dunes at White Sands -a breathtaking, other-worldly experience; and swimming in the hot springs at Big Bend, watching the vast night sky with more stars than we thought possible rotating around us.  It was a simultaneously humbling and exhilarating experience.  Watching the hatchling sea turtles released on the shores of Padre Island at dawn was such an inspiring statement of hope, and somehow you walk away from it with more faith in life.  The Johnson Space Center of Houston reminds you of how far we have travelled, and walking the ruins of Pecos and Bandelier in northern New Mexico reminds you of how very long we have been travelling.  And the Grand Canyon, a place where you can watch millions of years pass by in a single moment of time.  It almost takes your breath away.

You can find and download this itinerary here by clicking on the Itinerary #3 Heading.  I hope you find as much enjoyment and inspiration from this trip as we did.  And no matter where you are planning to go this summer, I hope you are indeed making plans to travel.

Happy Trails
~Cassie

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Grand Canyon National Park, 2011

A Resolution

“Your success and happiness lies in you.  Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”  ~Helen Keller

I really love New Years.  I love the promise of a clean slate and the hope that is foreshadowed in resolutions.  Last year I had 27 of them and  I’m not sure if that means I’m overly-zealous in my resolutioning, or just that I have a lot of room for improvement.  I only accomplished 16 so I’m coming off a meager 60% success rate, but I suppose 16 resolutions met is 16 more than none.  Maybe having 27 New Years Resolutions is a little crazy, but I’m the person with the list-making obsession so it seems perfectly natural to me.

This year I’ve decided on 28 resolutions.  It includes things like writing new stories, posting more blogs (obviously), finally organizing that filing cabinet, making time for more community service, completing the Scrapbook projects (that I didn’t get to last year), practicing the piano more, running a half-marathon, bumping up the college savings, finally setting up a Family Trust, reading Moby Dick,  and of course, planning another National Park Road Trip.

Yes, it’s a long list, but ultimately it all boils down to just one thing…

Be Better.

Somehow, our judgmental natures tend to  label the very optimism inherent in a New Years Resolution with doubt and folly and pessimism, and I’m not sure why.  No matter how many resolutions we fail to achieve, it shouldn’t cast a shadow on the hope of a new year, or on our desire to make change happen, or on our efforts to be better.  It’s ok that we all feel a little more motivated than usual on January 1, and if our lists help us accomplish those goals, what does it matter?  The new year is a great opportunity to shed a little of the cynicism of adulthood and uncover some of the optimism we felt in our youth, walking across that stage with diploma in hand, ready to take on the world.

We all have projects we want to accomplish, places we want to see, books we want to read, career moves we want to make, and health goals we want to achieve.  Maybe this is the year you put it on a list (make sure it’s measurable) and see what you can make happen in a year.

What are some of your new years resolutions?

Here’s to a fabulous New Year!
~Cassie

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My lovely new workspace for making it all happen this year!

We have a Mountain to Climb!

I’m sure your kids have never complained about going for a hike in the woods, but mine do.. every single time.  So why all the hiking?  By now you might have noticed that most of my itineraries are centered around us doing a hike or five wherever we go.   However, I’ve learned the most important secret in the history secrets to hiking with kids.  Are your ready?  Here it is.  Once they are on the trail, they will stop complaining.  Every. Single. Time.

It’s all in the presentation of the task.  Kid’s love stories of superhuman hero’s and great epic journey’s.  They watch characters overcome incredible odds in their favorite movies.  Giving them the opportunity to accomplish their own great adventure, will not only inspire them to greatness, but will allow them the freedom to enjoy it without judgment.  They will create games, splash in the creeks, play in the mud, climb on the trees, and sometimes even stare in awe at the views.  And they will return stronger, more confident, and with a more adventurous spirit, ready to take on the next of life challenges.

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Hiking the switchbacks up the Rampart Ridge Trail

Let’s talk about Mt. Rainier, one of my most favorite National Parks.  Why?  The hiking. The woods.  The smells. The views.  Everything is beautiful here, the hikes are challenging, and there is just so much to see and do!  We camped at the lovely Cougar Rock campground for three nights which gave us time for two very full days of exploring.

We kicked off our first day with the challenging Rampart Ridge Trail, a steep 4.6 mile loop!  Though the twins were only six at the time, they not only hiked up the endless switchbacks, but climbed on trees, dunked their heads in running streams, raced to the top, and made up silly games along the way.  Everyone completed the grueling uphill portion of the hike, we had fun doing it, and at the top we were rewarded with this priceless view of Mt. Rainier!

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – View from the top of Rampart Ridge Trail

After a long, lazy lunch we set out for our second hike of the day, a lovely romp along the famous Wonderland Trail to Carter Falls.  Although the waterfall was beautiful and well-worth the hike, our favorite part was crossing the Nisqually River!  This river was formed from the runoff of melting glaciers and so it is very wide and shallow with lots of boulders to climb around on and mud to play in.  The kids found endless ways to play on it’s rocky banks and we soothed our aching feet in the icy blue runoff waters from the mountains glaciers.  (If you like science, be sure to check out Rock, Ice, Life for a lot of ‘sciency’ information about this river and other features in our Northwest National Parks.)

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Fun on the trail.  Fun on the river.

We began Day 2 at the visitor center in Paradise.  The paradise area of the park is well.. paradise.  It was still covered in snow in July, so we especially enjoyed the cozy visitor center while we explored all the exhibits and learned more about Mt. Rainer.  Our first hike of the day was the Nisqually Vista Trail, a 1.2 mile loop through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the park.  Although the hike was fairly short, it was exhausting trampling through more than a mile of snow!  And once again, although the kids were less than enthusiastic about a morning hike, once they were on the trail they had a lot of fun.  I mean, it’s snow!  Kids love snow.

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After lunch in Paradise, I overheard some strange mutterings of “No more hiking mom!” but I assumed they were somebody else’s children and we rode the Mt. Rainier Shuttle bus to our last hike in the park.  Comet Falls.  320 feet of breathtaking splendor!  The trail was only about a 4 mile round trip loop, but the hike to the Falls is a strenuous and steady 1.8 mile uphill trek, and half-way through a thirty day camping trip, not to mention spending the last couple days on the trails, the kids were a wee bit exhausted.  Once again, they approached the trailhead with all the exuberance of turkey’s on Thanksgiving.  Shocker.  I have to give them credit though; this time they came up with a whole host of alternative activities, but in the end what were my options?  Let them spend this beautiful afternoon in the wilderness sleeping in a tent?  No Way.  I found ways to get them laughing at me instead of dwelling on thoughts of quitting, and before they knew it, we were a quarter mile into the trail, they were resigned to finishing the hike, and suddenly they were just enjoying the simplicity of the moments, as children do.

Our path to greatness… setting out for Comet Falls.
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Climbing our mountain.
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A little rest…  I’m going to assume that look means “you’re taking another picture” instead of “why are we doing this?”
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Getting closer…
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Our first incredible glimpse of the plunging Comet Falls.
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We made it!  Standing at the base of the falls we could feel the pounding water through our feet, the powerful spray on our face, and the thrill of accomplishment running from head to toe.  Amazing.
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If the kids had given up before we even started, they would have missed this single irreplaceable moment.  This moment to learn that the most rewarding things in life, are often the most challenging.  It’s not something that can be learned through words; it has to be experienced.  I will never, ever forget that day.  The smiles on their faces.  The adrenaline that returned them swiftly back to the trailhead.  The laughter on the way home.   And for this reason, Mt. Rainier will always be one of my most favorite of all National Parks.

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

Where are you Going Next Summer?

It’s a good day.  Seriously overwhelmed by the responses I’ve received to Thank You, Park Ranger this week.  I can’t express how incredible it feels to have a positive impact on the very people who have inspired so much good in my family over the last few years.  Thank you Thank you Thank you.

So here I am, feeling ever so slightly intimidated by my newfound respectable sized audience, and it’s time for another post.  Actually, I think it’s time to plan!

What???   I know, it seems early, but trust me it’s not.  It’s time.  The busiest National Parks can fill up campground reservations 4-5 months in advance of the popular summer months.  With the holidays at our doorstep, extra time for planning is already in short supply, and trust me, the planning takes time.  Early next year, you’ll want to be able to login to the park websites and reserve your campsites as you can expect an even larger crowd next season.

But, this is the fun part!  The dreaming part!  What have you always wanted to see?  What do you want to see next?  Historical battlegrounds in Virginia or the wildernesses of Yellowstone?  The Mammoth Cave in Kentucky or the Arches of Utah?  Do you want to hike the Dakota Badlands or windsurf the shores of Padre Island?  What about Mt. Rushmore?  The Grand Canyon?  The Grand Tetons?  The Redwoods?  The Olympics?

America is at your fingertips, and at this point in the game, anything is possible.

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2012 – Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

I tend to plan our long summer trips in two different stages.  The first stage is like writing a story’s discovery draft… you’re just dreaming up ideas and possibilities!  Have fun and get the whole family involved!  Your goal over the next two months is to decide on which parks (and other destinations) you want to visit and approximately how many days you want to be gone.  Save all that pesky reservation-making and logistical what-if’s for the much more labor intensive second stage.

Here are some tips and questions to help you start brainstorming:

Resources

  • The nps.gov web-pages are fabulous and so very user friendly.  Spend some extra time looking at the park map and all the headings under the “Plan Your Visit” section as they will give you ideas on things you may want to see and do.  This will help you decide how many days you want to be at each park.
  • The National Park Foundation page is also a great source of information and highlights each of the parks, monuments, memorials, battlefields, and other lands governed by the National Park Service.  I love their User’s Guide – a free download brochure of what not to miss in each region of the country.
  • My Countdown page is a complete list of the 59 National Parks sorted by state.
  • The Amazing Places book illustrates hundreds of wonderful places to take your kids no matter where you are in the country.  Get it.  Read it. Love it.
  • Check out my Itineraries page for trip ideas.  Our 2009 trip to the parks in California and our 2010 trip to the parks in the Northwest are both posted.  I hope to get the 2011 trip up soon.

Questions to ask Yourself

  • Do you want to travel across the United States or stay close to home?  Or maybe find somewhere in between?
  • Do you want to see something you’ve never seen before or show the kids a favorite place from your childhood memories?
  • What are your kids studying in American history or science this year?
  • What activities/events are already on your summer calendar?
  • How much vacation time could you and/or your spouse have by next summer?
  • Start thinking about ALL your options for carving out time for your summer vacation.  My previous post, Thirteen Summers, discusses this topic in depth.
  • How much money can you put away per month for the next 8 months for travel?  Give yourself a monthly goal and start saving today.  Seriously, transfer $10 into your family savings account right now.  Check out this website and the (plethora of others out there) that give ideas on how to shave a few dollars out of your expenses each month.  Stay tuned… new posts on budgeting for an extended trip are coming up soon.

That’s it for today! Happy Planning!
~Cassie

One Lost Wedding Ring and the Best Trip Ever

What is your favorite park?

It is an impossible question…  and one the kids get asked often.  But, all the parks were established to preserve an incredible part of the country, and not just any place… but the highest! The deepest! The longest!  The most!  The best!  There is something magical about all the parks.  Something that transcends the efforts of getting there.  We’ve now been to 27 National Parks; we’ve spent the night in a tent, hiked a few trails, gotten dirty, explored a wilderness, learned something new, and seen something amazing there.  We’ve learned a lot about these parks, and we all have fond memories of each stop along our trips for unique and various reasons. So, how do you pick the very, very best?  Your most favorite?  How can you rank the dense wilderness of Sequoia against the vast sun-beaten grasslands of the Badlands?  Can you even compare the alpine meadows of Glacier with the glow of an Arizona sunset on the walls of the Grand Canyon?  Or choose a favorite between the Mammoth Hot Springs of Yellowstone or the Great Bat Caves of Carlsbad or the flowing Volcanoes of Hawaii?  I don’t know that you can.

We do each have a few favorites through.  It’s like books.  I don’t think I can pick my most favorite.  But, I can pick my top three, hmm… or maybe I’d have to go with a top five.  Either way, there are a handful of parks that I hold very near and dear to my heart, not just for their beauty, but for some of the experiences we’ve had there.  Three of my most favorite are included in the Northwest Itinerary:  Rainier, Olympic, and the Redwoods.  So, although I can’t pick a favorite park, I think I can pick a favorite trip.  Not only does the Northwest Itinerary include six incredible parks, but it also includes some other locations that make this itinerary special:  the beautiful Lake Chelan, the pristine San Juan Islands, the culturally unique cities of Seattle and Portland, and the absolutely breathtaking Oregon coastline.   Not to mention that in between stops, you are driving through some of the most magnificent and productive forests in the world.

But every trip has its valley… even the Best One.  I lost my wedding ring on this trip.  It wasn’t a diamond or a family heirloom, thank goodness, but it was mine.  It was a very simple, plain, white-gold band, the one I was married with, the one I’d been wearing all those years we struggled through the early part of my marriage, and through all the happy times we shared while watching our family grow.  It was heartbreaking.  I believe I lost it somewhere in our campground at Lake Chelan, and after hours and hours of looking for it, driving away was torture.  But there’s more.  That was also the summer that we were trying to keep a flailing business partnership afloat.  I’m not sure if any of you have ever been through a business partnership “break-up,” but I think it may be as emotionally draining and devastating as divorce.  You face some of the hardest issues among our personal relationships:  the loss of loyalty, trust, and friendship.  The stress level and phone calls were enough to make us all think about driving home early.  I’m so glad we didn’t.

There are always reasons not to go, not to plan, not to spend the money, or not to take the time.  But, I’ve never yet felt that one of these trips wasn’t worth the effort or the sacrifice of being there, because this is the thing that is most important:  the time with your family.  Now it is three years later and when we look back, we don’t see the things that went wrong.  We remember the great eagle that swooped over our dashboard while in the San Juan Islands.  We remember how it felt to be standing under the powerful spray of Comet Falls after accomplishing a strenuous two mile hike up the foothills of Mt. Rainier to get there.  We remember the first time we walked over the rim and gazed at Crater Lake.  We remember our first Fourth of July in Bend, OR, a town we would come to call home.  We remember the breathtaking views overlooking the Olympics Mountain range and the laughter of following the Twilight Trail in Forks.  We remember that incredible Museum of Flight in Seattle.  We remember the salt-water taffy in Seaside.  We remember throwing ourselves down the great sand dunes of the Oregon coast.  We remember our last hike of the trip, walking through a dense fog in the middle of the Redwood forest.

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I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we all have valleys in life, just like every trip will have it’s valley.  Don’t let that stop you from taking them!  And more importantly, don’t let it stop you from finishing them.  Our first business disintegrated that summer, and I lost my wedding ring.  But, we just deal with the difficult times knowing that it’s only a low point, and that we’ll hike out of it soon enough, and onto our next mountain.  My brilliant husband has built up a better company and I’ve inherited a beautiful heirloom ring from my Great Grandmother.  And, now that I look back, I kind of like the thought of my plain gold band buried somewhere near the shores of Lake Chelan.  Maybe someday, some imaginative child will dig it up out of the mud and play a little game called “The One Ring.”  One can only hope.

Happy Autumn!
~Cassie

The Cardboard Conundrum

This is not a travelling or a National Park post.  It’s 100% Parenting.  Is that “Blogging Taboo?”  I’m fairly new here so I’m just going to play dumb and write about what I want.  Skip it if you must.  Today is about cardboard.  I was actually going to publish this last week, but decided to follow my “think before you write” rule and held off until I was less… frustrated.

If you walked into my youngest daughters bedroom you would find (in addition to the blankets on the floor, haphazard stacks of papers heaped in the corners, grubby pencils thrown on every surface, and random assorted piles of junk) the following items: cardboard stables, cardboard tack rooms, cardboard tack bins (w/cardboard lids), cardboard dog kennels, cardboard fences, cardboard silos, cardboard storage rooms, cardboard wagons, cardboard cross ties with posts, and even a cardboard “pasture.”

Yes, Arwen is what we affectionately call, horse-crazy.

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Spring 2013 – Arwen and Secret

Before I go on, let me just say that what she’s done is… magical.  Yes, magical.  For the past year she has quite literally created for herself the world she wants to live in, and she does live there, allowing us non-cardboard village dwellers an occasional visit.  It’s very creative and sweet, and yes, I’ve fallen in-love with her community too.

BUT…but.  Do you realize how much trash is created when you save trash, to cut up the trash, to make new trash, which is just saved to make more trash?  The room is a perpetual pigsty.  Really, there are only so many cardboard cut-outs, paper scraps, unraveled yarn, material scraps, and grass clippings that one room can hold.  The first time she made a cute little tack room out of a shoebox, I thought it was amazing! Adorable!  Incredible!   This was a year ago and I couldn’t have known where it would lead.  Could I?  I’ve always known she had the heart of an artist, but not until this year did I realize she also possessed my insuppressible need to take the simplest tasks to unconscionable levels of “overboard.”

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Now I’m scared to buy anything that comes in a cardboard box, which let’s face it, is almost everything.  Half cut-up cereal boxes continue to litter her room and granola boxes get stacked in a corner to “save” with all the extra bits and pieces she’s cut out and “might” need.  It’s trash people.  Piles of trash.  My daughter’s room looks like the neighborhood reclamation center.  One time, she actually asked me to stop at the gas station to buy her a can of Pringles potato chips just so she could dump them out and use it as a grain silo.  In hindsight, I should not have acquiesced to this.  As soon as she had that silo she was out cutting up dried grass and leaves from the yard to use as hay and oats.  Yes, I’ve allowed my daughter to actually carry up piles of grass into her room.  She replenishes it when her horses have eaten it all.  What??  She is now stocking four silos.  I finally had to put my foot down when I discovered “cardboard” water barrels in her room. This whole situation has gotten completely out of hand.

Scotch Tape.  How often do you really need it?  Sporadically at best, right?  Maybe a torn letter here, a birthday present or a school project there.  Not us.  I’m buying BRICKS of it from Costco.  Do you know how many rolls of Scotch Tape come in a brick?  Twelve.  And we are always, ALWAYS, out.  It disappears into the black hole of Arwen’s room where clutter goes to rot.

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So, what to do?  I’ve tried to be really nice and lull her into cleaning.  I’ve tried being mean mommy and forcing her to clean for hours despite a continual flood of tears.  I’ve even tried just giving in and doing it myself, but she comes home and within 60 minutes the room has reverted to it’s natural state of mess.  The one time I reached a breaking point and actually tried to (God-forbid) take out the trash?  She was reduced into such a helpless state of hysterical sobbing that I actually went out to the cans and hauled the trash back up to her room myself.

Do I really nix the cardboard and associated scrap to buy her all the shiny plastic junk toys that will just clutter up her room in another manner?  No, probably not.  The fun for her is in creating it, and I know I couldn’t create a cardboard wagon with spoke wheels and a driver’s bench.  I did try buying her a beautiful wooden barn with hand-crafted stable doors and detailed hinges from a craft festival once.  She uses it for storage now.  I’m not kidding you.  It’s filled with rolls of tape, scissors, accessories that don’t fit into her cardboard tack shelves (yet) and piles of yarn, which she uses to fashion bridles and reins.

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Here I am, a year into this “stage,” with no end in site.  My already seriously debilitating lack of patience has been tested beyond reason.  The constant mess is DRIVING ME C.R.A.Z.Y!  There, I said it.  Yelled it to the world actually.  Now, perhaps I’ve coerced another year of patience from my inner Neat-Freak who knows that everything has it’s place and likes to “remind” household members of this rule on a pretty consistent (daily) basis.  In the meantime, I’ll just  resist the temptation to open her bedroom door every so often.  And when I can’t resist?  I’m going to try to focus my neat-freak blinders on her amazing creations instead of the interminable debris explosion.  This stage too shall pass, no doubt perpetuating all the nostalgia as the ones before it.  After all, life is short, but childhood is even shorter.

More travel posts are in the works… Happy Trails.

~Cassie