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!)

 

Tripping towards Self-Reliance

Sometimes I think that despite having the best intentions, we do too much for our kids.  I know I do.  Naturally, we want to see them succeed in school, athletics, music, or whatever else our children spend their time doing.  We want them to grow up better than we did, and to see them become productive citizens.  However, not only do we shop, cook, and clean for them, plan their activities, and taxi them around town, we also act as their alarm clocks, monitor their homework, remind them about due dates and practice schedules, organize their backpacks, double-check that they have their gym-shoes, instruments, lunches and school projects for the day, and even arrange their play-dates.  As a teacher I know that parental involvement is the number one indicator of student academic success, but I also know that there are a lot of young adults that struggle when it comes to managing their own responsibilities and successfully working towards a goal.  Although there is a lot of good that comes from parental involvement, we also have to give them the opportunity to be independent and self-reliant.  How do we do this?  Many, many ways, one of which is a “good, old-fashioned, family” road trip.

The trips described in this blog won’t actually be successful if all the work that needs to get done is dependent upon one person.  It’s like the perfect storm of chores.  When you are setting up a new campsite every few days, eating virtually every meal out of a cooler or over a campfire, and living out of your car for a month at a time , everyone has to be responsible not only for themselves, but also for assigned chores within the family.  If the kids don’t work together and take responsibility for their own selves, there are going to be a lot of serious mommy meltdowns.  After being in the car for hours at a time, sometimes fighting the stress of traffic or trying to navigate your way to a new destination, and then finally arriving at a site with a list of chores to get done before the fun begins, you have to have a system in place to make it happen smoothly and calmly.  That system is everyone knowing their jobs for the family, and being responsible enough to get them done without constant reminders, nagging, shouting, and crying.

Below is a list of ways that I expect the kids to be self-reliant on our family road trips:

  1. The kids are responsible for their own clothes bag.  I give the kids a packing list and they lay out everything that is on the list in piles on the floor.   After I quickly check over it and make sure the clothes are appropriate, they pack their bag.  Then for the rest of their trip, they are responsible for their own clothes and re-packing the bag at each stop.  It is no longer my responsibility.
  2. The kids are responsible for their own activity bag.  I allow each child to pack one back-pack with books, toys, coloring, or other activities that they want for the car rides and down time.  I check each backpack before we leave to make sure it is all road-trip appropriate, as I don’t allow electronic games, crayons that could melt, Legos, or any games with small pieces.  For the rest of the trip, they have to keep track of all their own stuff, keep it picked up, and shuttle it from car to tent and back again on their own.
  3. The kids have to keep the car clean.  Everyone is responsible for their own space and their own activity bag.  This means keeping track of their own stuff, picking up any trash in their area, and not invading the space of others.
  4. The kids have to help set-up camp.  We have setting up camp down to a science, and can generally get the whole thing done in less than 30 minutes.  Upon arrival, two or three of us lay out the tarp and set up the tent.  The other two clean the trash out the car, pick up anything that stills needs to be put away from the drive, and start pulling out camp chairs and coolers from the car.  After the tent is up, Aubrey usually goes inside to organize sleeping spaces,  while the twins run back and forth between the car and the tent carrying the mats, bedrolls, sleeping bags, and pillows that I pull out of the Yakima.  Once everything is inside the tent, the kids finish organizing it and I have time to re-organize any driving directions I had out and start reviewing the information I need for our new location.
  5. The kids have to help with meals.  They can collect firewood, prepare vegetables, and pull supplies out the cooler and boxes.  After eating they have to clean their own dishes and utensils, and help put away other supplies.
  6. The kids carry what they need for all hikes and outings.    Each kid has their own Camelback that is large enough to carry enough water for them on long hikes and has zippered storage compartments.  In the storage compartments I’ve put a whistle, small first aid package, sunscreen, and chapstick.  They can also carry their own snacks if desired, but I usually carry any picnic snacks in my camelback.
  7. The kids have to help break-down camp.  Packing up the campsite will take longer than setting it up.  We can usually have it done in 45 minutes if everyone helps.  Each kid packs his/her clothing bag, rolls up the yoga mat and sleeping bag, and sets everything they used on the picnic table, ready to be loaded into the car.  Once everything is out of the tent, Aubrey (or Andy) and I take it down and pack it up.  During this time, the kids are folding up the camp chairs, picking up trash, and putting any other gear or toys away. The kids bring me all the stuff that goes into the Yakima while I pack it away.  Then they haul in the coolers, food box, and pack the trunk.

It sounds like a lot written out like this, but once you establish expectations with the kids, and everyone sees each other working hard and doing their chores, they will settle in, work together, and get it done quite quickly.  They might even have some fun.  Getting to a new campsite is always exciting for us and we are all usually in a good mood.  The kids are finally freed from the car and I let them run around for a few minutes to explore and burn off a little energy before we set up camp.  It amazes me that the kids can find ways to make the chores fun too.  For example, they actually fight for the job of setting up the tent so they can try out silly sleeping arrangements and change who is sleeping next to whom.

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2009, Fernwood Campground – I couldn’t resist posting this darling oldie of the kids “setting up the tent.”

Ultimately, through all of the work and the shared responsibilities, the kids naturally feel more involved in the success of the family, and more responsible for themselves.  They learn to trust and depend on themselves, and that’s a lesson that can’t be learned through any other method than experience.  When you finally make it to that elusive hotel night, and you can take a long, hot shower, enjoy a soft bed and heavy comforters,  a hot meal that you don’t have to cook and clean up after, their appreciation for the simple pleasures of home suddenly skyrockets. The experiences of these long trips teach them self-reliance, but the hard work also teaches them to be really grateful for all the conveniences of home, and that lesson is priceless.

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

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2009, Yosemite National Park – Killer firewood haul.  Great job kids!