Wednesday, June 20, 2012

This blog post is two weeks overdue. The week after school got out, I took vacation time and the boys and I just stayed home to have some "unscheduled" summer time fun. (I refuse to use the gimmicky term "stay-cation" to refer to this time!) I don't mean that we were without plans, but we didn't specifically have to be anywhere (except evening tee ball) at any certain time.

On the Wednesday of that week, I wanted to take the boys to pick strawberries as it was forecast to be a nice, cool morning. They loved blueberry picking, so I figured strawberries would also be a hit. Unfortunately, our early spring meant early strawberries, and they were all picked by the first week of June. Fortunately, I found that out before we drove an hour to the farm! So instead, we went back to Hickory Hill Park, site of our fabulous winter hike, to see what it looked like in summer. (We'd also been there in spring, including John's spring break treasure hunt, that I now realize, he never blogged about!)

We had a great time hiking down what should have been familiar paths and hardly recognizing it with the full summer growth. These side-by-side pictures show the same or similar spots in June on the left and January on the right.

 Vine swinging

Log Bench
 End of hike bench (how annoyed was I to come home and find the June pic out of focus?!)

 Following the paths
No winter equivalent for this one, but it definitely captures the spirit of exploration they embraced on our hike!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I was a Brownie/Girl Scout from about age 7 to 12 or 13. We had a very enthusiastic troop leader who took us camping at least twice a year. These trips were meticulously planned--meals, gear, badge activities. Unfortunately, there was one thing we couldn't plan: the weather. On those dozen  or so trips, we never once had dry weather. I'm not talking about "usually" or even "most of the time." I literally mean every. single. trip.

Here in Eastern Iowa, we've been experiencing a very dry late spring/early summer. Because I was such a prolific blogger last month, I can tell you it rained exactly twice in May, once when we got two inches in one hour and again on the last day of school. We had a brief, but heavy rainfall last week, but other than that, nothing. News outlets have been starting to carry stories about drought potential and agricultural worries.

Worry no more. I single-handedly solved the problem by planning my first camping trip in more than 25 years. The curse of Troop 11 remains solidly intact. Every. single. trip.

You may recall the boys' enthusiasm for last year's backyard tent experience. Since we were smart enough not to introduce that concept until the very end of the summer, we quickly had a built-in, months-long excuse not to pursue it further. But I kid you not, as soon as the warm days returned, they started asking about going on a "real" camp out. They made it perfectly clear that the backyard would not cut it this year.

A few weeks ago, John and I realized that our weekends were filling fast and that we were much more likely to luck into a cool evening in June than July, so we penciled this weekend in on the calendar. Last weekend we got a tent and made a reservation at a state park about 20 minutes from home. (We were going to wing it further, but a call to the park office revealed that the campgrounds are full every weekend. No reservation, no camping.) Also, weekend reservations are only accepted for two days, so our simple noon-to-noon plan expanded. I still wasn't convinced we'd go for two nights, but John seemed to think it might be possible.

Well, then we started watching the weather. On Monday, there was a 20% chance of rain Friday night and 40% chance on Saturday and Saturday night. By Wednesday those numbers had bumped up to 30% and 50%, respectively, so we decided we definitely had to go Friday or risk the whole trip being washed out by a rainy Saturday. By the time we left at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon, chance of overnight rain was 40%. And it was hot. And humid. (Earlier in the week we'd had three lovely, cool, 55-degree nights in a row.)

The boys had started putting some "necessities" in their backpacks at 8 a.m. and Daniel even took himself out to the garage in his pajamas to load his "pack" (which contained his swimming sandals and binoculars. And nothing else.) So yeah, it's fair to say that anticipation was HIGH.

We got to the site and were a bit underwhelmed by the tenting possibilities. It was definitely more of a camper-trailer area, though it had said each site was suited for either tents or trailers. We drove around the park to confirm that all other sites were claimed. It was this or nothing. We stopped at the ranger office to ask about purchasing firewood, which the web site said was available. We were told it was not available and directed back to town (5 miles) to buy some at the grocery store. Actually, fortuitous, because on the way I realized I'd forgotten the bread and PB&J for the next day's lunch.

We returned to the site properly fortified and began to settle in.

After we got the tent up, I took the boys for a short hike to collect kindling (see, I remembered something from my scouting days!) They each picked up a stick and declared their hands full. I suggested using pockets and gathering as many as they could carry. We made two trips and then John got the fire going.

In no time at all, we were eating our hot dog dinner, followed, of course, by s'mores. Daniel was almost turned off from dessert by his first unpleasant experience of a face full of campfire smoke.
But he changed his mind after John handed him the finished treat.

Earlier, Edward had eagerly suggested a "night hike--with flashlights!" John took a look at the radar (love modern camping with iPhone!) and decided we'd better make it quick. Chance of rain was now up to 80% and a huge green blob was making its way toward us. We grabbed the flashlights and headed down the path from the campground, which took us right to a lakeside path, that John and I realized we'd hiked before--pre-kids. We followed the path around the lake for a bit, but when we came to a clearing and felt the wind starting to pick up, Daniel got very nervous and insisted we turn back right away. His instincts proved spot-on because shortly after we returned to our site the first drops began to fall. At that point he went into panic mode and was whimpering that he didn't want to stay after all, but thought we should just go home.

We all climbed into the tent and laid down on our sleeping bags. In such close quarters it was easy to snuggle a bit and get him to talk about why he wanted to go home. Once he admitted that he was feeling scared, we talked about what was scary (storms, dark night, dark woods, sleeping outside) and what made him feel safe (being in the tent with Mom, Dad and Edward) and he calmed down. He even joined Edward and John for another book. (He never did agree to change to pajamas, but eventually took off his shorts and socks to sleep in his t-shirt and underwear.)

And then we laid back to listen to the rain. And rain. And rain. And wind. And rain.

In the morning we would discover that 1/3 of an inch of rain fell on us between midnight and 1 a.m. A few direct drops blew in under the rain fly, but the tent held well all things considering. Still, I wouldn't exactly call it "dry." Let's just say, everything had that clammy, damp feel. The boys mostly slept through it. I did not. Oh, did I forget to mention this little exchange between John and me upon arrival:

J: Where'd you put the air mattresses?
M: What do you mean where did I put the air mattresses? You packed the car!
J: *facepalm*

He briefly considered driving back home to get them, but in the end we decided it wasn't worth the hour round-trip. We threw down all the extra blankets and towels and made do. I will say one positive thing about the rain--it drowned out the sound of the air conditioner cycling on and off in the camper trailer next door. Seriously? Seriously.

First wake up was about 5:40 a.m., but a firm, "Daniel, it's not time to get up yet!" kept him settled for another 45 minutes or so. We were all up by 6:30 a.m. Daniel and I took a walk to the bathroom (flush toilets were non-negotiable in the planning and execution of this endeavor.) John decided he needed a hot shower to attempt to untangle the knots in his back. I got out cereal, bananas and juice for breakfast. John had borrowed a propane cook stove from his parents (who have it in case of power failure, NOT for camping, though they used to enjoy (?) family camping trips when John was a kid.) He wanted to make pancakes for breakfast, but quickly discovered that our improvised griddle (non-stick cookie sheet on the cook stove) was not going to work. It was decidedly non-non-stick. Took quite a bit of scrubbing when we got home to return the cookie sheet to readiness for its intended service.

Reading that frustration, I took the boys for a walk to the nearby playground. John joined us a bit later and then we all followed another path back down to the lake-edge path we'd walked the night before. We walked it again, this time a little farther. On the return trip, John enjoyed this little exchange with Daniel (the latest in their recent series of "gotcha" conversation style:)

D: Dad, I don't like hiking.
J: Oh, that's too bad.
D: No, actually, I love hiking.
J: That's good.
D: Dad, I don't like camping.
J: Oh no...
D: I love camping.
J: Great.
D: I don't like climbing up hills.
J: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.
D: No, really, I don't like it at all.

After the hike we were all pretty hungry so we made some PB&J at the picnic area near the playground. What, you think it's weird to make and eat peanut butter sandwiches at 9:30 in the morning?

Then on to the final phase of the camping trip experience--canoeing.
After a brief false start in which the wind pushed the canoe over the rope into the swimming area before we could paddle ourselves away from shore, we made it out into the lake and paddled around for about 40 minutes. That pesky shoreline breeze was actually quite pleasant once we were adrift and the boys seemed to enjoy it.

We had to issue frequent reminders that they should drag their hands on opposite sides of the boat and and one point Edward did something that really sent us rocking, but we stayed upright the whole time. Good thing too or all these pictures might have ended up at the bottom of Lake MacBride. (We had the camera in a Ziploc bag, but would that have been enough? Glad we didn't have to find out!)

P.S. The hat is not a fashion statement, but I'm glad I had it as I don't think a baseball cap could have truly contained the "I spent the night outside in a rainstorm" 'fro I was sporting.

We brought the canoe back ashore and then the boys splashed and swam in the lake for another half hour or so. As we approached noon, we enticed the boys out of the water with a promise of DQ for lunch on the way back home. We stopped back at the campsite to pack up the mostly dry tent (the power of wind and sun!) and headed out. (The storm potential had increased to 70% and our decision not to stay was fully justified when we had a full-blown thunderstorm at 6 p.m.)

It is no secret that I was not an enthusiastic participant in this endeavor, but I truly believe I went into it prepared to have my mind changed about this whole camping thing. Maybe it really would be a fun family activity, and I shouldn't let the fact that it takes a ridiculous amount of effort keep us from enjoying it?

Um. No. I do love being outdoors and had fun hiking, boating and even cooking/eating outdoors with the kids. But I'm sorry. I require a bed. It doesn't even have to be inside necessarily. One of the loveliest nights/early mornings I ever spent was at my aunt's family beach cabin on Puget Sound where I enjoyed a night on the sleeping porch, falling asleep to the lapping waves on the shore and waking to a beautiful sunrise. In. A. Bed.

Daniel, apparently, does not agree. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Tee ball season has arrived and with it twice-weekly two-hour stints in the park to watch/coach the boys' teams. Did you catch the part about "coach." Yeah, so the way the parks department keeps this program affordable is through the use of volunteer parent coaches. And the way said coaches are recruited (if they don't just spring up naturally shouting "I will, I will!") is through an email reading, "Your child's team is currently without a coach." The implication being that the team will be redistributed to other parks if a coach is not located. This would prove extremely problematic given our inability to be in two parks at once. So a friend of mine (whose son is in Edward's class at school and with whom I'd coordinated to have them on the same tee-ball team) suggested that we answer the call. She at least played  youth softball. The most involvement I've ever had is playing "running bases" on the sidewalk in front of our house.

Well, so far, it's not too bad, though I have to say it reinforces my early-life decision NOT to be a teacher. (My HS guidance counselor was an octogenarian nun who still held the quaint notion in the early 1990s that only two occupations were open to women. When she asked me, "So, do you want to be a teacher or a nurse?" I answered definitively, "NEITHER!" It is possible that she never fully recovered.)

The first two practices have gone well. Our team is small (nine kids but two have yet to show up), so with dividing into two groups for skills practice, each kid doesn't have to wait too long for a turn. Edward would insist that I clarify that his team is not tee-ball, but "coach pitch." This means that each kid gets three pitches from the coach to try to hit before we bring out the tee. We accepted the coaching gig with the assurance that the recreation-dept. staffer who serves as field coordinator (he brings the bases and other equipment) would do the pitching.

Edward plays from 5-5:50 p.m. and then Daniel's team (for which two other heroes answered the coaching call) plays from 6-6:50. Both in the same park about five blocks from our house. We load up the wagon with our baseball gloves, a cooler full of water, and a picnic "dinner" and head out the door at about 4:45. John joins us after he gets home from work. One week down and five to go (with the 4th of July week off.)
(The reason all the pictures are of Daniel is that I was coaching when John arrived during Ed's practice and he didn't realize I had the camera. We will try to rectify this at a later session.)

Friday, June 01, 2012

We celebrated our first day of summer break with a trip to the zoo with Grandma and Grandpa. 
It was a beautiful, sunny yet cool day--perfect for walking around the Niabi Zoo. This is only an hour away from us, but for some reason, we'd never made the trip. Possibly because our travel over the last few years has taken us to the Milwaukee, Phoenix, Omaha, Blank Park (Des Moines) and Lincoln Park (Chicago) zoos.

This is a very nice, small zoo-- quite walkable and accessible for the six-and-under set. (Which means it's possibly not the nicest place for the animals I guess.) We started out a little rocky with Daniel insisting we ride the train immediately. Maybe I should have been more flexible, but I was pretty sure I'd need the train as incentive as the day wore on, so I didn't want to use it up in the first five minutes we were there. At one point in his fit, Daniel switched from "I wanna ride the train!!!" to "I just don't want these pants on!!!" Which was hilarious of course, but also the moment I knew he was turning the corner. And just around that corner he got to feed huge goldfish in the koi pond and then all was right with the world again. (P.S. I was right about needing the train incentive. "We can ride the train as soon as you've eaten all  your lunch.")

Everyone's favorites:
Grandpa--bald eagle
Daniel--elephant; the elephant was using its trunk to pick up dirt and throw it on its back. Daniel could totally relate. (Runner up--lions; he knows a song about a lion who shakes his mighty mane and was very impressed with this lion's tresses.)
Mom--having Grandma and Grandpa there to take the boys in the aviary (shudder!)

There were no water animals, but Daniel was just as happy to find his orca at the playground in the picnic area.

The outing was such a success that even Edward slept on the way home. We all went in one car, which put me in between the boys in the back seat. A towel wrapped around my shoulders cushioned them sufficiently for napping. Made a bit of a stiff ride home for me, but worth it to have them quiet and rested.