For month, I had been excited to bring Sprout on his first camping trip. While it didn’t work out as planned, we’re lucky to have some great natural areas nearby.
I don’t love every aspect of camping – in particular how sore my back gets – but I do love all of the clichéd stuff: campfires, marshmellows, hiking, star-gazing. When I was a kid, my family did some tent camping, but my most vivid memories were of our old pop-up camper, listening to the rain hit the roof and sound like macaroni boiling. Later on, I went on group backcountry trips, where we hiked and canoed through the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Although Sprout is too young to remember or fully appreciate these pleasures yet, I want to cultivate this foundational love of nature that comes from regular exposure. (This article from Treehugger has several more reasons to bring kids camping.)
So we got ready for the trip, making reservations at Shenandoah National Park, picking which trails we wanted to tackle, reading The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Your Kids cover to cover, and gearing up at REI.
But the weather had other plans. The forecast predicted highs in the 60s and a 50-70 percent chance of thunderstorms all weekend. The combination of rain, potential lightning and chilly temperatures posed the double threat of being dangerous as well as uncomfortable. Packing up a sopping wet tent while looking after an exhausted toddler, possibly while it thunders, sounded like a special circle of hell. So much to my disappointment, we decided not to go.
Still wanting to get in some outdoors time, we headed over to our local nature center on Saturday morning. They have some short trails through the adjacent forest that looked simple on the map. Reading the nature center’s directions that hikers could call if they got lost, I laughed, “How could you get lost? It’s a couple of loops!” Oh, ye of little sense. Of course, we got lost. Not for long, but we did ramble down a trail that wasn’t maintained and not on the map. One thing the outdoors will quickly teach Sprout is that his parents aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be automatically trusted to know where we’re going. I hope he’s better with a map and compass than I am!
Despite the nearness to an urban environment, we had a lovely walk. A stream wound through the forest, with rocks creating riffles and waterfalls. Clusters of oyster mushrooms sprouted on downed logs. Woodpeckers knocked away at the trees, hunting for bugs. We spotted one’s bright red spot as he flew on the wing and a less-flashy female going about her business on a tree. A young buck with just the beginnings of antlers grazed across a stream from us, then bounded over and started following us. Once it was clear we posed no threat, he continued up the steep hill leading away from the water.
All the while, Sprout looked and listened, content from his perch in the hiking backpack. I think he missed many of the things we thought were interesting – the birds, the deer – but he has his own priorities.
After we wrapped up our hike, we stopped in the center itself, which has a number of live animals. Sprout was especially fascinated by the turtles, watching them swim in their tanks through the glass.
Our little pre-lunch outing couldn’t compare to a full camping trip in a National Park. But it did quench my thirst a little for a hike and reminded me how lucky we are to have some great parks nearby.