Last weekend we were fortunate to be invited on a multi-family camping trip in the California Redwoods. My husband and I have done some camping – he more than I – but we had not yet done a full family campout, kids and all. Cold water, late night trips to the pit toilet, no electricity? No problem. I was raised in Oregon after all. I like tall trees. I’ve slept on damp ground. I’m hardy.
Hardy or not, camping with kids is a lot of work! They want cocoa with marshmallows. They want s’mores. They need changes of clothes and a good night’s sleep. So, most of the pre-trip week was devoted to making and reviewing checklists and tossing various kitchen items, tools, sleeping gear, and foodstuffs into large tubs. Trips to REI, Costco and OSH. Planning. Purchasing. Packing. Overpacking. My husband was in London all week and not set to return until Friday, after our planned departure time. Normally, he is the voice of reason in the packing department. This due to his being in charge of most loading and hauling. Well that voice was too far away for me to hear. The car was stuffed.
On Friday afternoon, an hour before John was due to land back in the States, the kids and I were off. Knowing their father would be tired from the flight, and wanting to flex my camp-worthiness, I crowned my boys temporary “man-of-the-house” and “second-in-command” thinking I could secure their help in setting up before dark. Ours were walk-in campsites, which have the benefit of being away from cars and their non-woodsy noises, yet require you to haul e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g to the site. Hardy. From Oregon.
When we arrived, the kids carried down a sleeping bag or two, and then scampered off to join the ten other kids – ages 5 to 11 – in hollering and running all over the woods. In no time, they had built a fort with sticks and pine boughs in the base of a giant redwood tree. My younger son convinced me it was a former bear cave.
While the parents continued to haul gear and pitch tents, the kids broke into teams and started using pretend code names. Then they established jobs such as guarding the cave, procuring building materials, and gathering pinecones. When someone went to the dark side and tried to invade the cave, it led to a “Lord of the Flies” situation where the “prisoner” was hauled into and detained in a hollowed out redwood tree trunk. When I passed by the scene, on loads five or six from the car, a few kids were guarding him with long sticks and wild eyes. He was in on the game, at least for the initial stages of it.
Day two brought a hike on which the kids forded streams across fallen logs and ran far ahead of the parents only to ambush us with a ululating war cry reminiscent of Planet of the Apes. We all learned how to spot poison oak and stinging nettles, some a bit too late unfortunately. By afternoon, the arsenal of pinecones had become a currency system with values assigned according to their uniqueness and quality. Cones were used to purchase various sizes of whittled sticks in a makeshift “store.” Stick whittlers were on different pay scales and people took timed “breaks.” Such inventiveness. And not an iPad in sight!
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Ten kids – eight boys and two girls – spending two days running freely, breathing fresh air, collecting pinecones, whittling sticks, creating a mini-civilization, comparing banana slugs, eating s’mores, and chucking various things into the fire-pit when parents weren’t looking. They enjoyed each others company and flexed their imaginations while stoking campfire flames and telling each other about their latest dreams. No one asked for screen time.
Now that we are back – and still unpacking – I look forward to more camping trips, and hope they result in just as much free-form fun and many more lasting memories. Not just for me, but for my kids. I also sincerely hope my sons – and their friends – have internalized how much more thrilling camping is than even the heartiest round of Angry Birds. They better. Hardy or not, camping is a lot of work.