Tuesday, June 26, 2012

When technology and nature meet

Occasionally I get comments on my blog about "kids these days" out in nature with their DVD players, video games and i-Pods.  I'm not sure if the criticism is aimed at the parents, the children or the generation in which we live. Either way, this is apparently some sort of hot topic I thought I'd attempt to at least start conversation on.

I've always taken the stand that a happy child makes for a happy family.  If Junior is grumpy - everybody is grumpy!  If you don't believe me, try taking a five hour road trip with a baby who screams for most of it!  We parents become pretty adept at doing whatever it takes to ensure that our children are entertained and in good spirits for the sanity of everybody involved.  I myself have done things I swore I'd never do in the name of preserving peace and quiet.  I allow my son to watch movies on long road trips.  I give him my i-Phone when we're shopping or waiting for our food to arrive in a restaurant.  I also bring a portable DVD player on camping trips.  (your cue to stop reading if you think this should be the 11th commandment - Thou shalt not bring technology into the backcountry!)

I'm one of those people who don't really see life in black and white.  I can list the things on one hand that I think are always wrong or bad.   I try to look at the circumstances behind the scenes instead of judging people who might make different choices than I would.  That child who takes his Nintendo DS system with him and chooses to play video games rather than socializing with other kids might have mild autism and really struggle with social interaction.  The child who takes his portable DVD player camping might be one of those highly sensitive children that need a few creature comforts from home in order to feel safe and secure. For that child, their favourite TV show might be one of those comfort items at times when they're feeling overwhelmed.  Is it our place to judge the reasons parents bring gadgets into the backcountry?  Do we know the underlying reasons?

For me, kids using gadgets while camping, hiking, or out in nature isn't a given evil.  There are so many amazing things children can learn through the use of technology.  Take for example the new sport of geocaching.  Thanks to this educational activity, many people who would not normally be interested in hiking are heading to the wilderness in search of hidden treasures.  We haven't tried it yet but it's a brilliant concept and teaches children skills such as backcountry navigation and route finding.  In order to participate in geocaching though you'll need a GPS enabled device - in other words, your kids will have to use gadgets in the backcountry.

I have definitely seen the downside of kids having access to electronic gadgets and think caution is of course required.  I once watched a boy walk around the Calgary Zoo with a hand held video game system in his hands.  While walking!!  And instead of actually looking at the animals his parents brought him to see.  Seriously, I can't find anything positive to say about that as hard as I try not to judge.  For me it comes down to a couple of simple guidelines for families:

One - Safety

I know we all love our i-Pods but seriously, it isn't safe to ski or snowboard while listening to music.  You can't hear what is happening around you and I really don't feel safe if you can't hear me coming up along side.  I'd say the same for cycling while listening to music.  It's important that you connect with your surroundings in order to avoid collisions with other cyclists, hikers, and wildlife.  It's hard to know what's around the next corner if you can't hear anything.  Meanwhile, is it such a big deal if a toddler is listening to an i-Pod in their Chariot while mom or dad takes them out on the cross country ski trails?  Presuming the volume isn't cranked, if the child is happy, not screaming, not fussing, and letting you actually ski, I say - awesome, keep at it!  It's hard to keep kids happy in captivity and you do what you have to do.  Otherwise, I guess you leave them at home if gadgets bother you so much and you get a babysitter every weekend. 

Skiing with the kids

Two - Moderation

My child  is allowed to watch movies on road trips greater than 2 hours. Most day trips to the mountains are shorter than that and so we don't even pack the DVD player.  Does my son ask for it?  No.  Honestly he doesn't.  He knows it's a special treat and that it only comes out on the big trips so that we can all have some sanity.  Think of it from the kid's perspective - how boring is it to stare out the window of a car for 4 hours?  Even I bring a book or something to do.  My child is only 3 years old and can't exactly read his way through a book that whole time.  When we get to camp he is only allowed to watch a movie during his mid day quiet time or before bed if he's having troubles falling asleep.  This is after he has played in the creek, gone for at least one hike, maybe taken a swim in a lake and played at a beach, chased his friends around - and is totally exhausted!  He seriously needs a nap but since he fights those like the plague these days, we resort to other methods of keeping him in the tent quiet and resting.  We choose to let him watch a movie.  Maybe you have other things you choose.  Either way - should we really be judging each other?  We are all good parents trying to do our best.  It doesn't help when somebody says they'd never go camping with people like us because we bring gadgets. 

These days my son is quite content to fall asleep in the tent without a video and likes to read books but that wasn't the case a year ago.  He also sleeps in until 7am now which is a blessing.  Last summer he was waking up at 6am and I certainly wasn't getting up at that ungodly hour.  However, if there are problems going to sleep or he wakes up early, we know we can pull out that secret weapon - Barney!  Judge me or congratulate me for finding a way of sleeping in until 7:30 when camping.  Whatever.  You do what you've got to do to survive.  And if you really have a problem with it, please, come by my tent and offer to take my child for a morning hike at 7am.  I'll even give you my car keys to grab the cheerios from our food stash.

My son running off his last bit of energy before bed

I guess in summary I'd just like to say that if it's ok for adults to have gadgets in the backcountry or while camping, it has to be ok for kids.  Otherwise it's a double standard.  Below are just a few gadgets that most adults would agree are acceptable - and they aren't all educational or for the purposes of saving your life.  Many are purely for entertainment!
  • GPS enabled devices
  • Personal locator beacons
  • Avalanche beacons
  • Kindle Readers 
  • Headlamps (try using a candle on your next trip as you read your e-Books)
  • i-Pods (Ask a mountain guide how popular their use is on long mountaineering slogs)
  • Digital Cameras
  • Watches (complete with an alarm to wake you up for that alpine start)
  • Altimeters
  • Cycling Computers (to track your speed, distance, and trail stats)
  • LED lanterns
  • Pedometers
  • Heart Rate Monitors
  • Video cameras or helmet cams
Technology is here to stay and perhaps if a gadget or two make a trip a little bit easier, more comfortable, and even safer, I'm all for it.  The most important thing for me is actually seeing families out enjoying nature.  If a DVD player has to come along to make this happen - so be it.  If the children want a bit of music, let them have it.  It's a lonely hill to stand on looking down on the "those parents" who don't measure up to your standards of backcountry purity.

Beautiful kids enjoying the beautiful outdoors

However you do it - just get outside.

All  constructive feedback welcomePersonal attacks or non-constructive comments will be removed.

Perfecting the art of group camping

Last weekend's adventures took us South East to Cypress Hills Provincial Park on the Saskatchewan border.  This was our first time camping on the Alberta side of the park and we lucked out in finding the best group campground ever!!  It even had a babbling creek right behind where we set up our tent with tons of gooey mud for the kids to play in.  I knew we'd picked the right campground when I saw that creek promising endless amounts of fun.

Fun in camp

Campground Info:

Campground Name - Willow Creek Group Camp
Location in Cypress Hills - Roughly 5km South of Elkwater Lake, up the Ferguson Hill Road
Number of sites - 20 (though you could comfortably fit 10 families in our opinion)
Power - No
Showers - No
Bathrooms - Bathroom house with separate sides for men and women, two stalls per side, and tile flooring!
Shelter - Yes.  The Kitchen Shelter had picnic tables and a stove inside.
Wood - Not provided.  Bring your own.
Reservations - Made online at Reserve Alberta Parks

Willow Creek Group Camp

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bow Valley Provincial Park - Where the Wild Winds Blow

Last weekend we went camping in Bow Valley Provincial Park with 17 other families.  You can read the full story, Group Camping - the Chaos and the Glory here.  I wanted to do a second post on the weekend though and actually focus on the park itself.  Bow Valley Provincial Park is a very convenient place for Calgarians to go camping and popular campgrounds are almost always booked solid through out the summer season. Though I found our campground to be insanely windy, I did discover why locals make the trip out on weekends to camp here and was reminded of how beautiful the park is.

Mt. Yamnuska reigns over Bow Valley Provincial Park

Monday, June 18, 2012

Group Camping - the Chaos and the Glory

We are always searching for wild and crazy things to do as a family that push the boundaries of of sanity.  Last weekend we decided to try group camping - with 17 other families.  In total we had around 30 children between the ages of 1 and 13.  We booked a group campground and I created some base structure by asking for money up front from everybody coming.  There were no refunds if you couldn't come, and you paid for both Friday and Saturday night even if you decided to only come out for the day.  (and yes, that did happen)

Our little corner of the campsite

I learned many things about organizing a large group camping trip.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Friday's Gift - DADS


Today,  I am thankful for my husband and for outdoor dads all around the world who take their children camping, hiking, skiing, and exploring in nature.  

In honour of Father's Day, here are a few suggestions for practical gifts you can give the outdoor dad this year:

One - Go for a hike and then take Dad to a family-friendly pub for dinner afterward.  Let him have a couple beers and offer to drive home.  If you live in the Calgary area, there are several good pubs that take kids in the Canmore/Banff area:
  • Rose And Crown, Canmore (even has a playground on the patio)
  • The Grizzly Paw Brewing Company, Canmore
  • The Drake, Canmore
  • St. James Gate, Banff
  • The Station Pub, Lake Louise
  • The Outpost Pub in the Post Hotel, Lake Louise

Two - Get everything ready for the weekend's camping trip or Saturday's Hike.  Surprise him by having the car packed and ready to go Friday when he gets home from work.  Or, let him sleep in on Saturday and get everything packed up so he doesn't have to do anything other than have breakfast and get dressed.  If that's asking too much, offer to put everything away at the end of the trip while he relaxes.

Three - Plan a trip with another family - hopefully one where the Dads are friends.  Dad will relax a lot more and enjoy his day if he has another buddy along on the journey.  

Four - Ask Dad what he would like to do this weekend.  Sometimes we just assume they'd like to go hiking or camping but if fishing is more his thing - go fishing together, as a whole family.  If he likes rock climbing, offer to belay and take a trip out to the crag together.   Maybe he can even give the kids a lesson on the wall.  The point is, let Dad decide what you will do this weekend and make it about him.

Five - Buy him something that he can use on this weekend's adventures.  I bought my husband a new hibachi grill for camping after he was eying up his friend's grill a few weeks ago.  Little did I know, most grills today use propane and I bought him one that uses charcoal.  Fortunately, he hasn't burned anything down while trying it out this week in the backyard and the hamburgers we had last night were probably the best barbecued burgers I've had. 

I'm going to leave you with some of my favourite photos of my boys.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My journey to become an outdoor mom

When I first started writing I actually came very close to writing a piece on how I didn't consider myself an outdoor mom.  I considered myself an adventure mom.  I had little interest in toddler hikes, playing in the mud, looking for tadpoles, or nature study.  I really didn't even like camping all that much.  (This from the woman who just wrote a whole series on camping).  A lot has happened in the last six months though and I can now proudly say that I love the outdoors!  I want to go camping every weekend!  And I have very little interest in doing big adventures, hikes, and climbing trips at this stage of our lives.

Looking for tadpoles

I started following many cool outdoor family blogs (see the blog roll at the side of my page) and the more I read about outdoor play, the more I started to appreciate the concept, to see the value in it, and to actually aspire to become a true outdoor mom.  Note that this does not apply to winter (yet).  I still wish I could get out to do big 20km cross country ski trips every weekend in winter and I still have a long ways to go before I truly enjoy playing in the snow.  Summer however belongs to the young - and the young at heart.

Kids running their crazy into the wind

In January, I started an outdoor playgroup that's now called the Calgary Outdoor Adventures Playgroup.  I'd read about groups such as this and my friend Lia from Alaska inspired me with her group called Skeaddle because I figured if she could run a playgroup that met outside year round with their weather, I could run one here.  It gets pretty cold in Calgary and when I started the group in the middle of winter, I was pleased that we actually had a consistent four or five families come out each week.

February in Calgary

 I started the group for a few reasons, the first being that I wanted to learn how to enjoy outdoor play in all weather.  I've always been a fair weather kinda girl and when it's raining, we stay home.  If it's -30C, we don't go to the playground.  That's changed a lot thanks to this group and we did go to the playground when it was definitely close to -20C.  We even stayed for an hour!  I also wanted my son to learn to enjoy playing outside in all conditions.  At the beginning of winter, he hated the snow, disliked the cold intensely, wouldn't wear mittens, and rejected much of his outdoor wardrobe.  By the end of the winter, thanks to the playgroup and some backcountry trips with family friends, he was happily wearing his outdoor clothing, had his favourite hat, favourite mittens, and even loved his scarf.  He'd ask me to put mittens on.  Success!!

Learning to like snow

Now it's Spring and we are averaging 20 kids out per week at our outdoor playgroup.  The kids have been playing in mud, jumping in puddles, hiking together and chasing each other down hills, exploring the best natural areas our city has to offer, and making new friends.  It's been a very rewarding experience for me and it's been wonderful watching my son learn to appreciate outdoor play.  There are days now when I can't get him to come inside.  We go from one park to the next and try to stay out as long as we can until dinner approaches.

Playing in the Ravine near our house

I used to enjoy indoor play parks, loved taking my son to the mall, and would frequent places with names like "Stir Crazy" or "Coffee and Scream."   Now, we plan our play dates outside and I meet girlfriends for coffee at outdoor playgrounds.  I avoid indoor playgroups and don't host large groups of moms at my house anymore.  All socialization is done outdoors with the kids running free and happy.  I am happier for the changes and my son is definitely happier!

Toddlers burning off energy outdoors

The month of May was a big month for me in terms of outdoor goal setting.  One of the main goals was to  get a bike and learn to enjoy cycling again.  It's a classic outdoor activity I could enjoy close to home, in the evenings, and as a family thanks to our Chariot that pulls our son along on our rides.  I've discovered that I actually love riding my new bike and we now have another family activity we like doing together in the city.  A rainy day can be salvaged by a quick family bike ride between storms.  That time before our son goes to bed is now filled with pleasant rides around the neighborhood instead of watching television.  And, nobody told me how much more you get to appreciate the smells of spring when you're on a bike!  Every flower, every bush, every new tree - it all smells so much better when the breeze hits you from your bike.

My new bike

Another goal I had for the month of May was to learn to like camping.  This is a whole story in and of itself, but we had a fabulous time camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park and I knew then, that in the right conditions, I loved camping.   I learned that I need to go camping with friends and that I need to slow down more when camping.  Camping isn't just about having a base camp for hiking adventures.  It's about setting up tents and trailers beside a creek so the kids can play in the mud while you sit in a lawn chair drinking coffee and soaking up the morning sun.  It's about short little walks and hikes around the campground.  And it's about s'mores, hot dogs, and fun around the campfire.

Playing in the mud beside our campsite in Dinosaur Provincial Park

The final goal I set last month was to learn how to slow down.  Camping taught me a lot about this but I also discovered it was easy to slow down when I stopped taking the Chariot on every walk or hike.  Now I let my son walk or ride his Strider bike and I enjoy the pace of a three year old.  I close my eyes sometimes and just let the moment wash over me.  We worked hard at turning our backyard into an outdoor play heaven and now I can just sit back in my lounge chair, watch my son play in his new 6x8 foot sand box, and relax in the sun.  It's my version of urban camping.

Our new sand box and backyard climber

I still have a long ways to go on my journey of becoming an outdoor mom but I feel like my whole personality has been transformed in a very short period of time.  I can only imagine the changes that will take place in the next six months.  Maybe I'll go back to school yet for that Outdoor Education Degree.


I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments.  Have you had a similar journey since becoming a parent?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

How to survive a toddler hike

Last weekend we had one of those hikes where you really hope nobody recognizes you as a family hiking expert!  I just kept thinking, "Oh, dear God, please don't let anybody on this trail today find out that I actually write about this kind of stuff - often giving advice on how to make it pleasant and fun!"  It was one of the least enjoyable hikes we've done as a family and we ignored every one of the guidelines I usually try to follow when planning a toddler hike.

This is where our hike should have ended, playing in this pond

One - hike with friends who have children around the same age(s) as yours

Give a child a friend to hike with and you are essentially giving them a superman cape.  They will hike faster, longer, in better spirits, and have more fun.  I almost guarantee it!  Almost, because nothing is really guaranteed when it comes to children.  I've seen my three year old walk up to 4km with friends on trails that really weren't all that interesting at times and then I've seen him refuse to walk more than 1km on trails that I thought would be fun when he was alone.

Our lone little hiker

Two - choose interesting trails with a varied terrain

I know that for my child, any hike we do has to have at least a couple of the following features:
  • Boulders to scramble around and over

  • A creek to throw rocks in, wade in, or cross on bridges and boardwalks

  • Stairs (it adds a challenge to the hike and therefore makes it interesting)

  • Short hills for running down or powering up (again for a challenge)

  • Narrow, windy paths (big, wide cross country ski trails or fire roads would be the worst scenario for a hike with small kids.)

Add a waterfall or large meadow to run around in and you have a winning hike.

This was as interesting as our hike got

Three - plan for free playtime

Kids of any age aren't going to go for a long hike without stopping to play and explore.  Walking in and of itself is not an adventure.  Hike to a creek that the children can play in.  Take a short walk to a waterfall the kids can explore.  Climb up to a big open meadow where the tots can run around. If your child has friends along, it's even better.

A lovely hike but viewpoints are more interesting to adults than kids

Four - know when to start and finish your hike

Bad times to start a hike:
  • Right as your child is entering that cranky time of day and should be napping

  • In the heat of the day

  • When your child is hungry (bananas offer very quick energy for hiking if you want to have a picnic lunch on the trail and just need a pre-hike snack)

  • When Mom or Dad are in a bad mood, sick, or otherwise under the weather (let the parent who is less than cheerful stay home or relax in the grass by the car and maybe just do a shorter hike - it'll be worth it!)

I'd go as far as to say that if your child hasn't had his daily bathroom trip yet, you could be in trouble.  My son is learning to pee in the forest but there's no way he's squatting to do anything else!  And if he has to go to the bathroom, he gets understandably grumpy until it's come out and we've found a place to clean him up a bit.

As for knowing when to finish your hike - often the smartest thing you can do is recognize the hike is not going well, turn around and just go back to the car.  Stop for ice cream on the way home and try again another day.

This may have been a good spot to say goodbye to our friends, turn around, and head back

Our hike last weekend was a failure on so many levels.  We joined a group hike with no walking children even remotely close to my child's age and were quickly walking by ourselves. 

We chose a trail with no interesting features other than one pretty viewpoint which meant more to us than our son.  There was no free playtime allotted on our walk, and we started right after lunch.  This meant that our son had a full belly but was cranky and tired.  He hadn't slept on the way out to the mountains and really just needed a nap. 

To further complicate things, Dad was feeling slightly under the weather and wasn't exactly in the mood to deal with multiple tantrums on the trail, screaming, wailing and general whining.  Then again, is anybody ever in the mood to deal with that?  I know I wasn't!

Lesson learned - follow my guidelines above and hopefully next time we go out, we'll look a little more like an experienced outdoor family and less like a family out on their first-ever day hike. 

I'd love to hear about your misadventures.  What have you learned on the trail about keeping children happy?