Sunday, June 27, 2010

Great American Backyard Campout

This weekend I hosted our first-ever Great American Backyard Campout. Originally we were going to get a group of friends together and go to a campground to camp, but after getting little interest from friends and realizing that we’d be camping two hot summer weekends in a row, I made the decision to just do a campout/sleepover in our own backyard. Both the kids and I were so extremely excited in the days leading up to the big event, though my dear husband kept mumbling something about my confirmed insanity.

If anyone has the yard to host an event like this, I think we do. Our ¾ acre yard is wooded in the rear of the backyard with a large cleared section towards the house. Not to mention my large tri-level deck and firepit area. We set up four tents in the woods behind our playset, and camping in our yard was just about the closest you could get to the real thing! Of course, the boys would have had a blast even in a regular suburban yard with a makeshift sheet for a tent, but (me being the overachiever that I am) I felt a nice sense of pride from being able to give the kids an authentic experience.

We had a total of nine boys sleep over (including my own two). I had made the invitation “parent optional” but planned to use the BSA guideline of 1 parent per 5 children, so I wanted to have one other parent there with us. Luckily, two parents ended up coming to stay, and in hindsight two or even three ‘extra’ parents would have been the ideal number. Not really because the boys needed that much supervision, but because at this age (mostly 3-7 years old) they still need a lot of help with things like serving themselves food and getting their things laid out in the tents. The two three-year-olds especially needed a lot of my assistance, so I was glad to have the extra hands!

Contrary to my usual philosophy of keeping kids busy as much as possible, I did not schedule any real activities for them to do. GASP! It was a hard decision, but the right one, I think. I did, however, let the parents know to have their kids bring all sorts of artillery, including squirt guns, Nerf guns and lightsabers. The one complaint I hear from my OS about our Scout meetings is that he doesn’t get enough time to just PLAY with his friends there, so I figured the boys would enjoy the uninhibited free time. I think they really did. The late afternoon after they arrived was spent playing in the sprinkler and slip-n-slide, and their constant battles and duels afterward were enough to keep them all busy all evening!

We did a simple dinner on the grill of hot dogs and hamburgers. The boys all got to shuck corn and slather it with butter and I wrapped the ears up in foil and threw them in hot coals for some yummy roasted corn on the cob. Later that night I started a fire and they all got to roast marshmallows and have s’mores. In all the commotion of getting kids marshmallows on their sticks and breaking up chocolate and graham crackers, I somehow didn’t get a s’more for myself. This makes two camping trips in a row where I didn’t get a s’more, something that I think will need to be remedied very soon!

The most difficult part of the entire campout was bedtime. I had the brilliant idea of letting all the older boys all sleep together in one tent without an adult, knowing full well there would be some talking and playing around, but I figured after so much running around in the heat all day they would all pass out soon enough. But by 11pm I began resorting to threats to get them to quiet down, and it was midnight before most of them were asleep, including the three year olds in my own tent! I’m not entirely sure I would let them sleep alone again, but I know they really did think it was fun to be together in there. For almost all of them this was their first-ever sleepover away from a family member, and I think having their buddies together and the novelty of the sleeping in a tent helped keep them occupied enough to not think of being homesick. I guess that is enough for me to put aside my own sleep deprivation… this one time at least.

As I predicted, the boys were up bright and early despite their late night, grabbing their Nerf guns and lightsabers on their way out of the tent. Breakfast was a sort of omelet made in hallowed out orange peels, wrapped in foil and baked on the grill. I had found the idea in a kids camping cook book, and it was somewhat successful but didn’t go over that well with the boys. My backup plan of cereal did the trick for anyone still hungry though!

The kids all got to take home goodie bags, complete with Adventure Journals and Ranger Rick stickers, courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation who sent me a box full of goodies as a thank you for hosting a campout. There were even cute little tote bags for the grown-ups that participated (and I’m a big fan of tote bags!). I would call this campout as much a learning experience for me as a fun time for the kids, since I got to test out their interests and my own limitations. Over all it was a highly successful event. Sure, there were some tears from hurt feelings or water squirted in the face, and there were a few times they yelled at each other for wanting the same gun, but it was nothing that didn’t pass in a few seconds, and everyone left with a smile on their face.

I am so glad I decided to change my plans and share my yard with all these kids. It gave many more of them a chance to spend the night outside and have a lot of good friendship-building time with their buddies than we would have had if we’d camped elsewhere. And besides, the event IS called the “Great American BACKYARD Campout.” I’m thrilled that we pulled it off without a hitch and that the boys had so much fun. We will definitely be hosting the event next year. Luckily, I get an entire year to recover from the experience before I have to do it again!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Melody's Book Picks: Duck Tents

I've decided to occasionally throw in a book review on this blog that relates to something in the out of doors. It could be a book on hiking or camping, a novel that takes place in the wilderness, or in this case, a children's book aimed to get them interested and excited about nature.

I picked up this cute book called "Duck Tents" by Lynne Berry. It is an adorable story of five little ducks who go "camping" and fishing in their own backyard. I am always on the look out for books about camping for my youngest son, and surprisingly I think that such a topic is hard to come by for the pre-K age group. So, you can well imagine that this book popped right out at me as a wonderful addition to our evening story time.

The tale of the five little duck's backyard excapades is told in simple rhyming verse, but not so simple as to make you, the adult reader, want to roll your eyes in boredom. It is by no means what I would call a very 'short' story for this age, but the bright illustrations and fun text will keep it moving along even for a very young child. All the most important aspects of camping are present, from putting up the tents to fishing to roasting marshmallows. The end even covers the sometimes scarry subject of sounds in the night - but ends happily enough with all the ducks snug and safe.

All in all this was a delightful book for a young child, and one I would highly recommend to anyone who might be taking a youngster camping for the first time. It will also make a great book to bring along on a family camping trip, or maybe just read in the backyard with a makeshift 'tent' made out of a sheet and a clothesline. Snuggle up with your little one and go on an exciting but safe adventure with the five little ducks.

Duck Tents
Written by: Lynne Berry
Illustrated by: Hime Nakata
Melody's recommended age: 2-4 years, but interesting enough for older siblings to listen too

Monday, June 21, 2010

Camping at First Landing: When Plans Go Awry

This weekend we finally went to the beach! I can officially now believe that summer has started. It certainly was hot enough!

Unfortunately, very little this weekend went as planned.

I had planned that we would get to First Landing State Park quite early on Friday, preferably around 4pm when check-in begins. I knew that a good number of the campsites backed up to a very busy road that connects two sections of busy Viginia Beach, and I'm a light sleeper so wanted to make sure we got a site as far away from the road as possible. Well, we didn't end up leaving very early, and of course got stuck in all the rush-hour traffic leading to the tunnel, so it was nearly 7pm by the time we arrived. Suffice to say all the "good" sites were taken, and as I feared, our site backed up to the road. It was a really beautiful site nestled in the forested dunes and surrounded by beachy trees with lots of good climbing branches. If it hadn't been for the near constant roar of traffic, it would have been a little slice of heaven. But thankfully, it was not the end of the world, and we almost got used to the noise by the end of the weekend. I did sleep badly the first night with all the annoyingly loud bar traffic roaring through, but by the second night I was tired enough to not notice it as much!

Since I had planned to get to the camp ground early, I also had wanted to go to the welcome campfire program being hosted by the Rangers at 8pm that night. We set up camp as quickly as we could and then drove over to the visitor center to find the campfire. The description mentioned stories and I hoped to hear something about the area or the Indians or anything I might use for Scouts. We looked all around for the campfire. No luck. Sigh... Well, instead we went down on the beach and played around in the sand and water while the sun finished setting. It was a nice evening, even if I didn't get a new story to add to my repitoire.

Back at the campsite I lit a fire and started getting the kids ready for bed. I was thoroughly amused by the small group of teenages that walked hesitantly over to our site to ask how I got my fire lit. Apparently this was their first foray into the woods and they'd been trying for hours, unsuccessfuly, to light a fire to cook their hot dogs. A Scout is helpful, so while DH took the kids to the bathrooms, I went over and helped the next generation by showing them how to build a fire. They were nice kids, not at all rowdy as some teenagers can be, and very thankful for my help. I hope they have an easier time of it on their next trip out in the wilderness!

So, the next morning I had planned to go on the "Swamp Stomp" hike being led by park interpreters at 11am. It sounded really neat, with the kids scooping up buckets of swamp water and looking for bugs and animals that lived there. It figures that 7am found me scrambling to get the tent unzipped before OS threw up all over the blankets. He hadn't shown any signs of being sick, it was a total surprise. He seemed to feel better after that, so we started our long walk over to the bathrooms and he got sick again on the way. Ummm, no Swamp Stomp for us that day. Bummer. After making it back to the campsite, my poor sick boy crawled back into the tent and went back to sleep for a few hours. At this point we weren't sure if we'd end up having to leave, but we figured for now he was probably more comfortable in the tent than he would be in the car. DH took YS to the playground for a while, then I took him on a bike ride up to explore the visitors center. Miraculously, when OS woke up late that morning he seemed to feel much better and kept down a small amount of food and water. But then he had issues with the other end of his digestive tract, if you know what I mean. Note to self - pack even more emergency underwear for the kids next time.

Well, by 4:00 all the odd sickness seemed to have passed and OS was happily running around the site and swinging from the rope swing that some previous camper had strung up over a pit formed from the bottom of several dunes. So, finally, we got to head to the beach for a little while. The kids had a blast, they love the shallow water and small waves of the Bay. I was very thankful that my big boy got well fast enough to enjoy some part of the day!

After a super yummy dinner on the grill - steak, corn on the cob and garlic bread - I decided to make up for the missed Swamp Stomp hike by going on the interpreter-led Night Hike, which started at 8:30pm. I knew it would be a streatch to have YS hike that much when it was already past his bedtime, but I was determined to get at least one good hike in. I'm so glad we did it, hiking at night was a new experience for the boys, and the interpreter was fantastic with the kids. We listened for different kinds of frogs and owls, watched for bats, and got to test our night vision with a neat experiment. Even though I ended up having to carry YS back on my shoulders, it was a great way to end what had started out as a questionable day.

We woke up late Sunday morning to a stifling heat. The weather on Friday and Saturday had been hot, but tolerable in the shade, and at night it was pleasently cool. Sunday decided to bring on all its heat and humidity with full force. We were already drenched with sweat before we even got out of the tent. Of course, I had thought we'd be up early and take a hike before the heat really set in, but who knew we'd all be so tired we'd sleep in that much? Ahh, but that didn't stop me from making pancakes and bacon for my hubby's Father's Day breakfast! After loading up on the carbs, we decided to try a bike hike instead. We got on our bikes and headed out of the campsite and across the road to do some biking on the Cape Henry Trail. Even though it was hot, the breeze while biking made it a little more tolerable. I'm so very glad that a Scout aquaintence of mine lent us her bike rack for the trip! I'm not sure what we would have done without the bikes there, it really made a big difference, especially just getting to and from the distant bathrooms! I have no idea how far we biked on the trail, but I know my legs and rear end were screaming for mercy by the time we were back at the campsite! It was a good ride.

After the bike hike we hit the beach again for a little bit and then packed up to go home, thouroughly exhausted. Considering we weren't even sure if we'd be able to stay the weekend, I think we had a great trip and still managed to fit a lot of fun stuff in. The kids both kept saying how much they didn't want to leave (they obviously don't long for air conditioning as much as we adults do!), and in the car, just before he fell asleep, YS let out a big sigh and said, "I love our camping trips." Those five words alone made all the stress of plans gone awry completely worth it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gearing up the Gear

This weekend we're headed out camping again, this time to First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. Though we've already been camping a few times this year and I just keep the gear packed and ready to go, I am in the process of REpacking all of it from one gigantic plastic bin that was getting too heavy for one person to lift into two smaller, more manageable ones. It remains to be seen if this is even possible, and if it will help or hinder packing stuff in the car.

Because somehow I believe that car camping means you have to FILL the car. Usually I am shoving things into small crevasses and under the kids feet, and even my feet, to accomodate all the stuff we bring. Now rest assured, I CAN rough it and have done so many times in the past, but I've learned that living in the woods for even a couple days with small children means having to think of anything and everything that might be needed, go wrong, or keep them from whining and fighting the whole time. And you don't want and frantic trip to find a WalMart to ruin your camping experience. As an added problem, when you go camping at the beach as we are this weekend, you not only have to pack the camping gear, but the beach gear too! Beach umbrella, sand toys, beach blankets, etc. Talk about space issues, we'll be lucky to fit the dog in the truck by the time we're ready to go, much less the kids!

Speaking of space, I'm bummed that we don't have a bike rack for our vehicle yet. The beach is a pretty flat place, and I'm sure the trails would be perfect for a family bike hike. We've started to really love biking, but our family skill and strength levels are still pretty low, espeically for my OS who is still somewhat new to life without training wheels. The level trails sound perfect for us, but strapping three bikes to the roof of our car with bungee cords for 90 miles just doesn't seem very feasible. Well, I guess that just means we'll have to make another trip there next year. Maybe Santa, who brought us the bikes this past Christmas, will bring me a bike rack in December. Along, of course, with the GPS unit for geocaching and a dutch oven that are already on my Christmas list! Ummm, are you listening Santa???

Repacking and sorting of gear aside, I'm excited because we now have a happy family of four daypacks to bring with us on our weekend excursions. On our last few hikes I've noticed that the little mini backpack we got for OS many years ago is getting kind of small for him, and his little brother has expressed interest in carrying it himself. So after some searching I found a really nice junior daypack at the new REI here in Richmond. I had also picked up DH a daypack a little while ago, so now he doesn't always have to carry my pretty purple one when we go out. Now we each have our own perfectly sized packs, and all lined up they look like they could be in a "The 3 Bears" type story. "There once was a great big Papa pack, a medium sized Mama pack, a smallish Kid pack, and an itsy-bitsy Baby pack that lived in the woods in a quaint little cottage..."

REI was great fun to wander around, even if it is a little pricey for me right now. I got some really cute little "Adventure Journals" for free that I handed out to all my Cubs at graduation too. Its a little book where they can record a few thoughts about trips they take and things they see. Nice program. I think it would be even better if the kids could get something special for filling it up and turning it in, like a pin or patch or stuffed toy. Maybe I'll bring that up to the company... Still, its a nice thought to help get the kids excited about their adventures, and to remember them down the road.

Ah well, more sorting and repacking awaits so we can hit the interstate tomorrow! Happy camping!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Successful End to a Successful First Scouting Year

This past weekend culminated in the official graduation of our Tiger Cubs into the Wolf Cub Scout program. It was a proud moment for all the Cub families, and especially proud for me to have helped them get this far.

But first on Saturday, the day before the graduation, we met a group of our fellow Pack families at Dutch Gap Boat Landing in Chester for the annual James River Clean Up Day. For something I meerly was able to 'advertise' via email, we had an impressive group of 36 people registered to participate in the event, and the vast majority of them actually showed up! I was quite pleased with how our Pack was ready and willing to take part in the cause, and VERY pleased that about half the participants were from our own Tiger families. For the parents of our boys to be so committed and involved really speaks for the future of the boy's continuing on with the Pack. It was quite hot, even at 9am when we got started, but the boys were so pleased to be scrambling around the river banks with their friends that I dont' think they even noticed the heat! It was a great day and a great turn out, and thankfully we wound up finishing much earlier than the 1pm scheduled time. A local Boy Scout troop even grilled us some much-needed lunch before we all head home for the day. Or to the pool, in our case!

After that eventful morning and afternoon, I hung out at home to finish up a bunch of details about the upcoming Graduation on Sunday. I had been working on the special howling wolf neckerchief slides for a week or two and they were all painted and ready, but I couldn't help but give them a few extra sprays of clear coat to try and help protect the finish. I was very pleased with the way they all turned out, and judging from the thanks and compliments I've recieved, i think the boys and parents were pleased as well! The slides were a surprise gift and were a BIG hit! I also made some additions to what I would say during the crossover, rewrote an opening ceremony I found online to suit the occasion, and came up with some stuff to say about the Year of Celebration patches that all the boys would be getting that day. Yes, it was a lot of work, but graduation only comes once a year and I think it should really mean something to the boys, so I went out of my way to make it special.

On Sunday, in 164 degree heat (I have been known to exaggerate a little sometimes, but not this time!), we held the graduation and crossover ceremony. Our Tigers, who have almost no real flag ceremony experience, did a great job with the opening after only one hasty practice run. I had to put the biggest boys in charge of holding the flags, because BOY those things are heavy! They did a great job, all of them, and I was very proud at their willingness and accomplishment!

The graduation moved along nicely, probably thanks in part to the heat. We presented our Tigers with their awards (including some that had earned the Leave No Trace patch with the previous day's environmental service) and gave the boys the picture frames they had decorated at the last meeting, filled now with a photo of their Den. Then we had all the parents stand on one side of a makeshift bridge with the new yellow neckerchiefs and howling wolf slides while the boys stood on the other and removed their orange Tiger neckerchiefs. Then each crossed over and their parent helped them don their new neck wear. At the end I had the new Wolves, parents and the whole Pack welcome the boys into the Wolf Den with a big howl. Cheesy maybe, but it sure made everyone smile!

After the rest of the Dens crossed over and the special 'thank yous" were given to some of our valuable committee chair people, we were all sweating buckets and ready for the pool. Well, ready for cake and ice cream, THEN the pool. Having the graduation on the pool grounds to be immediately followed by a pool party was the perfect idea for a great ending. I don't think I've ever had cold water feel so good, and I don't think either of my kids got out of the water for longer than it took to jump back in again.

Looking back to last September I can hardly believe that I hesitated to take on the role of Leader. Yes, we had a rocky start while we were all still figureing things out, and yes, it has been a very large commitment for my time, but it is one of the most rewarding and exciting things I have ever done. I am so proud to be a part of shping these boys' lives and would not miss this experience for the world. I'm so happy to have had such a great ending to an overall successful first year, and am truly looking forward to even better ones to come.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Last Tiger Den Meeting

Last night was our last Den meeting as Tigers. This weekend our boys will graduate into Wolves. Its amazing to look back on some of the pictures of our boys from just last fall and see how much they've all grown. I feel like I've grown a lot along with them, and have finally found my footing in this mystical world of Scouting. I've gotten to know the boys and the parents pretty well by now, and am so proud to have all of them on this journey with me. We're all learning a lot together and having a really fun time doing so!

A few weeks ago I was trying to think of something to give the boys at graduation for them to remember their year as Tigers by. At first I was having trouble coming up with an idea that wouldn't break the bank, but then lightning struck and I decided to have them decorate a picture frame and fill it with a photo of them and their Den friends. At the last Pack meeting, when they were all dressed up in their best uniforms, I took pictures of each Den together. They all look so adorable! I then got plain wooden frames from the craft store for $1 each and used my Cub Scout candy molds to make plaster casts of the Cub Scout logo. I also used a different candy mold to make tiger paw prints. I glued one of each of those onto the wooden frames and they were ready to decorate.

At the meeting, we first met inside to talk about some things we'll be doing over the summer, like working on requirements for the BSA Centennial patch and the Geology pin stuff that I have planned out. Its going to be a action-packed summer for the new Wolf Dens! We then marched outside to the picnic tables to work on our craft. No matter what we're doing, I think the kids always enjoy it more when its done outside. I broke out the majority of my paints and craft supplies for the decorating table. The boys really went to town with the frames, they all became little works of art in no time!

After they were finished with the frames we played Clothespin Tag. By the time I got the rules explained and clothespins distributed to the boys, the parents had already nearly finished cleaning up all the craft stuff. It never ceases to amaze me what incredible parents we have in our Dens. They are always so willing to jump in and lend a hand, often before I even think to ask! I'm so very thankful that I don't have to be one of those Den leaders that constantly grumbles about the parents not being involved! They even helped carry all the supplies and frames to my car (I took the frames home to assemble them with the photos, which the kids haven't seen yet).

It was a great last meeting. The kids had a good time and I'm really looking forward to presenting their pictures to them on Sunday. I think they'll be a hit, and more special than just some token I bought and handed to them. I'm also incredibly excited about our summer program. Hubby says I am trying to relive my childhood through these kids, and that may be a little true, but I'm also just so happy to be able to share my knowledge and passions with a new generation. I hope they are as excited to be with me as I am to be with them.
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