On May 17 my oldest graduated from Vermont Technical College and the following Monday we loaded all six in a two vehicles for a week of camping at Acadia National Park. It was our first camping experience.
It was a sunny day here when we left but we drove into a nasty coastal storm, and I could see our sleeping bags in the truck bed being drenched with rain. We arrived at dusk, in the rain. The rangers were off duty, we had no dry wood, and my plan had been for supper to be cooked over a fire. What was looking ugly suddenly became magnificent as my offspring leapt into action, setting up the gazebo and three tents in cheerful efficiency. My husband found some wood and soon we had a fire. That was the beginning of what I learned that week:
1. The kids will rise to meet the challenge.
2. The campfire is the life of the party. Even if you don’t cook on it, have a campfire for its warmth, its beauty, its snapping cheer, especially in the dark.
3. Start the fire first thing in the morning and heat water for hot drinks: coffee, tea, hot chocolate. As campers rise, it gets everyone started. Make breakfast after that.
4. Camping puts the family face to face, without distractions of home. Everything we do, we do together as a family. That is rare for our home life. Good questions fuel conversation. What did you notice today? What would you like to do tomorrow? We split up in teams; some hiked, some biked.
5. Pack ziplock bags with premade meal items, such as pancake mix (just add eggs, milk, butter), cornbread mix (ditto), measured oatmeal, chopped veggies for stir fry. We didn’t like handling raw meat; it was hard to keep sanitary or fresh. Precooked meat in a cooler with ice packs is better than dealing with raw meat. We did it, though; on day four we used ground beef that had been slowly thawing in a small cooler we called “the freezer”, kept cool with bottles of frozen water and ice packs. That was stretching it, though.
6. A fabulous meal: in a 12 inch Dutch Oven layer two chopped onions, a head of chopped cabbage, a can or two of sauerkraut, and 12 Italian sausages arranged like the spokes of a wheel over all. Salt and pepper. Bake at 350 with briquettes under and over (see this chart for exact numbers) for 45 minutes to an hour (or use wood coals and change frequently). Serves 6 or so. We decided we would add mustard to the sauerkraut layer next time.
7. Share the jobs. Everyone has a turn cooking, cleaning up, schlepping the waste to the bear-proof dumpster. Make it a vacation for everyone, even Mom and Dad. (I love cooking with my Dutch Ovens over a fire but I assigned teams to cook various meals so everyone could enjoy the satisfaction of serving a meal they prepared.)
8. Camping is about survival. Meals take intentional thought and a lot more time to prepare. How will we prepare it? How will we stay warm? What do we have to do to stay safe from the wild animals whose territory we’ve invaded? It makes us aware that these are not an issue back home. Thanks Dad; thanks, Mom.
9. Pads under sleeping bags just don’t cut it for middle-aged parents. We should have brought an air mattress for my husband and me.
10. Camping makes unforgettable family memories. Consider making a photobook. National parks gift shops are giving out coupons for free photobooks from Shutterfly this summer (2014). Have everyone upload their photos to Shutterfly. Make a photobook out of them.
We have decided unanimously to make this an annual event. What took us so long?