Monday, June 30, 2014

A Dad's Search for Outdoor Time On Vacation

So you're headed to the great outdoors.  Way to go, Superdad.  All the kids have got copious amounts of name-brand kiddie-size gear that your own parents would have likely never considered, had such things  existed 30 years ago.  Maybe you've even got your partner/wife/girlfriend along for the ride, and she has her own list of things she'd like to do.  To the protestations of your travel mates, you may have even snuck some of your own gear into the car or onto the truck - a surfboard.  Fishing rod.  Waders.  A small tackle box.  Hoping that in your short, frantic, budget-conscious outdoors trip, you'll find a magical window of time to go do the outdoors "your way."  Not "fishing" in the way of spending 2 hours begging one kid not to throw rocks at the fish, while unwinding the impossible tangle of the other kid's fishing line.  Fishing in the way of aggressively wading through mud or currents to get into position.    Or for surfing - spending 40 minutes trying to align yourself just right in the pocket, and angle just right into the take off, so you don't miss the wave or accidentally ride off the shoulder.   Or kayaking - working on your posture, your stroke, all in silence. Seeing how quietly you can paddle.  

Here's the thing.  Unless you like conflict and chaos, you won't make time.  And here's why:  even though you may feel like you booked a beach/mountain/forest trip because you'd like to get some outdoor time to yourself, "like the way it was before you had kids," it's not going to happen.   And I'm just understanding why.  Here are a few things to consider:

1.  Courtesy and Responsibility (young children).   Balance in all things - right?  Don't schedule a 4 day trip, and plan to surf by yourself each of the four mornings.   Don't schedule a 3-day trip that includes a 36-hour campout by yourself.    Be wary of scheduling a trip that would require you to leave the hotel/camp at 3am, possibly waking up your partner and your kids, as you're heading down the road "see you at dinner time!"  These all seem pretty obvious, but before we all had kids, we did a lot of this kind of stuff, or at least I did.   Your marriage or relationship needs to be intact at the end of the trip, and that's likely if you spend the trip acting like you're still 23.

2.  Don't schedule your trip like it's for you "before kids" (older children).   Remember your old outdoor trips?  On the water by 6am.  Back out by 11am.  Pizza and a few sodas till 12.  Stop by your favorite surf shop to run your mouth until 1pm.  Back in the water by 1:30pm for the tide change.  Surf/fish/hunt until dark.    I'm lucky enough in this life to have had many days like that.   But once your kids are old enough to participate in your outdoor sports (assuming they have that interest), you can't work that schedule.
Waves like this are a vacation letdown if you don't have kids with you.
And a blessing if you do.

 It's more like...on the water by 8:30am.  Out by 10am when the kids get hungry.  Go out for lunch.  Go play mini golf.  Back home so kids can get some down time until 4pm.   Get kids ready for dinner.  Go to dinner.  Walk on the beach/in the forest together as the sun goes down.

Those two days are fundamentally different.  The latter shows flexibility and a maturity to stop the "main activity" because the kids are done with it.   Instead of surfing, fishing, or paddling 5-8 hours per day, you'll be lucky to get 90 minutes of serious outdoor time per day, and again, that time may be engulfed by teaching your kids how to do it.  Enjoy that reward - it's not a punishment.   This leads to #3....

Mom or Dad still think they're gonna get on the water
every day?  Suck it up, pay the money,  and get
 as close as possible to the outdoors you want to see.
3.  Scheduling trips that create real outdoor opportunity.   When my buddies and I were young and poor, we wouldn't think twice about booking a hotel 45 minutes from the beach to save money.  After all, gas was 99 cents/gallon and who has $100/night to pay for a hotel room (4-6 guys sleeping in it)?  And, like I described above in #2, the thought was that we'd surf (or fish) our brains out for 36 hours and then limp back home.

Once again, that's a travel model that doesn't translate.  If you want to solidly get outdoors on your own for five days of a vacation, and you have children who are coming on the trip, please don't book 4 nights, or even 5 nights, of lodging.    Book 7 nights, and book them close to your outdoor recreation destination.  For example, a beach house that's within walking distance of the surf spot.   A river or lake cabin with its own boat launch (or community boat launch, if you can only afford a rental place a few blocks away).  Pay for as many nights as you can afford, both in vacation time and rental cost.

I've noticed that the more consecutive time we spend outdoors with Hank, the more he understands that the outdoors can be a constant - a lifestyle.  That it can really be part of us if we simply don't keep scheduling 1-night trips to our favorite destinations -  "Sure you can paddle tomorrow, but check out is at 10am so be back by 8am!"   This also seems to help increase the confidence of the kids on the trip.  Same beach or creek or forest every day.   They learn fast.

4.  Create a Support Network for the Trip.   This has been the hardest thing for me to do, since we don't have a family who will randomly rent a beach house and invite us to join them.   The alternatives are either to rent a huge place out of pocket and hope that someone's parents or grandparents will show up, happily babysit the children for no pay and no respect, and generally be okay with you acting like you're 23 again, "Hey mom, I'm leaving at 5am, can you watch my kid?"  No.   The other alternative is to rent a large house (or a few small cabins) with several families where multiple parents can take turns shouldering the parenting duty.  This means that eventually, you'll get some time off.  On your own.  That's part of the goal, isn't it?  If vacation is just to shop and spend money and eat too much food, you could save money and effort by getting a hotel room next to your local mall.    Recruit some allies - and provide parental support to your partner as well, so she gets her time to do her thing.

After almost five years of parenting, I think I have it figured out.  It's disappointing in a way, because the "great answer" is typical of other conundrums in life, "Just add money and time!"  For this outdoor dad, adding days to a trip, paying extra for up-close outdoor lodging, and involving more parents or families (and their typically higher standards than my own) really seems to be the recipe for creating a trip that celebrates the outdoors, provides lots of time for the kids to learn new outdoor skills or at least new environments, and gives Dad some time to relive the glory days of 10 years and 30 pounds ago.    Maybe your own recipe will be a bit leaner, and I hope you write about it, because like most things involving kids,  the outdoors vacation can be amazing and fun, but it's rarely cheap or relaxing.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cape Henlopen with the Little People and a Big House

I'd say I'm happy but not necessarily "proud."  After working for almost a decade at non-profit organizations and weathering the global recession, my life is not nearly as "jet setting" as it once was (or as I imagined it would be).  But we hit a small travel milestone recently that was kind of neat - our group of friends was able to muster up the funds and vacation time to rent one of "those" beach houses.  You know, the giant obnoxious ones, with as many bathrooms as bedrooms?  The ones with new construction, no cigarette stains, and a quick walk to the beach.  We finally pulled it off.  And it was pretty cool.  Although hearing each 35-40 year old member of our group remark upon arrival, "This is like an MTV Real World house!" didn't probably make us seem much younger or much cooler.   That we paid for it ourselves without mooching off of anyone's parents made it seem slightly cooler.  It's not the Hamptons, but it's down the street from the ferry terminal to Cape May, which is obviously pretty much the same thing.

The kids - five of 'em - were happy and well behaved and just awesome.  Some like the beach more than others, and even on the beach, all of the kids wanted to do different things, which was insane but OK.   Delaware Bay's famous horseshoe crab spawn was just ending, so that made things interesting as massive numbers of "spawned out" dead, giant crabs kept washing up on the beach.

After several tough months at work, I admit, it felt great to just exist and cool down (mentally) for a bit.

The scenery itself was pretty great too.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Honeysuckle Blues

The first week of June in Virginia's Tidewater brings the climax of the honeysuckle bloom.  It is a part of early summer that now seems as native and prescribed as the darkening of the maple and gum leaves from their chartreuse spring color to the forest green hue they need to survive the Virginia summer sun's beating drum. That the honeysuckle, a Japanese plant, is not of here seems hardly consequential and in some ways, hardly accidental.  The mixed golden and white blooms cover everything, masking the onslaught of their invasive overgrowth with a perfect sweet scent that can be identified from a thousand feet away. The rusted tractors and plows of failed tobacco farms, the emptiness of abandoned rural trailer homes, roofs now collapsed, that arrived with hopes of factory work in a nearby town, these things all melt away under the greens of the leaves and the bountiful blooms of this foreign plant.  These are the honeysuckle blues.

Since my childhood I have enjoyed walking among the honeysuckle blooms.  I remember standing at our rural bus stop, every year for at least a decade, and picking the blooms as we waited for County Bus #69.  If you pull the female filament carefully out of the bottom of the flower, drawing it gently from its casing, a generous drop of sweet nectar will come with it.  As children, we became experts in the art of extracting these perfect drops of sugar, even if it was for only a few weeks a year.

I set about on a walk as I often do this time of year, taking advantage of the early sun and light, fickle breeze to free my mind of the entanglements of so many conflicts.  Much of the year, the relative quiet of the outdoors allows the created and assumptive problems to fall away, revealing the core of most matters.  A need for a conversation, a simple confrontation, or most often, a need to forgive or at least forget.

But the honeysuckle bloom beguiles. On my walk, I find that I cannot even force myself to think of problems, of conflicts, of torment.  My mind is filled with the scent of the honeysuckles, and then the calls of the birds in the trees.  Blue Jays.  Mockingbirds.  Robins.  Catbirds.  The summer birds are all here, on their nests.  The sound of a big woodpecker drumming on a rotting maple - really the only value other than shade that the shallow-rooted, easy-splitting red maple provides in life or death.

And that is the sort of thing that brings itself into my mind, saturating my entire mind and preventing me from thinking about problems, consternation, and tribulations.   I try to dredge up one of my "problem projects" I'd like to overanalyze and I'm simply met by the smell of honeysuckles and the shadows under me of birds flying over me.   No problem will be solved here by me, no matter how far I walk,  for honeysuckles cover every abandoned chain link fence, every abandoned cattle pasture.   But neither will any problem overwhelm me as it might otherwise.  These are the honeysuckle blues.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Toddler Fishing 5.3 - Growth Spurt and Big Changes

Complacency.  The mother of all confusion.   But also the mother of learning that things change - that they are always changing.

One morning I asked the now 4.5 year old Hank what he wanted to do when I picked him up from preschool.  He said emphatically, "Go fishing!"  Of course, I thought that was great.  I put some basic gear in the truck (including extra juice boxes, oreos, and some other garbage), headed out to work, and went through the day.   When I arrived to pick him up, he had told his teachers, the school director, and apparently everybody else that he was going fishing.  Again, I thought, "this is great!"

Once in the truck, I asked him if he wanted to fish at a pond, a lake, or a river, knowing that I really wanted him to say "pond" because it would be much more manageable for me to watch him at a pond.  Plus, the shoreline fishing is usually much, much easier.

But he said, "River," and so we headed below the tailrace of the Loch Raven Dam on Maryland's Gunpowder River, just a few miles from home.   And that's when the changes were apparent.

Hank tied a senko worm onto his line (no hook) with a sloppy shoelace knot.  I had no idea.  He expertly cast his BPS "Youth Maxx" (or whatever) rod out "several feet" into the river, and he reeled it in without a problem.   All the things that had been frustrating him about fishing for two years were suddenly easy.

Now, it wasn't all perfect.  Hank has a strong habit for sniping fishing spots.  Once he got set up, I'd slide down about 20 yards to a reasonable spot, you know, sunken log, pile of submerged rocks, etc., and would start casting.  As if the miracle of time-space continuum flight had occurred, Hank would suddenly be next to me, tossing his giant hookless worm with a SMACK right into the hole I was targeting.  Bye bye fish.   I finally decided to use it to our mutual advantage by targeting a hole far outside his casting range.  He moved next to me, flapping his dastardly rubber worm around.  I hooked into a nice sunfish and immediately gave him the rod.  As kids tend to do, he first panicked and asked, "What do I do? Where is the fish?" Now, we have been through this exercise before, so I stayed calm.   "Just turn the reel and hold the rod."   Sure enough he turned the reel and held the rod and the fish appeared.  This brought out the war chant, "I got a fish by myself with zero help!" Classic.

 I had a chance at a nice bass that was chasing small fish around in the cobbles, but I couldn't get the presentation right.  Flat out ignored.  While the boy spent almost half his time not fishing, he kept coming back to it and he (for once) stayed within my eyesight.  He also seemed to enjoy finding fish that he could see.  We fished far too long, actually, and eventually called it quits when the sun started to go down.  The snacks had been eaten and Hank was talking an awful lot about french fries.    Definitely looking forward to next time....

No Video Content For You

Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...