Yes, another trip to Pinery with just as much snow as before, which is none. Well, maybe not exactly none. There was some white dust mixed in with brown leaves along the trails and sand on the beach. But not nearly enough for traditional winter pursuits. Not that it mattered, though. We were looking for an escape from the growing avalanche of quite often depressing news and a trip into the woods away from Facebook feeds and news reports, with or without snow, was all we needed. So when I stumbled across a last minute yurt cancellation at Pinery, I didn’t think twice and booked it.
Summer is finally here, and it is meant to be spent outside soaking up the warmth of the sun and storing it up for the upcoming winter. You don’t need to go away on a long extravagant vacation to the Caribbean or an African safari to get closer to nature. There are many ways to add more vitamin N to your everyday life, even in the city.
We really love winter camping with its frozen beauty, fun activities in the snow and smaller crowds (add absence of bugs for my husband and our younger son). Usually we stay in a yurt or a cabin, which still sounds extreme to some people. At the beginning of this winter though, we decided to take it to the next level and try camping in a tent. But as the winter was progressing with temperatures dropping lower and lower, we were close to giving up on the idea with the usual ‘maybe next year.’ And then this past weekend, we decided that there was no better time than now, packed all our stuff Saturday morning and headed to Algonquin Provincial Park.
Algonquin’s Mew Lake campground is open year round with seven yurts, which need to be reserved in advance online or over the phone, as well as electrical and non-electrical campsites available on the first come first serve basis. Campsite permits can be purchased at the West or East Gate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. After four, there is a self-serve registration kiosk at the entrance to the Mew Lake Campground.
The weather didn’t look very promising on Saturday. It was grey and drizzling but at least not too cold. Luckily, there was still a lot of snow left at Algonquin, otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a winter camping. We arrived at the campground around 5. Quite a few campsites boasted all sorts of tents, some with chimneys sticking out, others just regular ones. We snatched a waterfront site with a view of the lake, frozen and beautiful.
We don’t have a winter tent and, after reading all about it, I decided we could get away with our three-season one. There was no heavy snowfall in the forecast so we didn’t have to worry whether the frame would hold. The tent has a fly that extends all the way to the ground so it provides pretty good protection from the wind. We also added a tarp on top of it for some extra protection ensuring there was a good flow of fresh air. We added a tarp under the tent as well, plus two layers of sleeping pads for additional insulation from the ground. We also brought two sets of sleeping bags for everyone for extra warmth. And we did bring our small electrical heater so it wasn’t nearly as extreme as it sounds. In the end, no one was cold, although it was a bit chilly around dawn. The hardest part was getting out of the tent in the morning but with nature calling (pun intended) and a promise of coffee it was doable.
Cooking also presented a bit of a challenge without roofed accommodations to do food prep. So anything that could be just dumped into the pot, mixed with water and cooked quickly worked best. We made our favourite minestrone soup with the soup mix from Bulk Barn: we cut the recommended dose of the mix in half to reduce the salt content and add red lentils and dehydrated vegetables from Bulk Barn as well. We also made veggie burgers the second night and cooked eggs with beans in the morning.
On Sunday, the weather improved considerably. It was sunny and crisp with a hint of spring.
We decided to hike the Bat Lake Trail since it was very close to the Mew Lake Campground. That way we didn’t have to drive anywhere. It’s a perfect trail for a winter hike with frozen waterfalls (our son called them Elsa’s castle), a beautiful lookout point and a few lakes along the way.
Along the trail, our son kept practicing his hide mode technique, which consisted of jumping sideways and disappearing into the snow banks.
Upon our return, we headed to the skating rink and played a game of shinny. It was my first hockey game, if you can call it that since I didn’t even have skates on. But it was a lot of fun nonetheless.
The highlight of the trip was the blue jays that visited our campsite.
We took our time packing Monday morning, watching the last logs burn, savouring the last moments of our trip. On the way home, we stopped at Westside Fish and Chips in Huntsville, which has become our favourite food stop whenever we go to Arrowhead or Algonquin. After a three-hour drive, we were back in snowless Toronto.
Overall, the trip was a great success and we are definitely coming back next year. All my doubts regarding dragging my family into the cold of the winter to sleep on the ground dissipated one morning when our son mused that he couldn’t understand why some people thought that staying in a hotel was better than camping. That warmed me better than the hot tea I was sipping.
I love Family Day weekend camping. Yes, it’s cold (or even frigid cold as it was this past weekend) and a simple trip to the bathroom requires major preparations and lots of layers. But none of those things matter when you are greeted every morning by beautiful views of the snow-wrapped forest and clear crisp air that makes your whole body vibrate in tune with the singing snow under your feet.
This year, we spent the Family Day weekend at Allegany State Park. Located in the Enchanted Mountains region in western New York, it’s less than a three-hour drive from Toronto. With over 150 winterized cabins, it’s easy to book last minute roofed accommodations. We stayed at one of the cabins at the Congdon Loop. The cabin was pretty spacious with two bunk beds and a kitchenette area that had a fridge and a gas stove. There was a gas heater and electricity so it was warm (well, relatively warm when the temperatures dropped to -25C on Sunday) and light. The comfort station (very warm and comfortable) was about two minutes away. It also had showers (although not sure who would want to use them in the weather like this) and a utility sink, very convenient for washing dishes.
The park itself offers a lot to do. The Art Roscoe Nordic Ski Centre boasts over 20 miles of cross-country ski trails of various difficulty levels and also has gear rentals and a warming hut. Allegany is very popular with snowmobilers. We could hear them whizzing by from time to time. We also spotted a few fishing huts on the Red House Lake. And, of course, there are great tobogganing hills for the kid in all of us.
We arrived at the park late on Friday. Our cabin was up on a hill and there was no way to get the car up there with all the snow so we had to carry our gear and supplies. Nothing makes you move faster than freezing temperatures so between the four of us we were done in a record short time. After having a nice cup of tea and deciding who’d take the upper bunks, we were all in bed dreaming of a great day ahead.
We started the next morning with our favourite breakfast and a nice cup of coffee. We then headed to the Art Roscoe Ski Centre where we rented gear and spent the day skiing. It was snowing lightly when we started and the forest looked magical. It’s amazing how winter manages to create the most enchanting works of art with only one colour at its disposal.
Somewhere halfway through the trail, a snow squall blew in reducing visibility to almost zero. Luckily it passed quickly but our younger son continued to shake snow off the tree branches with his ski poles so by the time we were done we looked like snowmen and, well, one snowwoman.
After our skiing adventures, we drove to the neighbouring town of Salamanca (about 10 minutes away) to buy some food and wood and spent the evening cooking boys’ favourite minestrone soup with garlic toast, building a campfire near the cabin and then playing the game of Life back inside.
The next morning, we woke up to refreshing 25 below zero outside and lots of sun.
After delicious oatmeal with fruit and some warm drinks, we finally plucked up the courage to go outside.
We decide to test our new snow tube on one of the hills. It was fun while it lasted, which wasn’t very long. About halfway down the first run, the tube ripped sending the kids tumbling down. There was a bit of complaining about scratched cheeks and cold snow but nothing a nice hot cup of chocolate wouldn’t fix.
We spent the rest of the day around the cabin, our younger son breaking off icicles, the rest of us warming by the fire. By then, our improvised fire pit (the real one was hidden somewhere under the snow) got wider and deeper allowing us to actually sit around the edge right by the fire. In the end the combination of fire and snow created a perfectly round crater, its walls covered in ice spikes.
Once we went through all of our wood, we retreated inside, made some fish with baked potatoes and roasted corn (yum) and played our favourite board game, Settlers of Catan.
On Monday, it was time to leave. As always, it felt the trip hadn’t been long enough. Two beautiful does came to say good-bye.
If I could go camping every weekend, I would. Things tend to get in the way though. Swimming and art classes for our younger kid, university assignments for the older one, grocery shopping and laundry, not to mention piles of tests to grade and report cards to write for my husband. So January went by without a single opportunity to get out of the city. We did go for walks around the neighbourhood but without any snow and temperatures well below freezing, it wasn’t as much fun as an outing in the woods would be. Last week, it finally snowed in Toronto so we spent the weekend rediscovering nature next door.
Colonel Samuel Smith Park
The park is located in Toronto’s west end right by Lake Ontario. Beautiful views of the lake and nice walking trails attract lots of visitors. In the winter, the park has a popular skating loop and a pretty big tobogganing hill. People bring their skis to do some cross-country skiing along the water. We also watched guys kite skiing on the frozen marina. It looked like a lot of fun, although I am not sure if I would put it on my bucket list.
Since we didn’t bring any equipment for skating, skiing or tobogganing, we had to find some other ways to entertain ourselves. Our son got excited about ice-covered boulders by the lake and spent a good hour exploring them in search of a perfect icicle. Even as it started getting dark, he was refusing to leave with the words: “I am sorry, mum, but I am having too much fun.”
Centennial Park is famous for its tobogganing hills so on Sunday morning we grabbed our sled and headed over there. There is a trail running not far from our building all the way to the park. It’s great for cycling in the summer and takes about 15 minutes to get to the park. Walking through the snow with frequent stops to break ice on the nearby creek and watch a group of extremely cute ducks required way more time but it was all part of the fun. After all, it’s all about the journey as they say.
The destination was just as exciting though. The hill was ringing with laughter and screams from children and adults alike. After about an hour of sledding experiments (forward, backward, sideways), we headed home treading through the snow and breaking more ice along the way.
Ok, Waterloo Park isn’t exactly near our home but it is close to Waterloo University where our older son is currently a student. So on a Sunday a couple of weeks ago, as we drove him back to Waterloo after a weekend at home, we decided to explore the nearby park. There is a small lake right in the middle with a pretty boardwalk and gazebos along the shore, a few walking trails and a small river (you guessed it, more ice to break). The park also has a small zoo and some historic buildings, like the first school house and an old mill. The best thing was finding some snow since Toronto was pretty much snowless at the time.
It was all great fun but now I am looking forward to the Family Day weekend when we can finally spend some time in the woods. Only a few more days to go!
Last week was a Family Literacy Week in Canada. Lots of resources and tips were shared about reading and language development. Both are essential skills for every kid, without a doubt, but all those posts made me think about the kind of literacy that doesn’t often get much air – nature literacy.
Recently, I read about Oxford Junior Dictionary taking out 50 nature-related words and replacing them with tech vocabulary. Someone decided that words like acorn and cauliflower weren’t as important for seven-year-olds as say broadband and cut-and-paste. Considering that kids already spend too much time in front of the screen (over 7.5 hours a day for children in Canada according to Participaction), it seems like a dangerous trend. Children nowadays can probably name more computer game characters and social media platforms than types of trees or flowers, let alone identify those trees and flowers when they see them. Apparently, 80% of kids in America will never see the Milky Way in their lifetime (I couldn’t find the figure for Canada but I can’t imagine it would be much different) but I am sure they will have no shortage of space movies and video games. A lot of kids have no idea where their food comes from and consume nature in prepackaged bits at a zoo or aquarium. There is even a term for it now ‘nature deficit disorder,’ coined by Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods.
We could argue that our technology oriented world demands that kids become tech-savvy at an increasingly earlier age and that being able to identify a tree or a bird isn’t an essential skill unless you are, say, a biologist. Plus, you can always look it up online, right? Well, we often forget that spending time in nature offers a wide range of benefits, including extensive opportunities for learning and creativity, increased physical fitness levels and improved mental health. And it is proven that children that get early exposure to nature grow up to be better stewards of our planet, something we definitely need these days of climate change and resource shortage.
We as a family love all nature-related activities. Our kids have been going camping, canoeing, hiking, biking, skiing and snowshoeing with us since a very early age. We grow herbs and vegetables in our tiny balcony garden and love visiting pick-your-own farms in the summer. So we know firsthand how beneficial nature can be for both children and adults. Here are a few reasons to get outside with your family.
Endless opportunities for learning
When we think of learning, we immediately imagine a structured school environment with printed and online resources. We often forget that nature is, in fact, one big classroom with limitless opportunities for exploration and learning. Unlike school, this outdoor classroom is inspired by the surroundings and guided by children’s interests. When we hiked at Badlands, we learned about sedimentary rock, buffalo and the tragic history of the Lacota people. We attended a ranger talk about fossils and imagine our excitement when we found one ourselves. Yellowstone and Craters of the Moon were perfect locations for learning more about volcanoes. Our trip to Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick was all about tidal activity. When we headed for the Maritimes, we started reading Anne of Green Gables and the whole book came to life once we arrived to Prince Edward Island. While visiting Algonquin Park, we learn as much about boreal forests and Canadian Shield as we do about the impact of logging and legacy of Tom Thompson. When we stay up at night to watch the stars either at Glacier National Park in Montana or Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, we talk about constellations, celestial bodies, possibilities of space travel and our vulnerability as humans in this vast Universe.
As you can see, learning topics extend way beyond local flora and fauna (and we do carry plant and bird guides with us to help us identify different species). In addition, because all those learning experiences are so multidimensional and multisensory, kids actually remember them long after the trip is over. A couple of years ago, I volunteered to help with the Scientist in the School session at my son’s school. The topic was “Types of Rocks.” As the kids were doing activities about sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks, my son quickly pointed out that Badlands was a good example of sedimentary rock and igneous rock could be found at the Craters of the Moon. He was referring to the road trip we’d taken the summer before. To him, all those types of rocks were more than just a description or a picture in a book, it was something he saw, touched and climbed.
Imagination and creativity
I’ve often heard parents brag about their kids being able to open programs on a computer or enter a password into an iPad or iPhone. I can see how it may seem fascinating that our children can operate such an impressive piece of technology, something we couldn’t even imagine when we were their age. In reality, it’s about remembering a sequence of operations, something kids are naturally very good at. The sad truth about the plastic abundance of toys and electronic vortex of entertainment is that it takes away kids’ ability to develop their imagination and creativity.
Outdoors, on the other hand, is a magical land where anything can be a tool and material for creation. We’ve seen our kids spend hours building forts out of driftwood and dams out of rocks. The beach is a perfect construction site for castles, cities and, once, a very imaginative cricket course. And a stick is never just a stick!
Ability to get mesmerized
We live in the world of 24/7 entertainment and special effects. We now expect to be constantly kept amused and we want the entertainment to be increasingly brighter, more exciting and stimulating. The downside is that we gradually lose our ability to be awed. After all the Disney World rides, a simple hike in the woods may seem less than exciting to children nowadays. And animals in the wild don’t always show up on cue or perform the way they do at Marineland or even at the zoo.
Yet, spending a lot of time in nature can help keep this feeling of childlike wonder not only alive but flourishing. During our travels, we get excited when we see a bison crossing the road or a hummingbird fluttering by. Our kids can spend hours watching mountain goats scaling a hillside or snakes weaving their way through the rocks. Sunset colours are more mesmerizing than any electronically produced special effects and a rainbow dancing in a geyser is the best light show ever, according to our son.
Healing through nature
Recently, more and more studies talk about green therapy. People who live near green spaces have fewer physical and mental health problems and spending time in nature helps manage ADHD symptoms in children. To us, all these findings are common sense, practically axiomatic. Of course, you get fitter as you hike, bike and paddle all day. And kids who have problems concentrating will certainly do better after they get an opportunity to run around. As for nature’s effect of mental health, isn’t it constantly exploited by the sellers of ‘soothing sounds of nature’ CDs and natural scents? But why settle for artificial if you can have a real thing for free?
In our family, nature is a go-to happy place. We all believe in the power of a walk in the woods and the miraculous effects of a nature detox.
Acquiring new skills and confidence
Our kids know how to pitch a tent, make a fire and paddle a canoe. They’ve done portaging and backpacking in the backcountry. At fourteen, our older son was able to cook a complete meal in the woods, from chopping wood to clean-up. I know chopping wood is not on the top of must-have skills these days. However, a kid who can do that has no problem making something for dinner in everyday life. Plus learning all these skills gives them a sense of accomplishment, instills confidence and makes them feel more independent and grown-up. Our older son now has his own tent (a present for his 18th birthday) and he loves it, even if it means more work for him with setting it up and then putting it down at the end of the trip.
When we are camping, everyone has to pitch in and kids don’t complain about having to do chores. In fact, most of the time they are happy to bring water, collect firewood, clean the dishes, and carry their things across portages and on backpacking trips. And they always want to come back!
Time to spend together
The biggest gift of nature is the time we spend together. Away from distractions and schedules, we have time to explore and learn together, play games, sing songs and talk around the campfire. There is also plenty of time to be on your own if you wish to enjoy the view or read a book. The fact that our 18-year-old still wants to go camping with us and gets upset if he misses a trip is my biggest validation if I ever needed one.
Connection to nature
According to Robert Macfarlane, “We do not care for what we do not know.” So for me as a parent, the main goal of all our camping trips and adventures is for my kids to get to know nature on a very personal and intimate level, not just something they see in books and on TV or learn about in their science class. I want them to feel part of it and be more mindful of the negative impact we as humans can have. Because they know that stuff doesn’t magically appear in the store but is made of resources that are extracted from the earth, they don’t ask for the latest gadgets or toys. When things break down, their first question is whether we can fix it and not if we can buy a new one. When choosing a university program, our older son picked civil engineering determined to help create more sustainable cities. And our younger son plans nature-themed birthday parties and uses them to fundraise for organizations like World Wildlife Fund.
Yesterday, after our walk in the neighbourhood park, my 10-year-old son asked, “Do you think there will ever be time with no outdoors, just buildings everywhere, when even parks will be inside in a simulated environment?” I thought for a second and then we both said at the same time, “I hope not.” “We just need more kids like you,” I added.
I went on my first hiking trip when I was ten. We just finished grade four, and our homeroom teacher, an avid outdoorsman, decided we were ready for a few days in the woods. To get to our camping destination, we took public transit and then walked for two hours or so. Most of us had never been camping before so our teacher taught us how to pack our backpacks, what to bring with us on a trip, how to set up a tent, collect wood and cook food over the campfire. We stayed there for three days, making short hiking trips into the forest and gathering medicinal herbs, which we later donated to the pharmacy. By the end of the trip I was hooked. Luckily, he remained our homeroom teacher till we graduated from school six years later, and those camping trips became an annual tradition. He would take us backpacking in the Carpathian mountains every summer and skiing in the winter. The trips would get longer, tougher and further away. And every year I would enjoy them more and more.
The tents we used were old army tents, extremely heavy when dry and weighing about a ton after getting wet. They were hard to set up, especially after we lost or broke all the poles and had to find suitable sticks on every trip. There were no zippers on those tents, just some loops and hooks, so they offered little in terms of protection from cold or mosquitoes. We didn’t have any pads, only sleeping bags, also heavy and big, and we used our backpacks as pillows. The backpacks themselves were nothing like sleek modern contraptions with padded straps and back supports. They were weirdly rounded, bulky and extremely uncomfortable. The straps were narrow, and after a day of lugging the backpack around felt razor-sharp.
Somehow none of those things mattered. When I think of those trips, my most vivid memories are of sitting around the campfire and listening to our teacher’s fascinating stories about his travels. Or one of my classmates playing the guitar and singing the same two songs (I think he only knew two) over and over again. I can still picture breathtaking views from mountain tops, which were even more special because they required so much work. I remember warm summer nights when we would decide to forego sleep altogether and stay up all night waiting for the sunrise. Morning haze over the mountains, the thrilling song of nightingales, and the hot red orb of the sun rolling out from behind the hills. Fresh smell of woods and multicoloured flowery carpets of high mountain meadows. Card games with my classmates on long winter nights. The excitement of flying down a toboggan hill on plastic sheets, and all the pain and aches afterwards because plastic offered little in terms of protection from bumps and gaps.
Most importantly, I remember the growing confidence and satisfaction that came from accomplishing something that hadn’t seemed possible before, the feeling of community and knowing that you can rely on your friends. While we learned a lot of practical camping and survival skills from our teacher, he taught us way more than that. We learned to watch out for each other and provide support when someone was tired or hurt. We learned to share by pulling all our food supplies together to make some weird but always delicious concoction and then distribute it between all of us making sure everyone got enough to eat. We learned that you had to keep walking even when the mountain top seemed too high up or the road way too long. We learned that even the longest routes seemed shorter with your friends around.
My teacher died a few years ago from a heart attack. I never got to tell him how much all those trips meant to me and that they inspired my lifelong passion for the outdoors. I can only hope he knew that while we enjoyed his Ukrainian language and literature classes, the most important lessons he taught us were outside the classroom.