Last Friday, I realized it’s been a while since our last microadventure. Climate March, rainy weather, our son moving back home for his summer break – and the next thing we know three weeks have gone by without a nature outing. Add to that extremely busy times at work – and I was starting to feel the lack of Vitamin N. As another weekend rolled in, I was looking forward to getting outside and hopefully catching a glimpse of trilliums. My search for the best trillium-viewing spot rendered a place called the Happy Valley Forest. Seemed like a perfect spot to get a boost of happiness.
Lately, I’ve been falling behind on our adventure write-ups. I am midway through our Family Day Weekend at Allegany trip report, and I haven’t even started writing about our hike at Terra Cotta Conservation Area from two weeks ago. But it’s a good problem to have. Better to have too many nature adventures than not enough. Although it never feels like too many. I don’t think having too much nature time is even possible.
Because our younger son was performing at the Youth Dance Festival on Saturday, we had to cancel or rather scale down our weekend microadventure. Instead of going on an all-day hike somewhere close to the city, we spent two hours in the nearby West Deane Park along the Mimico Creek.
“Let’s go find some trees,” my friend said a few days ago. So here we are sitting on a rock in High Park where trees are not hard to come across. They are right in front of us, sticking their bare branches into the sky. I try to block out the noise coming from Queensway and imagine I am in the forest. Not an easy task so I focus on birds chirping and twittering instead.
Green and camping seem to go together naturally. What can be greener than spending time in nature? Unfortunately, every time we go camping, we witness activities that are the complete opposite. I am always perplexed by people who insist on driving their cars everywhere in the park: store, wood yard, trail, comfort station? Isn’t the whole point of getting outside to get some exercise? I am appalled by the amount of disposable plates, cups and cutlery that often piles up on some of the sites and disgusted by garbage found on the beach and along trails. And why do people feel they have the right to turn lakes into their personal bathtubs even if there are no shower facilities nearby?
Camping is a great way to connect with nature, relieve stress, get some exercise and fresh air. The benefits are endless. Yet we shouldn’t forget that our mere presence in the parks can be damaging, so we have to make every effort to minimize our impact. If we want to ensure that our children have an opportunity to enjoy nature the way we do, we need to adopt camping practices that promote nature preservation and sustainability.
Here are some ways we try to make our camping trips greener.
Ditch your car, walk or bike instead
Ontario Parks encourage their visitors to park once and walk or bike the rest of the stay. Last year, we finally managed to do that. We used our bikes or feet to get to park stores, beaches, trail heads, even to bring fire wood. Granted it is sometimes hard to do it in larger parks, like Algonquin or Lake Superior. Several national parks in the United States, including Glacier, Rocky Mountain and Grand Canyon, offer free shuttle bus service to their visitors in an effort to reduce traffic on their roads. Hopefully, parks in Canada will consider introducing a similar service. In the meantime, we try to focus on exploring nearby trails and lakes and plan stops at faraway attractions on our way home.
Dispose of your garbage properly
I am not just talking about not littering here. That should be engrained. It is also important to properly dispose of your garbage at recycling centres available in most camping parks. Sorting your recyclables doesn’t take too long and ensures they don’t end up in a landfill.
Last year, we also tried to reduce the amount of garbage we produce. We buy a lot of our food in bulk and then bring the necessary amount in reusable containers. We try to buy less packaged food and cook more from scratch (there are lots of simple delicious camping recipes that don’t require a lot of time or preparation).
Forgo disposable products
Sometimes I wish parks and conservation areas just banned disposable products all together. This summer, we watched our neighbours accumulate four huge garbage bags of disposable plates, cups and cutlery over two days. Yes, they were a large group of people but that also means they had more than enough people to do the dishes. Yes, washing the dishes isn’t fun, especially in the woods. But isn’t removing yourself from the conveniences of civilization part of the attraction? Just think of it as part of the wilderness survival challenge.
We haven’t used disposable eating utensils in years. Last summer, together with our friends, we decided to ditch foil roasting pans as well. Even with reusing them a couple of times, it was still a waste. The regular roasting pan we use at home works just fine outside. We also bring kitchen towels instead of paper ones because we prefer our trees in their original form and not on our table in the form of paper napkins.
Use biodegradable dishwashing products and toiletries
We don’t use any commercial chemicals-packed dishwashing liquids or beauty products at home and it’s even more important to avoid them in nature. Baking soda can do the job just fine or if you need some bubbles, you can make your own dishwashing liquid using Dr. Bronner’s castile soap (we just dilute it in water 1:3 and add 1 tablespoon of washing soda for each liter of liquid plus a few drops of any essential oil for smell). Castile soap is also great for washing yourself. Your skin will thank you. If you are not into making your own dishwashing liquid, shampoo or toothpaste, you can always buy eco-friendly biodegradable options. And avoid using any toiletries around rivers and lakes. A few days without a shower will not kill you.
There are lots of other ways to make your camping more eco-friendly, like buying used equipment or renting it from an outfitter, staying on trails and using marked campsites, using proper firewood, respecting wildlife, taking nothing but pictures and memories. Visit Leave No Trace Canada website to learn more about what you can do to reduce your environmental impact. Parks and conservation areas are here for us to not only enjoy but also protect nature. Let’s remember that!
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.
Nature has always been a big part of my life. Even though I grew up in the city, I used to spend most of my summers at my grandparents’. They lived in a small village encircled by deep woods. Their house backed onto a large garden plot cut off by the narrow ribbon of a crystal-clear, ice-cold stream. On the other side of it was an orchard with apple and pear trees. I loved to spend my Sunday afternoons lying in the tall grass, munching on apples and pears I’d just found on the ground, weaving flower wreaths and watching the clouds floating above.
The orchard gradually melted into the forest. That’s where we roamed with my friends (long before we turned ten), foraging for mushrooms, wild strawberries and hazel nuts. The forest was not scary and unknown. I was a magical place full of life, beauty and tasty surprises. I still remember the sound of twigs crunching under our feet, the joy of finding mushrooms under last year’s leaves, the sweet taste of wild strawberries and raspberries melting in my mouth, the smell of spearmint that I liked to pick along the stream and rub between my palms.
Some days we would scale cherry trees that grew in a communal orchard, saddle one of the highest branches and spend hours eating cherries and spitting out pits. Or we would find a mulberry tree, pick it clean and come back home all stained and full of juicy goodness.
In the afternoon, most of the kids in the village would take cows to pasture. We would take turns watching each other’s cattle, start fire and roast apples and corn. We would stay in the meadow late into the evening, sometimes coming back as it was already getting dark, met by our grandparents and parents’ reproachful “Do you know what time it is? We still need to milk the cows.”
That was the thing, though. We never knew the time. Those summer days weren’t measured in minutes and hours. They were fluid, slow, and unhurried. When I think of those summers I spent at my grandparents’, the things that usually come to mind are the warm smell of the earth, the cooling breeze in the woods, not having to wear shoes for weeks in a row, and the feeling of freedom.
Now as I watch my kids grow, I want them to experience the same connection to nature and feeling of freedom I was lucky to have when I was little. I want them to know that it’s not us versus nature and that we don’t need to protect ourselves from it. That nothing they will see on a screen comes close to the fascinating sights, smells and sounds of forests, lakes, mountains and oceans. That mosquito bites and getting soaked in the rain are a small price to pay for all the benefits we receive when we spend time outdoors (plus getting caught in the rain can be quite fun).
I can see it working when they don’t want to go home at the end of each camping trip. When my 17-year-old son keeps asking where we are going next. When our 10-year-old refuses to wear shoes. When they stop to study a flower or listen to a bird. When they pick up berries in the woods and say those taste like nothing we could ever get in a store. When my younger son wants to wake up early and go canoeing with me. When my older son brings pictures of a sunrise from his, now independent of us, travels.
I hope this feeling of fascination and freedom stays with them when they grow up.
P.S. I took the pictures during my trip back home a few years ago. Unfortunately, the beautiful forest of my childhood looked much thinner due to excessive logging. As in other parts of the world, economic development is taking priority over environmental protection.