Happy 100th, National Parks

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

It started as a rustle. Then, sniffing, lots of sniffing. By the time I heard the snorting on the other side of my canvas tent, I was pretty certain my early-morning visitor was a bear.

The problem, of course, was that I was in the middle of nowhere, kayak-camping on Strawberry Island, one of the Beardslee Islands at the mouth of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Despite all of the warnings about not camping alone, I was out there all by my lonesome. Just me and the bear.

So at 3:14 a.m., I started reading Allen Ginsberg poems. Really loudly.

Eventually (maybe it was “Please Master”), the animal retreated back into the woods. When he left, I broke camp faster than I’ve ever broken a camp in my life, stuffed it all back into the kayak, and paddled like an Olympic rower out of the cove. About 100 yards from shore, I spotted my black ursine friend, clearly curious about the disappearing poetry. I stopped paddling just long enough to mutter the words, “Holy shit.”

Five minutes later, I was greeted by yet another animal; this time, a 50-foot humpback, which surfaced just off the port stern.

The whale signaled its arrival with a blow—I was so close that within seconds I was enveloped by the moist stench of rotting fish. Then it dipped beneath the water line out of sight.

I knew it wouldn’t go far—I had studied humpbacks for most of my 20s and knew that a lone humpback hanging out during summer in Alaska was either feeding or sleeping or maybe a bit of both. So I took my paddle out of the water and waited.

Two minutes later I saw the leviathan again. This time it announced itself with a flash of white down below—undoubtedly a flipper or maybe the underside of some tail flukes. Then, closer to the surface, just beneath the boat, I spotted the animal’s eye. Looking right at me. So close I could practically reach out and poke it.

The whale hovered below the kayak for a few moments, staring at me. The animal dwarfed me and all of my poorly packed possessions. It surfaced with a blow, then dived and hovered again.

Surface, dive, hover; again. And again.

After about five cycles, it hit me that this animal wasn’t going anywhere. I’m sure the whale was just curious, probably thinking, What the fuck is this guy doing in his kayak at 4 a.m.? Of course in my sleep-deprived mind, I convinced myself the whale somehow knew that bear had scared the shit out of me and driven me from my tent. I kind of thought the whale was hanging around to protect me.

We floated together for what seemed like an eternity. Surface, dive, hover. Surface, dive, hover. I didn’t even realize I was crying until I tasted my own tears.

I’m not a religious guy (that’s another subject for a less public venue). But in that moment, on that night in Glacier Bay, I had the most spiritual experience of my life. When the whale finally got bored with me and my kayak, it pumped its flippers and waved goodbye with a raise of the tail flukes before diving to the depths. The image of those flukes, the quiet with which they slipped beneath the water as the giant animal disappeared forever—those details will be among the last things I remember on this Earth. They’ll be right there with the births of my girls, my wedding day, singing with my high school choir at a wood stave church in Norway.

And the whale encounter never would have happened without the national parks.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, our country’s greatest invention. I can’t help but remember that fateful night without thinking of the parks. The open space! The untrammeled landscape! The fact that I was the intruder! That I was able to have this experience is reason enough to celebrate the parks. And when you consider how many lives the parks have touched in similar fashion over the years, you recognize what a big deal this centennial really is.

As of this summer, the only national parks my girls have visited are here in California—Yosemite and the Presidio. Someday, I’ll take my them to Glacier Bay and introduce them to the wonder and beauty of it there, too. I know I can count on the Beardslees being just as great down the road as they were back in 2003.

And so, to the National Park Service (and the federal government, really), I say this: THANK YOU. And Happy Birthday, indeed.

Celebrating Earth Day with a camping blitz

Big Girl and BFF hiking to celebrate Earth.

Big Girl and BFF hiking to celebrate Earth.

Tomorrow is Earth Day, which means it’s a perfect opportunity to teach kids about the wonder of nature what it means to respect the planet. We usually commemorate the occasion with a walk in the woods (which I’m doing with L, on a field trip through her school). This year, we’re taking our celebration one step further: We’re booking a number of summertime camping trips up and down the West Coast.

At least one of these campgrounds will be up on San Juan Island, where we’re headed for a three-week road-trip family vacation in June. Another one will be about 10 miles up the road, at a campground near our home in Northern California.

The others, however, are all over the lot: Eastern California, the Trinity Alps, even the Sonoma County coast.

The tilt for tents is the latest step in our ongoing push to get our girls more comfortable with being and sleeping outdoors. It’s also part of a concerted attempt to make them well-rounded travelers; we usually blow it out by staying in places such as Four Seasons and Fairmont resorts (many of which we book on Expedia), so Powerwoman and I want to make sure our kids can appreciate a breadth of overnight experiences.

We certainly aren’t one of the only families expecting to go camping at a higher frequency this coming year. Looking ahead to the 2015 camping season, a majority of campers plan to spend more nights camping, according to the 2015 North American Camping Report, an independent study supported by Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA).

The report, which was released earlier this spring, also noted that the heart wins out over the wallet, as more people today see camping as a way to escape the stress of everyday life than as an affordable vacation option. More interesting tidbits:

  • According to campers, reconnecting with nature (55 percent), reducing stress (54 percent), and spending more time with family and friends (49 percent) are the key reasons they camp. Economic and practical values were only identified as reasons for camping by less than 35 percent of those surveyed.
  • Campers are likely to say that camping improves family relationships; in fact, 41 percent “completely agree” with this.
  • Additionally, almost four out of 10 campers (39 percent) suggest that camping has “a great deal of impact” on allowing them to spend more time with family. Another third of campers say that camping has a positive impact on their relationships with family and friends (35 percent) and their emotional well-being (36 percent).

Another fascinating finding from the report: Camping rates among nonwhites (those who self-identify as African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander or Hispanic) have doubled from as recently as 2012, jumping to 23 percent from 12 percent.

I won’t get sidetracked with specifics from the KOA report (for more, click here). The gist: Camping is becoming more popular—not just with our family, but with many families across the country.

As you and your family celebrate Earth Day 2015, ask yourself how many opportunities you’re giving your kids to connect with nature. Camping is a great way to build more of this into your life. It’s cheap. It’s outdoors. It’s easy. Best of all, it’s fun. For everyone.

Where have you stayed on some of your most memorable camping trips?

Making travel games their own

Yahtzee!

Yahtzee!

Little R has been under the weather this week, and Powerwoman and I have been scraping the bottom of the barrel of activities to keep the girls busy. This afternoon’s game was a real zinger. I like to call it, “Look through Daddy’s Old Camping Stuff!”

It was a curious scene. The three of us took over the garage. The girls opened up two lawn chairs. Then they sat and waited to “inspect” my old bags for “treasures.” Over the course of the new Taylor Swift album (this is how we measure time), we found a 10-year-old water filter, about 12 corroded AA batteries, an unopened canister of bear spray, and my long-lost Leatherman.

We also found a box of some old travel games, including magnetic Tic-Tac-Toe, magnetic checkers and travel Yahtzee.

Not surprisingly, this was the stuff the girls liked best of all.

R couldn’t get enough of the magnetic goodies; she kept taking the tiny pieces, putting them on the metal frame of the lawn chair, and watching them stick. L, on the other hand, was all about the Yahtzee. She asked me how to play and listened intently as I explained the rules. Then she announced that she didn’t like the official rules, and was making up her own.

What followed was a tutorial in “Yahtzee According to L,” or YAL. Forget playing for a Yahtzee or a Full House; in L’s game, you rolled the dice, counted them up, and practiced writing your numbers on the scorecards.

Over and over and over again.

At first I tried to help her understand the REAL rules, reviewing them here and there to see if I might catch her interest. After about 10 minutes, I realized this sort of instruction was a waste of time; L loved the game, but she only loved it on her terms, and that was the way it would be.

By dinnertime, my older daughter was talking about how she was going to bring YAL on our next road trip (to Lake Tahoe), how she was going to play it “for the entire drive,” and teach it to everyone we met at rest stops along the way. Joking, I told her she could introduce the game to everyone in and around the lake. Her response: “How many people live there, Dad?”

Regardless of whether our Big Girl becomes the next Milton Bradley (I’m not talking about the former Cleveland Indians’ centerfielder here, people), the YAL incident reminded me of a valuable lesson: When it comes to kids and travel, we parents need to allow their imaginations to run wild.

Put differently, the rules by which my kid wants to play Yahtzee don’t matter at all. What does matter is that she actually wants to play, and that she’s excited about doing so on our next trip.

This means she’s already looking forward to our next adventure. Which is a win from the start.

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