Wednesday, July 18, 2018

National Parks: Voyageurs

Voyageurs National Park was the 2nd time I ever camped. We didn't have much of a system down yet, but we had a tent and a government provided bear locker. What more do you need? Well to camp Lake Kabetogama in Voyagers you also need a boat.

Some National Parks are starting to implement a reservation system, but the vast majority of sites in all the parks are first come first serve. We got to the lake, checked in at the rangers station, loaded the boat with all our gear and launched. We spent a good deal of time on the water enjoying the ride and looking for an open spot. Even though many of the sites were already full, the lake is big and you will feel pretty isolated.

After several attempts we found an island that was unoccupied by human or bear. Yes, we did see a black bear at one open site, but I was too slow with the camera and we decided to let him/her have it.

We eventually found a rocky site with a tent pad that over looked the lake. The sun was shining so we left the rain fly off. We did have a bit of dew in the morning, but looking up at the stars every time I rolled over was worth it! We didn't get to see any Northern Lights, but if you are planning a visit here be sure to check the Aurora Forecast since it's common to see them this far North.

Having already seen a bear we gladly stowed all our food in the bear locker. Did you know that you should also put your toothpaste, soap and other toiletries that have an odor in there as well?

This trip we got a lot of "I'm bored" from the kids. so we taught them how to skip rocks, and to look for small animals along the shore. Look at this cute little guy.

I now have a well stocked camping equipment tote, and the kids have learned how to have fun exploring nature. I'm glad I didn't give up after the first few times. 

There are plenty of busy commercial campgrounds with tons of fun kid activities. Those book fast and usually cost a bit more, learning to enjoy nature has many benefits beyond the obvious cost savings.

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

MN State Parks: Baker

Baker Park is part of the Metro's Three River Park district and not technically a "state park". That just means it is less rustic. They offer electric and non-electric sites, large well maintained bathrooms with attached outdoor dish washing stations help to keep the campground clean.

This Campground is large with lots of camp sites.Great if you are going with a group, not very quiet if your looking for that. It gets pretty smokey in the evening when everyone gets their fires going, and all the people and a not to distant train track add to the noise level.

It is a busy park for good reason though. Miles of paved trails make it a bikers dream. You can see in the photo "biker gangs" are a common site. Don't those kids look tough?

A short walk brings you to a lake with a beach and boat launch. Along the shore there is also a large play structure with a super fun zip line.

This park books quickly. The Camper Cabins are usually gone a year in advance! That is how much fun this campground is. Our kids favorite is to build "stuff with sticks" in the woods.

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Finding Fun Inside the Box

As you know reader, we are always looking for fun and educational things we can do with our kids. My Vet ran across a monthly subscription for Kiwi Co. a few months ago that we finally decided to try. (Thanks eerily, accurately, targeted ads.)

They offer a variety of categories for all ages of kids. We couldn't decide between Doodle, that we knew the kids would like, and Tinker that mom and dad liked. So we got both.

The first (Tinker) box arrived earlier this week. Today a crazy heatwave had us finding refuge in the air conditioning instead of playing outside, a perfect day for a box of fun.

Step by step illustrated instructions are thorough.

The box was a self contained project. The only tool that wasn't provided was a pair of scissors. (I think most of us have those around the house.) The blueprints were easy to follow. I don't think the kids thought building a circuit board was as cool as dad and I did though. They were more interested in finishing so they could use it.
That small circuit board connects the motor to the battery pack. The kit has the kids moving the wires and testing how the resisters affect the motor speed.
After the kids finished playing I sat down with the booklet so that I could better understand it as well. I have a not so secret desire to understand circuit boards better so that I can improve my Dancing Christmas Light Display. Who would have thought that this toy could help me?

My kids quickly assembled the project and then had fun playing with it. I'm glad I looked through the booklet though, because in addition to information on centripetal and centrifugal force they offered several other activities you could do using household objects like cups, balls, hangers, straws, and water. We'll get to those another day.

My 9 year old. is excited to open the next (Doodle) box, My 11 year old said she was only building it because she "had" too, and then anxiously elbowed her sister out of the way so that she could have a go at playing with it.

At about $20 a month (price varies depending on how many you purchase) it is a good value for the amount of entertainment and learning. My kids are at an age where they don't ever want anything for birthdays or Christmas. A subscription would be a great gift idea.

We paid full price, but right now you can save on your first month by use the code FLAG at checkout and pay just $9.95 for the first month.

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Cool Off When it Gets Hot

You don't need to drive to Wisconsin Dells to cool off this summer. I know that the Dells are a blast, but there are plenty of places you can go that are oodles of wet fun and only a short drive from home.

Many Twin cities Community centers offer excellent pools that are open year round! Maple Grove opens an additional outdoor section during the summer and offer discounts on Wednesday evenings.

Mora is North of the Twin cities, but is inexpensive with diving boards, water slides, and a toddler area.

Anoka Aquatic Center is a ton of fun. We gave a shout out on Facebook and were able to meet up with friends for an impromptu gathering. The rock wall, slides, and diving boards are great for older kids, while the splash pad is geared towards toddlers.

Shoreview Community Center is indoors, but they periodically offer a "swim in" movie that is a fun change of pace. The coolest thing is the water slide. You get to choose a theme before heading down with the music and light show of your choosing! For mom and dad there is an adult only hot tub to relax in. For toddlers there is a shallow splash area.

There are ton's of Community Centers in the Metro area that we haven't checked out yet. Monticello, Crystal, Edina, Como Park, and Bunker Beach in Coon Rapids are all on our list to get to.

Do not read the list of water parks my kids haven't been to yet and feel bad for them. There are many others they've visited that didn't make this list. We've even taken time during a road trip to stop for a few hours at this random, awesome, public outdoor swimming pool in Brookings, SD.

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

National Parks: Superior

Superior National Forest is one of my favorite! I'll admit it doesn't make much sense. The first night I ever spent there, it rained all night and our tent leaked. My Vet was livid. Every weather forecast for the area had clear skies and sunshine. He just kept repeating it all night long, and into the next morning. 

I hadn't camped much by yet, I think he was worried that he would never get me to try it again.  

I am getting ahead of myself though. Every August since I was in high school I have gone out and watched the Perseid Meteor Shower. When the girls were little I would wake them up get hot fudge sundaes from McDonalds and drive a bit out of town to sit and watch them. My Vet thought that getting me away from the light pollution would be a great way to get me into camping. He was right.

After a night camping at Fourmile Lake, where the rain didn't stop and there were too many trees anyway, My Vet was ready to pack it up and head home. I hadn't seen my shooting stars though! In the morning we ate and packed up, then headed in to the rangers station to get signal and check the radar.

Radar indicated it would eventually clear up, so we spent some time on the shores of Lake Superior and by the time we headed back in to find a new sight, the sun was coming out, and there were plenty of camping sites to be had. The rain had chased away others!

The camp sites at Fourmile where close together and a short walk to an outhouse. Harriet Lake is more spread out. Who doesn't love jumping on a 4 wheeler or bike to get to the bathroom? My kids take any excuse to 4 wheel or bike. You can see in the photo below our stuff splayed out to dry, which it quickly did.

If you are still confused as to why I like it here, look closer at the photo above, There is nobody else in site. It is quiet and peaceful. We periodically saw people drive up, pick stuff for a while then leave. This probably won't surprise you, I approached one of the groups and asked them what they were doing. They were picking wild blueberries! I naturally asked them to help me identify them and we were set!

Being new to this camping thing, the kids were not used to entertaining themselves with nothing and needed some help, I grabbed a scratch paper and pen and made our very first camping scavenger hunt list and sent them to wonder with a camera. Photographing the list has many benefits, we don't accidentally damage any protected species, or come into contact with any poisonous plants, the girls also then have photos to enter into the county fair, and I have memories for the scrapbook.

This photo got a 2nd place ribbon.

We now go straight to Harriet Lake to set up camp. We've also gotten to explore some of the other lakes in the area and they are fun to kayak and swim and fish

The amenities in Superior National Forest are definitely rustic. The bathrooms are simply outhouses and on busy weekends you will be glad you followed my advice and packed toilet paper and hand sanitizer. There is no electricity or running water. There are also no distractions. The conversations and experiences I get to share with my family are worth every bit of inconvenience.

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

MN State Parks: Maplewood

We don't usually camp with a group, but this time we did. We were invited to join 4 other families in Maplewood State Park near Pelican Rapids, MN. We stayed at the Grass Lake Campground in addition to campsites they also had a couple of rentable camper cabins.There are other more rustic campgrounds in the park, that were less busy. 

Enjoying the water in grass lake.
Maplewood has several lakes. Fishing, renting boats and paddleboards are an option at Grass Lake, but there is no swim area. We drove to the otherside of the park to put in our kayaks. Lake Lida has a boat launch and a swim beach as well as a rustic campground. Weirdly there is no water filling station at the swim beach even though there was a bathroom and picnic shelter.  We also learned that Minnesota residents can fish without a fishing license in most MN state parks!

Most MN state parks have drinking water stations throughout their campgrounds and on or near any building with running water. I have a history of heat stroke so tend to be very careful about my water intake on hot days. I didn't pack extra assuming I could fill up at the swimming area before heading back. Lucky for me some of our friends had brought a cooler to the beach and shared water they had brought over.

The drinking water quality at Maplewood was poor. I don't know if it was just because it was early in the season, but the water was very rusty. The lemonade packets did not cover the taste, so we ended up getting some water in town. We did drink a little, if our water bottles drained before we could get back to camp and fill up, but we tried to avoid drinking it.

Jug of rusty "drinking" water waiting to be used to put out the camp fire.

We don't always opt for electricity, but in order to be near the bathrooms it was the only option. We got lucky again. The unseasonably hot weather was bearable thanks to the large fan we were able to run in the tent. This trip we brought a few extras than we normally pack.  The girls brought bikes that they rode all weekend, and we brought a movie projector and a sheet for an outdoor evening movie.

Swiss Family Robinson was a camping hit.

Something else different this time, was the group we were with planned themed potluck dinners. Everyone signed up ahead of time via email to make sure that all the bases were covered. Initially I was not looking forward to it, since it would disrupt our honed camping routine. It went well though and was a nice way of bringing us all together in the evening. We all ate really well and it wasn't super difficult for anyone. If you are camping with a group it made sense to plan together some of the aspects.

Even though our group had 5 kids, we had more dogs than kids! All had been well socialized and the few that were still learning were constantly on leash (MN state parks require all pets to be on leash at all times) and actively being trained by their people. If you do not have a well trained dog, or are unsure about your ability to control/train them, do not bring them to a busy camp ground. Read here to learn more about enjoying summer with pets.

Stuffed sugar cones warming in the fire.
This trip we learned about the Hiking and Passport club at MN State Parks. You can earn 2 free nights just by visiting. Find out more here. It costs $7 a day to drive into a MN State Park, or for $35 you can buy an annual pass. The annual pass is unlimited admission and can be used all over the state for day trips, camping, hiking etc. If you don't like stickers in your windshield the DNR also has a special license plate that admits you as well. If you live in the metro, some of the libraries allow you to check out a 7 day pass for free!

We love the time spent in nature and exploring, but don't forget the small towns nearby that are fun to explore. We had one rainy morning and decided to grab breakfast at a cafe instead of cooking in the rain. the kids had fun spotting pelicans all over town. While in town we picked up more ice and drinking water.

One of the 27 pelicans we spotted during our quick trip.

We visited over Memorial Day, but Maplewood is known for it's maple trees. In early spring they have a sugar shack that is used for maple syrup demonstrations! Maybe not the best time to camp, but worth a day trip.

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

MN History Tour

Some MN History Sites are open year round, but may are only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. If you have school age kids, your kids have probably gone on a field trip to at least one of the 26 sites around the state.

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I like a good deal. If you are going to put the MNHS sites on your to do list, Become a member then visit as many as you can in the next year to get the most for your money. 

Once a year in the winter when no one is thinking about going to the mostly closed sites, they offer a fantastic Groupon deal. Throughout the year they have discounts for teachers, veterans, and seniors, and they have membership levels to fit the needs of your family

When you visit the State Capitol contact your local representatives to let them know, I'm not promising anything, but my group got to sit in the Legislative chambers for an hour asking questions and learning directly from our Congresswoman and Senator!

Oliver Kelley farm is great any time of the year, but we like the busyness of spring and fall on the farm. Alexander Ramsey and James J. Hill Houses are amazing at Christmas time.

My absolute favorite was Historic Forestville on the 4th of July. We made a weekend of it and camped nearby. MNHS goes all out for Independence Day. I'm talking red, white, and blue bunting all over town, a brass band, baseball game with period costumes and rules, a pie eating contest, 3 legged races, watermelon, singing patriotic hymns with the "towns people", and my personal favorite a recitation of the Declaration of Independence by the town vicar.

I admit that I geek out a lot, but that day invoked patriotism more than any other Independence Day I've celebrated. No fireworks, or BBQ on the beach can fully encapsulate the optimism and sense of community and purpose the way that did. Yes, the recitation got long. But the cheering and booing during the highs and lows gave a sense of exactly what it means to be an American.

We as a nation would do well to think on this declaration

"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind ... We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ...Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes..."
-Excerpt from US Declaration of Independence

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

MN State Parks: Mystery Cave

When you have kids, camping can be a great way to explore nature.

Most people who aren't campers think a tent is too much work. I'm not going to lie, those first years we came home with lists of things we forgot, and over time have dialed in our camping routine. 

Located in Southern MN, near the bike trails of Lansboro, and in the heart of Amish county. Mystery Cave State Park offers visitors a picturesque retreat. Even though we were several hours from home, we still managed to run into people we knew from back home!

We've found that MN state park campgrounds are a great way to explore. Online booking makes it easy to choose a campsite that fits your needs. Most have nicely maintained bathrooms, the rest are slated for remodels in the near future. We saw staff cleaning the bathrooms daily, and the on site campground host was friendly.

This park has DNR staff and interns that conduct educational programs during the summer months. We spent an hour in the stream cooling off from the afternoon heat and identifying water bugs that indicated the health of the stream.

In addition to learning about waterbugs, we attended sunset seminars on lightening bugs (did you know they are actually beetles?) and frogs and toads. Later in the summer we were able to identify a banjo frog we encountered while kayaking. Make the most of your trip and visit over the 4th of July, when neighboring Forestville has special events.

Also be sure to tour the Mystery Cave that this park is named after.

Did I mention it was hot? The stream that flows through the park goes through these underground caves and maintains a cool temperature. It was nice to dip our toes during the heat of the afternoon. We also decided to sleep without the rain fly to improve airflow. In addition to airflow we also gained an impressive view of the night sky.

When booking campsites electric always goes the fastest, so if you can go off grid you'll have better luck finding a camp sight. The bathrooms have power for a quick charge or air mattress blow up.

Our kids don't spend enough time outside so it took awhile to get rid of the I'm bored while camping. Stick with it though. I now see my kids playing/exploring something that they learned from one of the many rangers we've encountered in the state parks. When was the last time you fell asleep looking at the stars?

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Tent Camping the Easy Way

I did not grow up camping. I was raised thinking that anything you can do camping, you can do easier at home. That statement is true, but the view out my windows at home is nothing compared to the views from a campsite!

I married an avid camper. The first 12 years of marriage I was able to avoid camping. He would take off to the Boundary Waters (BWCA) with friends for a week of portaging and no other human contact. He'd come home refreshed and if you look through this blog, you will see many of the projects I completed while he was away. Then we had kids, and inexpensive vacations became a priority.

Several summers ago we were gifted some money to spend doing something fun with the girls. We invested in camping equipment. 

Hopefully, you can learn something from our mistakes. If you forget everything I say, please remember to plan ahead. You can find my packing list here. It is long, don't let that scare you though. You can get by with lots less, we are going to attempt to float down the river on our kayaks and camp, and we will only be able to carry a fraction of those items!
We use this larger trailer when we bring our kayaks. You can see our totes in use though.

On the list you'll notice that 1 have 3 large totes. We picked up 2 of these and 1 of these at Home Depot. We chose them because they fit really nicely on a cheap little trailer that we picked up for camping. They also have wheels making them easy to move into the house to reset for our next adventure. The best part though is that they have heavy duty clasps that can be locked. What kind of places do I camp that locking is needed? We like to hike, swim, bike etc leaving our campsite unattended for several hours, most thieves are just opportunistic. They also keep out wildlife. On one occasion I watched a raccoon unsuccessfully attempt to get in, he eventually gave up and got into the neighbors stuff instead.

The equipment tote is essentially my portable kitchen. I have dedicated camping utensils and equipment. This is the one item I would be lost with out. It reminds me of the chuck wagon in stories of the Old West. Those old timers understood that camping anywhere is significantly easier if all the kitchen stuff is together and easy to access.

I do a lot of meal prep at home before we go. Heat and serve items are always easier than anything that takes lots of dishes. Breakfast and dinner are eaten at a leisurely pace around the campfire. Lunch is usually on the run and just meat and cheese sandwiches from the cooler. I also pack plenty of snacks such as granola bars, veggies, and chips for when kids are hungry and the adults aren't.

Tent sizes can be confusing. The 4 of us and our dog started with a 6 man tent that we thought would be plenty big. As the girls grew we decided to upgrade to a 12 man. I know that sound excessive but we had reasons. The walls on the 6 man angled in sharply and air mattresses take up more space than just a person in a mummy bag. We've been caught in the rain and like to leave a wide margin around the edges so that we don't touch the sides allowing water to seep in. We have space for our 80 lb dog to have his own dog bed. We like to camp late into the fall when it's nice to have a space heater, and those require clearance. My husband and I are both 6'1" the straighter sides allow for more head room inside the tent. True, most of the time spent in the tent is sleeping, but being able to stand is still a luxury we prefer.

Some of the the entertainment we bring, cards, dice, camera with laminated scavenger hunt list. The scope is great for sighting animals, birds, and star gazing.

These tips make camping enjoyable for us. If you have any tips please share as our kids grow and change our camping list needs to change too.

**Did any of you notice the bug spray hiding out in every photo? My husband rarely gets bitten, I am a mosquito magnet.

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Make a Day of It!

Living near the Twin Cities metro area gives us loads of options for amazing parks. There are year round adventure opportunities hosted in many of the parks. In addition to great classes that you can take through out the year, you can also just meet up with some friends and enjoy a day outside.

Hyland Park is informally known as chutes and ladders. Start your day here, and then when it gets hot, pack up and head over to the public beach $5 a carload.

We like to get to the park early to mid morning so that there are still open picnic tables in the shade. I pack a picnic lunch for each kid, that has plenty so they have a snack in the car on the way home.

Often the good playgrounds are near beaches so be sure to pack suits, towels, and sunscreen even if you don't intend on swimming. The pond at Elm Creek is chlorinated and there are lifeguards on duty expect to pay about $10 a person. Season passes are available.

Big Lake Beach is right of Highway 10 and has a nearby playground as well as shaded picnic area and boat launch. Expect to pay $5 a carload $10 if you have a trailer.

Lake Orono in Elk River has a newly refurbished play area. There is a beach but the water quality isn't always great so we usually stop here when it's too cool to swim.

Central Park in Maple Grove is state of the art, but usually pretty busy. If it's hot, you'll be glad you have the kids swim gear so they can play on the splash pad.

The Big Woods in Lake Rebecca Park Reserve is pretty, but my kids didn't last long on the play equipment. Luckily we had swim gear. A quick walk down the path is a quiet beach with huge umbrellas to shade us from the afternoon sun.

Some of the other parks that we haven't visited yet that are on our playground/beach list for this summer are: Weaver Lake Beach and Park and French Regional Park that is undergoing extensive renovations and scheduled to re-open July 2018

** I may get paid for links that you click on this blog. Any posts that include free or discounted services or product in exchange for reviewing are plainly stated within the post.