Wednesday, August 15, 2018

MN State Parks: Crow Wing

We visited Crow Wing State Park in early fall. The weather hadn't turned yet so the trees still had their leaves. We decided to put in our kayaks. Others were just getting of the river and the sun was shining.  

We tend to be pretty conservative and I have to admit we were pretty nervous. The Crow flows into the Mississippi here and the water in the river was high and running fast. We gave strict instructions to our girls about staying focused and being extra careful not to tip. It was a beautiful float, but I think we will keep to calmer waters in the future.

Enjoying a beautiful day on the water.

There are plenty of other things to do off the water. Pretty trails take advantage of the river's beauty. The campground is like many of the other State Parks of MN. Drinking water throughout the grounds, warnings about raccoons, an amphitheater for educational presentations during peak seasons.

In the park there is a Historical Land Mark the "Old Crow Wing Village". There is a modernly build board walk with historical plaques, and an old building to view. 

The Park's best feature are the gently sloping, easy to walk, paths that crisscross throughout. 

 We had one day of beautiful weather. Then we were reminded it was October in MN and it got cool. No problem, that's what a campfire is for and we like to sleep in the crisp fall air.  We used the fire to roast marshmallows and to keep a pot of water hot for cocoa, tea, and coffee. We prefer a crackling fire when it's cool not when it's hot and you just want to get away!

Sometime during our planned final night of camping it started to rain. We checked the radar and the best was going to be a short window when it slowed, no stopping for the day. 

Womp, Womp, Womp.

We enjoy tent camping, but we don't attempt to make it fun when it's not. So we quickly loaded up. Here is where it comes in handy to camp frequently and each person always helps with set up and tear down. We all quickly did our parts, and everything was quickly and securely stored for transport home. We then dashed to the bathroom to brush our hair and teeth so we could head into Brainerd.

MN State Parks provide fire rings with grates.

Yelp helped us find a cafe where we got hot coffee and breakfast before heading home to unpack and dry everything thoroughly before storing for the season. (We do this step every time we get rained on, no one wants to sleep in a moldy tent.)

Camping will always have it's ups and downs, but so does everything else. Choose to have fun and roll with it. Our best memories are usually when something went wrong. So smile, snap a photo and show your kids how to handle bumps with grace.

Late night visit from a lock smith and we are back in the car!

**I do want to note that when we visited there was signage stating that the bathrooms were going to be replaced in 2018. They even had a suggestion box! I really hope they use my suggestion of a dish washing station like they have at Baker Park Reserve. If you plan on visiting Crow Wing in 2018 you might want to call ahead.

** 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, August 8, 2018

MN State Parks: Itasca

Itasca: The headwaters of the Mississippi. Having traveled down river it is hard to imagine such a humble beginning for the Mighty Mississippi. 

We ventured to this state park on 4th of July Weekend. Unlike Mystery Cave, I don't think I'd recommend such a busy weekend for this park. The walking paths and water were teaming with people. The campsites filled up fast and there wasn't much left to choose from by the time we decided to head here.

This quiet looking photo of my 2 girls wading in the Mississippi, belies the scene right behind us.

Am I the only one who looks at the image and wonders how long it takes for this water to get to the Gulf of Mexico? 3 months. Yep any leaf, grass, hair, etc that enters here, floats down river for 3 months joining with stuff others drop, resulting in water that I do NOT want to wade in.

The head waters were a bit dull. I don't really know what I expected, but this gentle stream does not fit the image most of us have of the Might Mississippi. Not far down river, by Crow Wing State Park the river's power is on display as I had expected.

It was still a fantastic park visit though. We spotted our first Lady Slipper. This wild growing orchid is the MN state flower and is protected. (Apparently you can dig them up over in WI, but don't try that here!) We actually saw a few of them growing amongst the trees. Our family was more excited by this elusive find than we were the trickle of water over some rocks.

After the obligatory visit to the headwaters, we headed to the swimming beach at Lake Itasca. It was on the busier side, but had plenty of space so didn't feel cramped. The nearby restroom had changing rooms and shower areas to clean up before heading out. They also had a variety of watercraft available for rent, and this nearby playground.

After a full day, we found a pet friendly restaurant in Walker to refresh before heading back home.

** 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 25, 2018

MN State Parks: Interstate

Interstate Park is close to home so we've gotten to visit during different times of the year. Straddling the St. Croix River, this park is in both MN and WI. You can camp on both sides. Because we have a MN sticker, we park on the MN side and hike over to WI. (not a hard walk.)

View from the MN side

Fall is a beautiful time to visit when the leaves are changing. Just remember if you are going to camp that trees only change colors when the nights get cold. Plan accordingly. 

It's not just about the leaves though. Every time we've visited, the rangers station has had an activity for the kids. Expect to learn about vegetation, animals, and even glacier potholes that are in the park.

View from the WI side.
A day trip to hike with friends is a fun way to enjoy the colors on a beautiful fall day. (That tip is true for any state park that is close to you. Pack a picnic and head out for the afternoon.)

Interstate Park is located near Taylors Falls. In addition to the typical cafes, and local ice cream joints you'll find a place called Fawn Doe Rosa. We picked up tickets during a silent auction, benefit dinner and were in for an unexpected treat! It's essentially a large petting zoo. We got there when it opened and for some reason most people went to the left so we went to the right. We were basically by ourselves for a while and the dear bounded over to us. We looked through the gift shop on the way out, and picked up a couple of postcards.

Have you ever been this close to a deer?

This guy doesn't seem to know what Thanksgiving is all about.

None of the animals were afraid of humans.
The Campground on the MN side offers access to the St. Croix. (WI may too, but we didn't check out their campground.) It is pretty shallow there so we waded out a ways to throw our line into the current. It was hot that day and we lost some bait, but didn't real anything in.

If you have been following along on this MN State Park blog series I hope that you are being inspired to get out and enjoy nature with your family. We've been intentional about spending less time on our screens and more time engaging with each other. Sitting around a camp site encourages deep conversations and vision casting for the future. Enjoying new experiences doesn't have to cost a ton, or take loads of planning. You and your kids will just remember the laughs and the sweet moments caught on camera.

** 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 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.