I love to spend time outside. Before I became a mom I spent all of my free time hiking and paddling or meandering along a forest trail with my dog. The same was true of my work life–all but six months of my time as an employee was spent predominantly out in the fresh air, year round, rain or shine or snow or wind.
When I was almost eight months pregnant with our first I went canoe camping with a friend. I went into labour in our tent when I was pregnant with our second. Getting away from it all has been what I make time to do and being pregnant or having a wee babe hasn’t really changed that very much. When my husband and I decided to have a family we knew that we would try to do what we always have and we would bring the kids along.
Well, that was all fine and dandy and worked out quite well until his job shifted and he began to spend large chunks of time away from home. Two years ago he needed to be away for most of five months and I was left home alone with the boys for the summer.
Part of the summer had passed and while we had gone on many wonderful day trips I was aching to get further away from cars and lights and radios and to get out on the water. I longed for the sound of loons and owls at night, to fall asleep to the croaking of the bullfrogs and to awaken to the early morning sun burning the mist off the water with no one around but us.
I really wanted to make this happen yet it seemed so impossible to do. How on earth would I ever be able to get out tripping? My parents are always incredibly accommodating and willing to help me find what I need so they would have taken the boys for me so that I could go on my own. I realize how remarkable this gift is that they offer, and I do take them up on it for a day here and there. I also make time for an annual kid-free hiking weekend and while it is fun and invigorating to get out and push myself without my babes, my goal and hope is to be able to go with them.
Through trial and error, and a frequently travelling husband, I have learned a few tips that I have found helpful to get myself and the kids out into the wilderness, paddling and wandering and camping, on our own.
:: Try to take incremental steps. Last summer the boys and I did two 4-day, 3-night trips. We worked our way up to that. I knew that our packing system worked, which foods the boys will definitely eat, and how well we sleep together in the tent. Five years ago, our first trip with all three of us when the babe was only six weeks old, our three-year-old was a seasoned pro, and our middle man was a steam-rolling nightmare. I think he slept for four hours total. Luckily we were car camping only 20 minutes from home so packing up took five minutes and we were able to make a speedy getaway. We have slowly worked our way further from home, further from civilization, and away for longer. I now try to add one day and night of trip per year, and an extra hour of driving away. That may not always work but it gives me something to shoot for and helps me realize that bit-by-bit we really are venturing further away and deeper into the wilderness.
:: Be honest with yourself about your expectations. I dream of multi-day hikes with my babes to explore places I’ve never been and to share summit views as a family. The reality is that my two younger boys still problem solve by getting rough with each other so while we can get out for a day of hiking it still needs to be more about the journey and not the destination. Now, if I do make it about getting out and having an adventurous journey, that we can do. I can consider every trip that we take as training for the next one, and if I am able to keep my expectations regarding distance covered and intensity of activity in check, we are all likely to have a better time which in turn will make us more willing to get out again soon.
:: Let yourself embrace that reality. My boys do still shout and kick and fight. That is who they are together. They also sink deep into wondrous play together, support each other, look out for each other. Both of these kinds of moments happen every day at home. I have learned to accept and expect that they will happen when we are paddling, camping and hiking too.
Two years ago, upon returning from our first paddle-in trip as a foursome (the boys were 3, 4, and 6) we had a memorable, beautiful, frazzling time. After a night of not-quite-enough sleep we had a couple of hours of crashing and clashing that finally settled into splashing and building and reading and laughing. Once we packed up and paddled back to the take-out we were all in a great mood. Another young couple watched us paddle in and start to unload. The dad was kind of gaping at what we were doing and told me he thought I must be a super-mom to be able to do that kind of trip alone with the kids. I laughed out loud as a response. I explained to him that I was definitely not a super mom, that our morning had been quite snappy. I also told him that I found the packing, the set-up, the paddling all quite easy but the boys seeming constant need to attack each other was tougher to deal with. Since they behaved the same way at home, why not head out on a trip anyway? I gave him a longer response than he may have expected but I found it helpful to say out loud what I had just realized.
:: Don’t try to do it all. The boys love to fish. While I know my way around fishing with kids, my rule is that when I take the boys alone, the rods stay home. I am not willing to untangle the inevitable messes that will occur and keeping fishing a ‘with dad only’ activity reserves something special for us to do when we are all together.
I used to lead multi-day canoe trips so I know how to handle a boat. I have no concern at all about tipping or getting turned around, or dealing with wind or waves. I’ve got the gear and the know-how to pack the right stuff and to keep it all dry and buoyant. We’ve got canoe tripping covered, for now. I would also like to go on multi-day, hut-to-hut cross country ski trips. I’ve got the basics but there is no way I am ready to embark on one of those trips on my own yet, let alone with my family. I am sticking to what I know.
:: Talk to strangers. One of the hardest parts of taking my boys on a canoe camping trip on my own is getting the boat on and off our van. I have practiced and asked around for tips but the fact is that our boat is huge and heavy. It is great for paddling whitewater and tripping with my family, but it is really tough to load and unload alone. Once I realized that this was standing in the way of us tripping I decided to find a way around it– I started asking for help. I have received help from seven different neighbours loading and unloading at home, as well as a contractor who happened to be on his lunch break. I have also timed our arrivals at put-ins and take-outs with the hope of running into other boaters. My oldest son has taken to enlisting helpers on his own. It’s a great way to meet people. One time I shouted out to two fishermen in a motorboat who were just heading out. They were happy to turn around to help us. Who doesn’t want to help out a family who is paddling?
:: Be ready to change plans or cancel them altogether. Announcing many days beforehand that a trip is planned does not work for us. Inclement weather, a few bad days in a row, or just not feeling up for it might get in our way and it is hard for the kids to understand when plans change. I have learned not to say anything until the night before or even the day that we are leaving. My two younger boys still have just a tenuous grasp on time so saying that we are leaving when they wake up and will be out overnight is enough for them. My oldest son can grasp more so he may ask questions and I will tell him as it comes up.
One of the boys is terrified of lightning. There is no way around this. We’ve spent a lot of time in lightning together — I know. Because of the nature of last-minute summer storms blowing in I am reluctant to make reservations. I despise the idea of losing that reservation fee and I do not want to inadvertently put pressure on my boy to come camping anyway even though a storm is blowing in. We have converted an overnight into a day-trip to avoid lightning. On a car camping trip far from home last year I woke in the night to the sound of the thunder rumbling. I knew a storm was slowly settling over us and would be around for a while. The boys continued to sleep through it but I couldn’t get back to sleep so I got up and converted the back of our van into sleeping quarters. I proceeded to carry the sleeping babes one-by-one into the van. They barely woke up and we all ended up sleeping later than we usually do. A little unconventional for a camping trip, but it worked for us.
:: Don’t compare. Each of the boys is his own little self. I have been able to gauge at what age one might be able to sleep in the tent without trashing it, or hold a paddle and actually be kind of helpful, by watching what the others have done, but there is no hard and fast rule about what will work when with whom. Likewise, I may feel ready for a certain kind of trip at one time and not at another. That’s okay. Being honest with myself about that helps our tripping go more smoothly.
I have friends who have friends who go farther than us, or away for longer, or bake all of their food in a dutch oven while they’re out, or portage around waterfalls while breastfeeding in the rain after flying in to the remote arctic for ten-week trips. Well, not really, but that’s how it feels sometimes when I spend the time comparing what we do to what ‘they’ do. I never find that helpful. I know what works for us and I try to push it a bit more every season, and that is enough. I know in my gut what is right for us and it doesn’t help me to disrespect my efforts by comparing what we do to what others are doing.
:: Prepare for the worst. My previous work has taught me to be ready for the worst case scenario. Of course it is a possibility that our boat would capsize and I would be rendered unconscious by a blow to the head. It is possible that a bear may attack us. Those two concerns have been raised to me by others, but the possibility is truly miniscule. One of the boys could get hurt, true, and so I bring along a thorough first aid kit and am ready to evacuate at any time if need be. The biggest concern that I have that could actually happen is that I would twist my ankle and be unable to walk or might break my arm or dislocate my shoulder when I fall. I have told myself that I am prepared to suck it up and get us out if this happens. We are never really that far from other folks, so far, on our trips. I wear solid footwear and watch my footing. I did without a cell phone for a number of years but when I decided to venture further away and longer with the boys I got one again. We are not always within range of a tower, but I do have one just in case.
:: Invite friends to come along. One of the best ways to take on a trip alone is to find another adult or family to come along. There was a trip that I saw in my dreams last summer. I knew my husband would be away for a while so I sent out an email to the other tripping families I know to try to enlist support. This was a trip I was unwilling to do as the only adult. A friend decided to take it on with me, so together she and I paddled our six boys into one of the most beautiful places I had ever been and I was able to share this place with my children. It was a dream come true.
I realized a few years ago that if I wait until the situation seems ideal I will probably never head out on a trip with my boys. It is great to have the support and fun of Daddy-o being on trip with us, but it is also a reality that he is often away or unable to take the time for a longer-than-a-weekend trip. With some thought and perseverance and willingness to push us all a bit we have taken on more than I expected we would. It is my nature to sit with my maps and computer at the start of the season and try to make some plans. It is also my nature to assess our achievements at the end of the season. For the last two years I have been pleased and surprised by what we have been able to take on. My boys now know the sound of the bullfrogs groaning us to sleep and the hoot of the great-horned owl. We have snuck up on loons as they preen and had one swim right under our boat. We are all working on mastering our own loon calls.
Now I am trying to figure out how to manage a portage so that we can get just that little bit more remote on our adventures. Since my boat isn’t getting any lighter, I believe I may need to borrow one. I am excited to think of what the next season of canoe tripping has in store for my family and me. I wish the same excitement for you and your family.
Sonja Lukassen used to get paid to bring city-folk into the forest. Now she does it with her family and friends in rural Ontario, Canada. She has found that writing about and photographing the snippets of beauty that she experiences day-to-day with her family helps her stay grounded. You can follow her on her blog. She is aware of and deeply grateful for the wonder and joy that she is able to experience every day.