I live in Canada with my family, the land of plenty in so very many ways, and especially when it comes to fresh water. We have lived on the coast and experienced the wonder that comes from frequently spending time at the ocean. I have often heard relocated islanders talk of the ocean being in their blood, and that no matter where they live they will only ever truly feel at home when by the sea.
I have spent most of my life inland, with many hundreds and thousands of miles separating me from the coast. While I have easily learned to love the rugged, windy, rocky shoreline of the east coast of Canada, and strongly feel the call to visit whenever possible, the need that I feel coming from deep inside me is not quite the same. I long for, live for, need to spend time in and on and around deep, cool, fresh water.
I have lived a few places in this beautiful country, and no matter where it is there is always access to water. Families feel the draw to vacation in it, to build homes by it, to carve out hiking paths and bike trails beside it. Our freshwater is everywhere, but no matter where it is never commonplace, but always something special. Everyone has a favourite beach, or a secret fishing spot, or a memory-sweetened shoreside nook or cranny. Many of us grew up spending time at the family cottage, or with a friend at their family’s cottage, or camping by the lake. We went to summer camp with a wild waterfront, or spent days at the beach in town, or at the next town, or a couple of hours drive away. We’ve always made time to be near the water, especially in the short, intense Canadian summer.
I myself have wondrous memories of splashy childhood summers — of my rubber boots filling up with tadpole water in the creek out behind a friend’s apartment, of digging for clay at the town beach, or riding my bike to the ‘outdoor pool’ that was actually a riverside concrete slab. Oh, how I loved to stand on the hot asphalt until my feet almost burned off, then to run and dive into the cooling fresh river water. When we were done at the ‘pool’ for a while we would grab a popsicle from the cycling ice cream man, then wander around the park next door — sniffing and picking flowers, catching frogs and grasshoppers, jumping from rock to rock in the rapids under the bridge. When we got hot enough to want to swim again we would slide over to slippery rock — a smooth, algae-covered childhood wonder. The top of this rock just skimmed the surface of the water, and, if we dared, we could stand on it and ski all the way down the edge of the rock until we were completely submerged, or fell over. These activities were simple, initiated by us, free, and in hindsight a little bit dangerous or gross. Kind of exactly perfect for kids in the summer, really.
These memories are very strong with me. I hope for my kids to have similar, strong, happy, possibly a little bit dangerous and gross, memories, so we spend a lot of time near the water. Having gone back to visit some of my favourite childhood haunts I have realized that they are perhaps not as perfect as I once thought. More accurately, the way I determine perfection, or wonder, or whether or not I want to spend time in a certain place has changed. Perhaps the beaches themselves have changed, but I doubt it. This new awareness of my own shifting perspective has helped me shift back a bit. I do love to take my family to protected, managed, beautiful wild places, but I have learned that at least as important as this kind of access to nature, is access to nature that is nearby. The city beach may seem to me to be too close to a busy street or unfortunately have a restaurant patio fixture. My kids see a place to fill their buckets, catch minnows, chase geese, and splash around. Having spent some time there has also helped it become a central gathering place for friends and their young families. It’s hard to go wrong when gathering at the beach.
Having decided to get to know our local watering holes I have discovered many beautiful places. We have looked at our map more closely and gone exploring. Instead of always heading to the same place we have found many an out-of-the-way beach or marsh or trail that is just the kind of adventure my boys and I love.
Over the last few years my boys have also taught me that getting together with friends outdoors near the water is a sure hit. The variety of exploration is limitless, all within a short distance and for a wide range of children’s ages and abilities. It has sometimes been difficult for my children to smoothly enter and exit an indoor play scenario, but going to a wild place fills them and stimulates them and connects them in just the right way. There are always enough sticks and rocks and sand and flowers to go around, too, no matter how many friends we make.
There are a few ideas that I keep in mind when we go to a watering hole, familiar or new, that help keep the trip running smoothly.
We try to go during off-hours. During the week and right after breakfast suits us just fine. Swimming is a part of what we do, but only a part, and this way I know for sure that bellies are full when we first get there. There may be fog to watch burn off or bird activity to spy on, as well as tracks in the sand that have not yet been obscured by human traffic. Heading out early means we can probably get home by mid-afternoon to have a nap or indoor rest during the extreme heat of the day. Heading out after mid-afternoon so that we can have a picnic dinner by the water is fun, too. We have a couple of hours to throw rocks and catch frogs while we watch our shadows grow longer, and we might even get a chance to hear the peepers or loons.
We definitely head for home when the bugs start to come out.
I bring extra everything — drinking water, clothes, towels, snacks, bandages. We need to stay hydrated in the heat and there isn’t always a source of clean water where we go. Despite the heat one of my boys always gets cold after swimming so he needs clothes to change into, but then he gets caught up in his play and gets his next pair of shorts wet. Luckily, all three of my boys are close enough in size that they can wear each other’s shorts in a pinch, and little boy shorts take up very little room in a bag. We are often near rocky shorelines — perfect for crayfish hunting, and scraped knees and elbows. I learned years ago that a band-aid can go a long way to help a little one feel taken care of and ready to get back out to play. That, and a mama smooch, of course.
Make it easy to carry all of that stuff. Some of the places we visit are a short walk from the parking lot. Others are trails where we meander until we find just the right spot to stop. It is much easier to keep track of our stuff if we can share the load on our backs. I also try to bring along a sturdy empty bag to carry our wet stuff home in. It isn’t really possible to keep the sand out of everything, but I like to try.
Check out the maintained parks nearby. We are fortunate to have a strong local conservation authority working to preserve and naturalize a local river. There are many picnic areas and water-side trails that are marked and well-looked after. They always have clean outhouses, among other family-friendly amenities, although dogs might not be permitted. The same is true for provincial parks. We have discovered and explored six that are within a 90 minute drive of home, and hope to expand to a couple more this summer. They are not all our weekly visits, but they make for a fun, easy, affordable, wet place to visit. Park passes make visiting there even more cost-effective and the visitor’s fees are going to a worthy cause.
Make a toileting plan. Really? Well, we don’t always go where there are bathrooms or outhouses, and my boys all know that they definitely do not like sitting in an outhouse, anyway. We have a secret alternate plan — they go outside on a piece of bark and I deposit it down the hole when they are done. I can empathize with being creeped out or just plain scared of sitting alone in an outhouse from my own childhood experience, so together, the kids and I have worked out this method. I expect it will change eventually, but it works for us for now.
Consider sun protection. This kind of goes without saying, but I will say it anyway as it is a part of our summer day ritual. We rub in sunscreen when we’re getting dressed in the morning, and bring it with us for the day. After a few hours of wet play we reapply. We also try to find shade to play and picnic in. This is another reason why heading home by mid-afternoon works well for us- it keeps us out of the most intense heat of the day.
Mark it all on the map. Last summer we kept track of our local vacation destinations, and were surprised to realize we had gone to more than 10 places, all within a short distance of home. This also helped the boys (and me) see an accurate picture of the winding of our favourite river that we had visited in at least 5 different spots, as well as to see where other lakes ran into it.
Keep something cool in the van for the ride home. It can be hard for the boys to leave when it’s time, even though they could use a break. Keeping ice water and some watermelon slices back in the van helps them with the transition. It also helps them cool down again after the trek away from the water.
I dream of embarking on multi-day, interior canoe trips with my boys, or of packing up the van for a month-long road trip to the glacial waters out west. Right now, for us, doing so would be a really tough decision. Instead we have decided to make the most of our summers with what we have right here around us. Thanks to the generosity of friends, great local agencies, and a little bit of desire and creativity we are spending our precious summers in, on and near the water without needing to go too far to do it.
Sonja Lukassen used to get paid to bring city-folk into the forest. Now she does it with her family and friends in Ottawa, Canada. She blogs about their exploits and shares ideas at her space.
Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.