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One Big, Happy Vacation


© St. Petersburg Times

Although they have been bombarded with brochures for summer family deals at theme parks and resorts around the country, the Calverts of Detroit have chosen this year to buy their first tent and to spend a week at a campsite in a national park.

"We wanted our children to see that life is not just about fast rides, fast food and me, me, me; that it's about nature and the needs of beings other than themselves," explains the mother, Ann Calvert. "We wanted time as a family to enjoy the quiet of the outdoors and the simple pleasures of being in nature together."

So the Calverts plan to hike the park's trails, canoe its rivers, get to know the resident creatures and cook over a wood fire. The entire family will choose the park, with both adults and the four children, ages 5 to 15, having a vote. Each Calvert is working on a list of duties, based on abilities and inclinations.

"Room service is not an option," Ann Calvert says.

Wilderness trips -- whether rough outdoor adventures far from civilization or easy-going weekend excursions near home -- are a great way for families to grow together, free of the artificial diversions that grab attention but provide little ground for real communication.

Away from the TV computer games, water slides and other playthings of technology, parents and children can get to the root of what makes each member special. These wilderness trips can also help make everyone more sensitive to the fragility of the world around them. Wilderness bound

Your family needs to ease into intimacy with nature, one step at a time.

-- If you have young children, consider making your first camping experience a night in a tent in your back yard -- or in a friend's yard if you live in an apartment -- making believe you are in some exotic wilds. You can sleep under the stars knowing the "indoors" is nearby if anyone gets antsy or scared.

-- For your first real nature trip, book a cabin in a state park, with day hikes, canoe trips and other outdoor excursions. These cabins often have more than one bedroom, plus kitchen facilities; you may have to supply your own bedding. Next time, try a tent site to which you can drive. When you get comfortable with that, consider a hike-in camping trip that is away from the parking lot.

-- Make your outdoor adventure a group project -- not one where the parents do all the planning and work and the youngsters tag along. Shop together for food, hiking clothes and equipment -- fishing rods, hiking boots, sleeping bags, a tent -- and give each child a chore. Older children can help Mom or Dad set up the tent, make menus and lead campfire songs; younger kids can gather kindling wood or spear hot dogs or marshmallows onto long sticks for the campfire.

-- Make sure your family is adequately equipped for the adventure -- canteens to keep each participant hydrated, good walking shoes and socks to keep out thistles, a hat and suntan lotion to protect from the sun, bug spray and packets of high-energy snacks, such as apples, juice boxes with straws or gorp (a homemade mix of M&Ms, raisins, nuts, coconut and dried fruit).

-- Advise your children to stay on designated trails and make a wide swath around any creatures in their path. Wading into bodies of water should be off-bounds to young children, except under adult supervision. Even older children should be told to steer clear of some waterways, such as sections of rivers where fast-moving rapids pose a danger.

-- Give each child a diary for recording the adventure (youngsters too young to write can draw pictures). Many of these diaries, available at camping stores and through children's mail-order catalogs, come with checklists of birds and wildlife, and extra pages to affix photos from the trip. Provide a disposable camera to each child old enough to hold one, to capture his or her own photographic memories. Making nature fun for young children

"Everything along a trail is a wonderment to children, and parents need to nurture that excitement," says Joseph Cornell, a 46-year-old California naturalist who teaches educators how to give children a love of nature. "By providing youngsters with memorable close encounters with the natural world and sharing their own enthusiasm for other life forms, parents can instill a lifelong sense of respect and appreciation for nature," he says.

Following are his favorite projects any parent can follow:

-- Meet a tree -- Blindfold a child and gently walk him or her over to an interesting tree (with no poison ivy) set among others. Encourage him to explore the tree in all its uniqueness, hugging it to feel its girth and smell, feeling the leaves to discover their shape and texture. Then walk the child back several yards, remove the blindfold, and invite him to find "his" tree, giving plenty of hints (for example: "Didn't you say the tree was really fat and that the leaves were pointy?") Through this game the tree becomes unique instead of just another piece of wood in a big forest.

"I've seen children ask to go back and visit their tree at a later date," says Cornell, who notes that this new-found personal relationship with a part of nature makes children sensitive to each living thing's importance.

-- Sunset watch: About 15 minutes before sunset, make a game of enumerating events that happen at this time of day, with the children calling out or pointing to each phenomenon as it happens. Some examples: shadows get longer, day-birds grow quiet, night insects start buzzing, the moon and first stars come out, the temperature cools. As darkness descends, have children turn on their flashlights and see what comes into the light, then turn them off and sit quietly, noticing the new sounds and smells. Top nature adventures for families

Want to let someone else do the planning? Following are some top programs for different tastes and age groups. Prices are per-person, based on double occupancy, and do not include air fare.

-- National Wildlife Federation Conservation Summits; (800) 245-5484. Each summer, the non-profit National Wildlife Federation holds one-week natural history, wildlife viewing and ecology programs for families in U.S. locations chosen for their topography and environmental interest. For 1997, two programs are offered; the first in Seward, Alaska, June 21-27, and another in Silver Bay in upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains, July 5-11.

Each summit offers adults a choice of 25 to 40 naturalist-led classes, ranging from lectures on environmental issues and field trips to animal and bird habitats and nature photography sessions. Children, meanwhile, participate in daily programs organized by age groups. There's a lot of hiking, with ecological lessons along the trail, music programs and arts and crafts, and the older kids get to experience mountain biking, rock climbing and overnight camping.

The program fee for each summit, including classes and field trips, is $400 per adult per week, $325 for teens, $300 for children ages 5-12 and $200 for preschoolers ages 3-4, who get a half-day program. Infant care is available for $5 per hour. Accommodations with meals cost extra and, depending on the location and comfort level, range from $800 to $2,000 a week for a family of four.

The National Wildlife Federation also runs several four-day wildlife weekends for families, a wildlife camp for children 9-13, and special Teen Adventure camps for 14- to 17-year-olds.

-- Sierra Club Outings, Outings Dept., 85 Second St., Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105; (415) 977-5588. The Sierra Club runs 26 family adventures annually, aimed at helping adults and children learn the fun of outdoor living. Programs range from explorations of national parks to excursions to sacred American Indian grounds and snorkeling and rafting trips. There are separate activities for youngsters and adults as well as programs for the whole family. Most run about a week.

Prices range from $200 for adults and $135 for children under 16 for volunteer service trips to more than $1,000 and $700, respectively, for cushy exotic adventures.

-- Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, Colo.; (800) 422-8975. Grandparents are especially keen on this 13-year-old archaeological research and education center, which runs six-day programs excavating sites once inhabited by the 13th-century cliff-dwelling Anasazi Indians.

Adult programs run year-round and there are special family weeks held each summer -- Aug. 3-9 and 10-16 this year. Children grades 7 and up are welcome. The week includes excavations in the field, lab work where participants help analyze and catalog artifacts, eco-hikes to learn about the geology and ecology of the Southwest, a field trip to the major Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park and lectures on the lifestyles of the Anasazi and Southwestern prehistory.

Price for a family-dig week is $795 per adult and $595 per child. Price includes room, meals, excursions and pick-up at Cortez Airport, which is accessible via commuter plane from Denver.

-- Sheri Griffith Rafting Expeditions; (800) 332-2439. Utah's Green River is particularly kid-friendly, thanks to rapids in the moderate Class II and III category and white sand beaches that make for extra-comfy camping. Sheri Griffith Expeditions' Family Goes to Camp raft trips allow adults and children (5 and older) to experience the river together and independently. Counselors periodically lead kids off on their own nature hikes to learn about conservation and local wildlife. Camping is in tents on white sand beaches with a backdrop of 100-year-old cottonwood trees and other high desert vegetation. The staff brings along water toys, and shovels and buckets for sand-castle building.

Five-day trips depart June 29, July 6 and 31, and Aug. 10. Price is $783 for adults, $499 for children, ages 5-16. Trips begin in Moab, Utah, which is accessible via commuter flight from Salt Lake City, Utah, or Grand Junction, Colo.

-- Telemark Inn and Llama Treks, (RFD 2, Box 800, Bethel, ME 04217; (207) 836-2703). Using a "staff' of quadrupeds with names like Alphonso, Pierre and Amadeus, Steve Crone runs family llama treks and hiking excursions with camping out of his Telemark Inn in pretty Bethel, Me., which abuts the White Mountain National Forest.

A three-day (two nights) llama trek with camping costs $425 per adult, $295 for children under 14, including all meals and activities.

-- Earthshine Mountain Lodge, Rt. 1, Box 216-C, Gilden Road, Lake Toxaway, NC 28747; (704) 862-4207. This 70-acre farm abutting the Pisgah National Forest and surrounded by the Appalachian region's Blue Ridge Mountains has a decidedly "Little House on the Prairie" feel to it. Guests of all ages are welcome to join in the daily chores of baking bread, chopping wood, weeding the organic garden and feeding the farm animals. There are evening folk-singing sessions, square-dances and storytelling around the campfire. Earthshine also offers day hikes and riding excursions, a ropes course and overnight horsepack trips.

Special family programs run throughout June, July and August. Prices start at $110 per night for adults, $55 for ages 10-15, $30 for ages 5-9, $15 under 5. Infant care is available for $5 per hour. Includes all meals, but some activities cost extra.

-- The Disney Institute, Orlando; (800) 282-9282. Opened last year at Walt Disney World, this 457-room resort is a cross between a family Club Med and Outward Bound. Geared to families with children ages 7 and up, the institute runs more than 80 hands-on educational programs, from wilderness hikes, rock climbing, and overnight camping and canoe trips to film animation, story telling and comic strip-drawing.

A three-night-minimum package starts at $499 per adult (discounted family rates available), including accommodations, discovery programs, basic sports activities, lectures and performances by visiting artists and musicians, and one-day entrance to Disney World. Great books for planning a family nature adventure

-- Family Adventure Guides (Globe Pequot Press, $9.95 to $11.95). New state-by-state series, with 25 states so far.

-- Great Nature Vacations with Your Kids ($9.95) and Great Adventure Vacations with Your Kids ($11.95) both by Dorothy Jordon, World Leisure Corp.; (800) 444-2524 to order.

-- Sierra Club Family Outdoors Guide, by Marilyn Doan (Sierra Club Books, $12). +

Sharing Nature With Children ($7.95), Sharing the Joy of Nature ($9.95) Listening to Nature ($13.95), and Journey to the Heart of Nature ($9.95), all by Joseph Cornell, Dawn Publications; (800) 545-7475.

-- Family Camping Made Simple: Tent and RV

Camping with Children, by Beverly Liston (Globe Pequot Press, $12.95).

-- Rodale's Guide to Family Camping, $3.95. Annual magazine chock-full of helpful tips for spring and summer trips. Available at outdoor stores and bookstores. For a nearby store, call (800) 480-1110. Freelance writer Judi Dash is a contributing editor to Family Circle magazine.

Originally published May 11, 1997

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