Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sibley State Park: Hiking Mt. Tom (Saturday)

Hiking Trail: Mt. Tom Trail with Oak Hills Trail short cut
back to the camp site.
Distance: About 3 miles

What a rainy day! It was wet enough in the morning that we slept in and ate breakfast in the camper - the first time with all of us around the table (we need to do something to protect the upholstery from sticky fingers of excited little boys who refuse to sit still for a meal).

Finally we got dressed and headed out for a hike to Mt. Tom, said to be one of the highest points for at least 50 miles around and the product of a glacier.

The kids and Sofie did great on the hike inspite of the mist and rain. Finn was in the Piggyback carrier. [I still love that carrier! Hopefully we'll get one more year out of it before the boys have outgrown it for good.] The trails were really nice and well groomed walking paths.

By the time we returned from our hike, the rain had picked up. So, another meal in the camper - boys bouncing off the walls!

After lunch, Jay and Brek tried to fish between rain showers, but found the shop at the beach doesn't sell bait. I got Finn to nap (by force) and got my first chance to stretch out on the bench at the table and crack a book. The anglers returned and quietly played cards while Finn continued to nap.

We had promised the boys a campfire, sparklers and S'mores sometime. Since this was our last night, despite intermittent rain showers, Jay started a fire.

Finn was a pill to keep out of the road. We chose our campsite because of a large grassy spot away from the camper and fire ring. But, instead of playing in our little "yard," the road was a magnet for him. Finally we resorted to the creative parenting at which we can occasionally be so good... Finn discovered that a baseball bat made a good horse and a pail of water was the perfect "lake" for floating a large piece of bark and a toy boat.

We had brats over the fire and attempted (failed) roasting sweet corn. [We removed the silks, closed the husks back over the ear, soaked them in water, then put them around the edges of our small fire. Not enough heat or time, I guess.] Our zip pack potatoes turned out OK, though.

S'Mores. Oh, My! S-t-i-c-k-y! But we all enjoyed them. However, Finn was truly BOUNCING off the walls when we tried to put him to bed! (Maybe I shouldn't have included the chocolate on his S'mores?)

Lesson of the day: Light rains don't have to keep us indoors! It was a great day!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Sibley State Park: Glacial Lakes State Trail (Friday)

Bike Trail: Glacial Lakes State Trail
Route: From Sibley State Park to New London; New London to Spicer; return same route
Distance: About 18 miles round trip

On Friday, we packed a lunch and biked 4 miles to New London to catch the Glacial Lakes State Trail. The trail from the park to New London is actually the shoulder of a heavily traveled county road. It felt kind-of precarious at times and both Jay and I were sorry we didn't bring our orange flags for the tag-along and bike trailer to increase our visibility.

The countryside is rolling hills with ponds and wetlands as well as stands of trees.

After looking around town for the trail (not much in the way of signage), we ate our lunch and some ice cream and headed out for Spicer on a paved portion of the trail. We were not all that impressed with the trail. It just wasn't as scenic as the trails we're used to riding, I guess.

Spicer (on Green Lake) looked nice and New London has a few nice little shops and cafes, etc. I would love to spend more time in the knitting shop! We shopped at Big Market grocery store, which added weight to the trailer for Jay. That's significant because we rode back to the park straight into a headwind and threatening rain storms. That trailer is like dragging a kite into a headwind and the added weight didn't help.

In the evening we headed back to New London (by car) for the Little Crow Water Ski Show. It was OK and the kids liked it. They said it is a "rebuilding year" for the team.

We also drove through one of the county campgrounds on Green Lake. The trailers were PACKED in like sardines with only a few feet and no trees between. No thanks!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Going Dry: Sibley State Park (Thursday)

Location: Sibley State Park, MN (along the Glacial Lakes State Trail)
Oak Ridge Campground, Site #118
Dates: June 26-29
Camped with: Just our little fam of 4

We were lucky to get a site at this time of year without reservations. Thursday was pretty empty, but it looked like lots of people were coming for the weekend. We initially thought we'd like to be in the Lakeview Campground with electricity and close to the lake. But we found that Oak Ridge Campground is much more private with trees and space between sites. However, there are no electric sites there, so we ran the fridge on propane and used minimal electricity off our 2 deep cycle marine batteries. Hopefully they'll last.

We were so warm (hot, sticky, sweaty?) after setting up camp so we went down to the beach on our bikes and swam. It was so refreshing! The sun was beginning to set as we finished up our swim.

As we rode back to our site, the most awesome feeling overcame me, "We have arrived." Our little family camping and biking and swimming together - this is what I've dreamt for all of us, and here we are.

Going A-Wall - Our First Escape

Location: Brown's Cabin at Kabekona Lake
Dates: June 23-26
Camping with: Bakka & Besta in their A-Liner; Breta, Dave, Jakob and Sarah and Don in their cabin; Shelly and Allie in the camper
Wisdom gained: Dogs can't digest raw potatoes either.

Sometimes you discover heaven on Earth. Camping is a good way to find it. This is one of those places. At the end of a private road, with a creek on one side and a clean, quiet lake on the other, we spent three days fishing, boating, splashing, talking and relaxing together.

My sister has invited us to her in-law's cabin several times but I've always hesitated - I don't want to put anyone out or intrude. But, when your sister and her family are about to move thousands of miles away, you'll do anything to steal a little extra time with them. Even if it means intruding...

Of course, Don, Shelly and Allie made us feel like anything but intruders. They welcomed us openly, sharing their time, boats, toys, food and space. I have always enjoyed them and this week was definitely no exception.

All of us, including our dog Sofie, had a great time. Each of my boys found fishing a favorite passtime. Brek tried out his new rod, learned to bait his own hook - and even took a fish off his hook for the first time. We would find him fishing in the creek and out on the dock by himself, with Jakob or with anyone who would sit with him. His Uncle Dave shared a few pointers and retrieved a few snagged lines.

Finn dragged around his hookless, baitless pole to emulate the big boys catching peesch (fish).

Jay escaped with Dave and Don in search of elusive Walleye.

The boys drove a boat with Allie and Shelly and swam off the pontoon. We watched thousands of minnows and the loons sang us to sleep.

Our Chalet proved to be the perfect vacation home. It gave us enough space to sleep and access our gear for playing. It sheltered us completely in an unexpected crazy, windy rain storm in the middle of the night. It worked as a kitchen away from home.

The NorCold refrigerator, however, gave us some fits. We started off running on shore power, but felt that we should switch to propane so we didn't use as much of Donnie's resources. The fridge fired right up on propane and we were pleased. However, we discovered that our pilot light continued to go out after the fridge had been running a short time. We inspected it, my dad inspected it, Donnie inspected it... Everything looked like it should be working just fine. The pilot was strong, it lit immediately and stayed strong - until, it seemed, the fridge cooled to the set temperature. Then instead of turning the pilot down, it just shut off altogether.

After several failed attempts to get things working, and a late-night Internet search on Jay's handy Q phone, I suggested we call Danny's Campers for some advice. [The Internet posts about the fridge described lots of problems with both a mechanism in the fridge and with the fridge company - both of which gave me a slight twinge of "What did we get our selves into here?"] Brian at Danny's Campers suggested we try to snap the thermocouple on tighter. We didn't see where there was anything to snap on tighter than it already was seated. But, Donnie got brave, pulled it out and then pushed lots harder when he reseated it. It did the job! [We haven't had a problem since - knock on wood!]

A summer trip to Minnesota isn't a vacation without mosquitoes. After our first night at Kabekona, I was afraid to open our camper door for fear of letting all of those mosquitoes OUT! To say we had been invaded would be an understatement. Who knew the first blemishes inside our camper would be blood spots from swatting mosquitoes?!?

Where are they coming in? We think the majority of the blood-sucking itch bugs came in through a small opening in the ceiling vent and/or in the Fantastic Fan. We had turned the fan off during the night but left both vents open. They were probably attracted to the warmth of 5 bodies in the camper and the still air in the camper made perfect biting conditions for the mosquitoes.

The next night we tried closing the vent and leaving the fan on. That seemed to help some. We also found several vent openings (hot water heater, refrigerator, furnace, etc.) where we need to cover with screen to prevent future invasions.

Our stay ended with a teary good-bye to my sister's family (now headed back to Alaska) and a warm invitation from Shelly to return next year. Great memories.

Do you spy the A-frame on the right?
That's an A-liner belonging to my parents.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ready, Set, GO!

Unpacking to pack... That's what Sunday held. Our goal was to come home from Saylorville, pack up, mow and head off by 5pm for a week in Minnesota.

Let's see how we did...

I grabbed all of the clothes and sheets and set right to work on laundry. The weather was perfect to sun-dry everything far faster than my dryer could accomplish (I LOVE my clothesline).

Already there were things I decided to take out of the camper: the outdoor stove (we'll just try cooking inside or grilling and see how it goes), the poor grilling tools (replaced with some Pampered Chef tools I'd gotten years ago), some miscellaneous kitchen things.

I also added a few things like a spatula, pan scrapper and a soft-side cooler that folds down in case we need the extra capacity (still have no idea how far this fridge can take us).

We are taking our bikes and fishing gear on this trip, so we'll need to add an extra bin for equipment. That bin will stow under the bunk during transit and stay outside while we're camping.

Jay quickly built a shelf that will sit on top of the counter across from the sink/stove. On top of the shelf, we'll set our two drawer units. The shelf will stow on top of the drawer units up under the bunk during transit. The shelf needs to be better finished when we get home, but it will work for this week.

He also made a thin piece of plywood fit into the slots on the grill rack that mounts to the outside of the camper (the slots are where the legs of the grill clamp in). This can serve as a table. Our mount is either bent or very unreliable. We'll see how it goes. I'm afraid the whole deal will just fall off the camper with the slightest bump - with or without the table. We cut the plywood wide enough to block the opening of the bottom bunk so it will keep things from shifting back into the aisle during transit. I think we can do better for a table, but we'll see.

Nothing invested so far - everything came from scrap wood we had in the shop.

We worked at a frenzied pace but at about 7:00pm, I asked Jay if we should just give up on the idea of leaving tonight and get up early in the morning instead.

We fed the boys, put them to bed and did some last-minute packing.

One question we want to answer is whether or not we should plan to use our E-Z Up for camping (purchasing optional screen sides) or look for a screen tent instead. We plan to stop at Cabela's on our way tomorrow.

Getting Acquainted

Location: Saylorville Lake, Cherry Glen campground, Site #53
Dates: June 20-22, 2008
Camping with: GONGS families: 3 tents, 2 campers
Wisdom gained: Dressing wobbly toddlers in light-weight pants instead of shorts saves on bloody knees (sort-of).

The kids were SOOOO excited to finally go camping! Our friends who recently moved to Minnesota were joining us. There were 10 kids ages 1-8 (9 boys, 1 girl...). Lots of fun and dirt to be had!

Jay had to work very late Friday (moving computer equipment back into their office after the threat of major flooding) so I was on my own for getting settled, dinner and bedtime. [Jay came over lunch to actually haul the camper and level it - I'm not ready to try backing it yet]

The grill set up easily on its outside mount and I liked the quick-connect hose. We had electric at our site so we could easily run our fantastic fan, fridge, lights and our son's bedtime music.

It started to rain just as dinner was ready. I had to quickly set up the table and get the boys inside. The boys were filthy from the park and neither wanted to sit still for dinner. I was having a tough time being OK with dirty hands and bodies all over our new upholstery. Argh!

A quick call went out to Jay asking him to bring a few things when he finally came out - including the booster chair for our youngest and a scooter for our oldest (some of the other boys had them).

We loved our shady site and the location on the edge of the campground. It was one of the more private sections of sites.

We skipped filling our water tank, but it was easy to manage with our water jug and a spicket just across the road.

OK - I must eat my words about the freezer. Well, I had to eat my words because our supper was too frozen to eat! I put our brats and breakfast sausage in the freezer compartment thinking, they probably won't really freeze in there, but at least they'll be kept very cold. Well... everything froze SOLID. My confidence in the refrigerator climbed and I learned my lesson.

Jay decided to go purchase steaks instead of waiting for things to thaw out. Off the men went to purchase meat and beer... Upon grilling the steaks, Jay decided he despises the grill that came with the camper. It might look cool (stainless), but he prefers his Weber Q grill. Hmm...

We had a very brazen raccoon or two working our group's campsites: climbing on trucks to get to garbage bags that were void of food, showing up in daylight while our campsite was occupied, etc. Saturday night topped it, though.

All 10 adults were sitting around the campfire - and we weren't quiet. Spencer was sitting at the end of the picnic table rocking his daughter. In one hand he held a fat stick that the boys had found while exploring the flooded area by the lake. Suddenly we heard a loud THUD followed by, "Got 'em!"

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a raccoon slinking along the ground under a car and away.

The crazy raccoon had climbed up on the table and gotten into a soft-sided beverage cooler at the other end of the table. Spencer turned, whopped him between the eyes with the stick, and returned to the conversation - without waking his daughter! The raccoon waited until after we were in bed to return again. We may have to have the stick bronzed and mounted for him!

[After watching our friends work so hard to put away their pop-up tent camper, we were again thankful for the ease of the Chalet. It may be smaller with a little less convenient storage, but it is simpler.]

In all, a successful weekend with friends. Camping was easier this year than last (and not just because we were in a camper). All of the kids are now walking and a bit more self-reliant. They were all (OK - with the exception maybe of our princess) so excited to be together and to be camping. Can't wait until next year!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Preliminary Storage Solutions

Jackpot! I found some storage containers at Target - Snapware brand - that fit perfectly in the nooks and crannies of our refrigerator! I bought one 10-piece set, two sizes of containers with a locking pour spout and a couple of larger very flat pieces that slide perfectly under the cooling element. OK - so I've made a huge effort to reduce our use of plastic around our house. Most of our storage is now in glass or stainless. But, glass is heavy (and a little precarious with camping)and stainless is pricey and hard to find. So, we're starting out with plastic. (sigh)

Jay and I had separately spotted some plastic (again) drawer units that would fit under the bunk. We decided we'd limit ourselves to one drawer per person for clothes (the boys would share one for now). This way we wouldn't have bags to juggle and we would limit how much we bring. A smaller drawer unit will hold diapers, wipes, etc. for a few more years as well as hats, our toiletry bags, etc.

I discovered our dog kennel fits under the bunk so keeping Sofie in there at night will help limit the spread of dog "fluff."

I think we're ready for our first little outing - a weekend trip planned with four other families.

Where Do I Begin?

I can set up all by myself!

It felt so empowering when, first thing this morning, I set up the camper all by myself - in about 1 minute flat. Wow. (The lessons in backing up the trailer will come later - then I'll be fully empowered...)

Climbing inside, I opened all of the cupboards and storage and then just sat down and stared. Where will we keep everything? How should it be organized? Can we get it all in?

When we we talking about buying a camper, we had the discussion about how neither of us wants to bring "everything including the kitchen sink" because we now have the shell to haul it. We have always enjoyed the simplicity of camping and the creativity that camping with "less" requires. Hmmm...

So there I sat - for quite some time. I just sat and looked around and imagined how we'd use the space.

We purchased the bunk model of the Chalet XL for a few reasons. 1) Our growing boys may eventually end up as tall as their father and may need some room to stretch out; 2) Our boys are small now so they can share the top space while our hairy dog (Collie mix) can be contained in the bottom space (with cushions removed, of course!); and 3) Jay felt there were more storage options with the open space known as the bottom bunk.

So, the first thing I did was stack the bottom bunk cushions on top of the top bunk cushions to open up the lower bunk (floor) for storage. I don't love having the cushions stacked 2-high, but where else are we going to store them without getting them dirty or taking up lots of space in our garage or house?

On the other side, since we intend to do most of our eating outdoors, we plan to leave the dinette down and the bed made most of the time.

Our stove in the camper is built-in. We feel we will want to do most of our cooking outdoors, so we will want to bring along our regular camp stove and propane bottles.

We have a couple of large "Rubbermaid-type" bins that we've stored most of our camping equipment in for tent camping. I can eliminate one bin right away - no tent, ground cloth, sleep pads, sleeping bags, tent sealer, back-packing stove and pots. That all stays at home.

The other bin I repacked for anything we'd need outside: roasting forks, hatchet and saw, bat, ball, gloves, small water toys, kids' chairs. This will stow under the bunk during transit and sit outside the camper upon arrival.

I kept thinking I would take all of my silverware/cooking utensils in and out of the camper depending on the weather. But, I decided to put a high-sized tray in the camper so I can carry out the things I would need for a meal and leave the rest in the camper.

Our fridge, although the height of a tall dorm refrigerator, is not as roomy. And it has a silly freezer in it. I doubt the freezer will do much good, and it takes up space. I measured all of the shelves in the fridge and door and I think I'll look for some containers that might fit well in there. I'll also need a couple of containers for dry goods like oatmeal and cereal. I'm not ready to install shelves or purchase drawer dividers, etc. until we've lived in the camper a time or two. So, we'll have to find ways to store things in what we've got.

Did I mention that I'm claustrophobic? Just the idea of digging for things in small dark spaces under cushions with two children jumping on me makes me tremble! So, my objective is to start out organized - making things easily accessible - and STAY that way!

I discovered our best storage spot is in the far back corner under the bench. Argh! Impossible to get to that spot! We'll have to add an access door there. Wait. The lift bar at the rear side doesn't leave much room for an access door. Darn! Guess I'll store things here that we 1) don't use that often, or 2) need to stow for travel but will have out while we're camping (water jug, cook set, beach towels).

I took measurements of everything and, armed with a list of some basics we needed from the hardware store, headed out to see what my storage options might be...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bringing Her Home

We drove to Danny's Campers in Westfield, WI to pick up our Chalet XL 1920 today. While at Danny's we added a weight-distribution hitch to the camper, an electronic brake controller to our 2006 Honda Odyssey and a receiver hitch to the back bumper of the camper. [In anticipation of acquiring a camper, we added the towing package to the van when we purchased it.]

We measured the height of our hitch before adding the camper. Then we attached the camper to the hitch without adding the weight distribution bars. The height dropped over 2". Finally we attached the camper using the weight distribution bars and the height dropped less than 1/4".

It was a long day for the kids. The drive alone was over 5 hours each way, and we were at Danny's for about 6 hours. We took the kids out for lunch and then played a round of mini-golf (their first time). We took a break from our game to feed the fish. Our youngest got such a thrill from watching the big fish swim toward the food pellets - and throwing his golf ball into the water...

Back at Danny's, we got a thorough walk-through of the camper, general maintenance and using the brake controller. Dan and his staff really treated us well - and more than tollerated our two kids underfoot. Their attention to detail was obvious and we really appreciated how clean the camper was upon our arrival as well as the little things they added, taught us and suggested.

When we finally pulled away after 6pm, the kids were tired, we were tired, we were all hungry - and we were all excited! We drove for about an hour and found a nice wayside near Castle Rock where we pulled off, popped open the camper and made a quick sandwich supper while the kids climbed the path. Whew! That was slick!

The camper towed pretty well although it definitely felt different behind us. The height of the camper when it is closed is just slightly higher than our van. We got record gas mileage on the way to Danny's (just over 26mpg) and got barely 15mpg on the way home. We didn't run the air conditioning either way.

We pulled in at about 1am and I suddenly felt overwhelmed that I needed to figure out what and how to pack for a family of four that was leaving in a couple of days for our first outting. But we were all still excited.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Taking the Plunge

Simply put, we are officially Chalet owners.

For the last year we have daydreamed. We have researched. We have weighed the pros and cons. We have saved our money. [Our kids learned about saving money.] We've changed our minds. We've changed our minds again.

We've asked the questions... In our quest to "simplify," does adding an expensive (in our opinion) camper to our inventory really make sense? Will we use it enough in our increasingly "busy" family life? And - Where will we keep it?

Well, the short story is, we decided to go for it. We love to camp as a couple. We love to share camping and all of its memories and accompanying lessons with our kids. We love the idea of the A-Wall camper. [It also helps that my 6'6" husband can fit in the Chalet XL!]

So, we did it.

Time will tell if we will regret our decision. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that we'll never look back!