Kayaking for Kids - They can do it!

We spend a lot of our summers up at our parents' cottages and something both sets of grandparents invested in (I know - we're really lucky to have access to TWO cottages) are kayaks for the kids.

My kids took to it in no time flat and the most common comment I get from friends when they come to the cottage and try out the kayaks is, "Wow! I can't believe they can do that!"

So my message to you is:

Your kids can kayak!

My kids started using the kid sized kayaks around the age of 4 or 5 and while not all of them were proficient at 4, at 5 they could definitely get the boat going where they wanted it to go.

At 8, my older son could handle a full sized kayak if all the kid sized ones were being used by younger children because he'd had enough practice with the little ones.

What about SUPs?

Stand up paddle boards (SUPs) have gotten really popular in the last few years. We have a kid sized one of those too and while all the kids can manage it, most of them seem to feel about it the way I do about the adult sized one - it's fine, but they prefer the kayak. My daughter however really enjoys the SUP and has such incredible balance on it she can practically do acrobatics on the water without falling off!

What if I don't have a cottage?

There are lots of great places to kayak in the Ottawa area and kayaks are pretty easy to transport thanks to roof racks and hatchback trunks (especially the kid sized ones). You can also bring kayaks with you camping! Bon Echo and Bonnechere Provincial Parks are great spots. So, pack some snacks, your kayaks and your lifejackets and head out to:

Dow's Lake Pavilion (you can rent kayaks here too)

Ottawa Valley - there are a bunch of great spots and this guide has all the details you need for your paddling adventure.

Petrie Island - You can launch your kayak at the free boat launch at the west end of the main parking lot in Crappie Bay.

Shirley's Bay - a popular spot and a great place to teach kids how to launch without getting in and out from a dock.

How much do they cost?

Ours all came from Costco and we know a lot of others who got them there.  I've also seen them at Canadian tire, and for a basic sit on top kids' kayak you're looking at about $100. They've been a great investment for our family!

 

Winter yurt camping in Gatineau Park: Fun for all ages!

Yurt

If the thought of camping in the winter sends shivers down your spine, don’t let it! This past winter was the first winter that my family and I ventured into to the great outdoors to camp, but thanks to the numerous yurts and four season tents available in Gatineau Park, our camping experience was unforgettably comfortable!

So much so, that we did it again this past weekend! We packed up our sleeping bags, camp pillows, marshmallows (and other, more nutritious food), clothes for the weather (which was cool, but not freezing), and hiked the 3.4 km to our yurt to settle in for a weekend of fun.

winterhiking

We were lucky because this time we invested in the luggage and water  transportation to our yurt (it’s available for an additional fee), but we didn’t when we went in December, and we managed just fine then too – thanks to my Hercules husband who managed to carry almost everything on his back. And yes, if you don’t pay for it you have to bring your own water – for cooking and drinking (if you’re lucky there will be plenty of snow, which lessens the amount of water you will need to bring).

Some of you may be wondering why we wanted to camp in the winter or early spring? There are many reasons to camp off season, including:

1)   Peace and quiet

campfire

With the exception of a few hard-core tent campers, other than the people in nearby yurts and four-season tents, there were not many people around, which meant that the only noise we heard were from trees blowing in the wind, a couple of coyotes and raccoons at night, a grey-horned owl (which was incredible to hear!) and our own breathing – it was glorious!

2)   Bright nights

Yes, you have to use an outhouse and sometimes children need to go in the middle of the night, but the bright snow makes walking in otherwise complete darkness a little brighter, and night in the middle of the woods in winter is a special kind of beautiful.

3)   No bugs

Isn’t that great? No need to carry bug spray of any kind, nor did we have to worry about nighttime creepy crawlies while going to the outhouse (not to mention because it is so cold, the outhouse never smells!)

4)   Winter fun and wildlife

To access the yurts and four season tents in Gatineau Park you can hike (if there isn’t a lot of snow), or cross country ski or snowshoe. Along your journey you may be honoured with the presence of deer, moose and other wildlife!

woodburning stove

5)   The Wood Stove

I can tell you right now, even in the middle of winter you will not be cold at night. The wood-burning stove (the wood is included in the rental price and is available near your yurt or tent) will heat up your accommodations quickly. The first time we spent the night in a four-season tent we were so hot that we opened all of the windows and doors to let some cold winter air in (my recommendation is to always have a window open at least a crack, it helps regulate the inside temperature)! It's an efficient source of heat and it's what you will use to cook your meals - a unique and educational experience for everyone!

6) Memorable Experience

inside yurt

I guarantee your kids will be talking about their winter camping trip for months to come! My daughter loved hiking to the nearby lake and looking for animal tracks in the snow. She loved having to cook everything on a wood stove and she loved eating dinner by candlelight (there is no electricity after all!).

There is also a journal in each unit with stories from people who previously stayed in the yurt or tent. Their stories are funny, interesting and relatable – like the first time winter campers in our yurt who didn’t realize the walk was so far so they chose to leave behind a beautiful orange skillet for future yurt visitors to use, simply because it was too heavy for them to carry back out.

My only complaint is that the online booking system can be confusing, especially for first time users and there is a chance something can get double booked (it happened to us once, but they were kind and gave us our money back plus a voucher); but once your yurt or tent is booked you’re all set!

Tell me, have you camped in the winter? It’s our hopes to check out some of the amazing yurts and four season tents in Algonquin Park next year. I’ll make sure to let you know how it goes…

Camping in Bon Echo: Part 2 (or, Camping with Kids)

The other day I wrote a review of Bon Echo Provincial Park. In general we had a great experience, but there were some challenges. I complained a bit about the park management, but most of the challenges were related to the difficulties when camping with young children. Camping 5

This was our first camping trip with two kids. We've gone with our oldest daughter around 18 months and then again at 3 years. This time we had both girls - one is 22 months, and the other will be 5 next week.

Camping 6

The walk-in site was tough with young kids. If you're planning a walk-in, or a canoe/portage trip, I would strongly recommend giving it a second thought. We had to carry all of our stuff - two tents, one kitchen tent, two coolers, one giant tarp, all of our bags, shoes, jackets, toys etc. over a 5 minutes rocky trail to get to our site. I'm all for "backcountry" or "real" camping, but I think I'll enjoy it a lot more when my kids are old enough to carry things themselves. Obviously you'll pack less if you're canoe camping, but it will still be a tough slog with little people who are learning to walk!

Another challenge is sleep - young kids who are used to a quiet/dark room will have challenges falling asleep and staying asleep, especially if you are unlucky enough to have loud neighbours (which we did). Expect to be tired, and perhaps consider bringing along ear plugs for your own comfort (we found the white noise app on our phone to work really well for my youngest, and we charged the phone in our car each morning!)

Here are some other tips that worked really well for us, and made the experience fun:

  • tarp your site - try to cover as much ground as you can. If you experience torrential rains (which we did!), your children will still have some dry space to do crafts and read books
  • If you're car camping, consider purchasing a kitchen tent. It gives you some great space to cook, do crafts and play games, and if you keep it zipped up, will ward of the bugs!
  • Pack a huge tote full of markers, crayons, stickers, playdough etc. We brought this out every day, and the girls spent hours colouring and crafting.
  • Also consider packing sand toys, Kidnoculars (or just regular binoculars will do!), bikes, and containers for collecting leaves, rocks and other things kids love to pick up
  • Blowup mattresses are amazing - I know Thermarests are smaller and easier to pack, but blow-up mattresses make a huge difference for comfort.

Camping 7

 

My last piece of advice? Let go of control - yes, it will be messy. It will be dirty. You might be a bit tired (at least for the first couple of nights). But it's worth it. You'll have lovely campfires, see shooting stars, swim in a cool/clean lake, go for nature walks, and watch your children delight in the outdoors.

Our oldest started the trip complaining about the "stinky" toilets, being afraid of bugs, and getting upset over her feet being dirty. By the end of the week she was picking spiders off her legs and saying "oh, hello there Daddy long legs!" The transformation was amazing!

What are your tips for camping with young children?

Camping in Bon Echo: Part 1

My family loves to camp. Or maybe I should say my husband really loves to camp, and I sort of love it. I don't mind sleeping in a tent, and I'm happy outdoors as long as the bugs aren't too bad. But I have a terrible fear of bears, and feel uneasy in the wilderness. I know that I have a better chance dying in my automobile than dying at the jaws or paws of a bear, but there isn't much rational thinking that occurs when I'm imagining myself (or my girls) being eaten alive. Camping 1

Despite my reservations, I believe that camping is a fantastic activity for kids. Not only are they learning new skills and an appreciation of nature, but they're doing what kids do best - getting dirty and exploring the world!

So each year we plan a camping trip with good friends of ours, who also have two daughters around the same age as our daughters. This year we chose Bon Echo Provincial Park, about a 2.5 hour drive from Ottawa.

Camping 4

We reserved site #165, which is one of five walk-in sites at the Sawmill Bay campground on Mazinaw Lake. Bon Echo also has back country camping, cabins and yurts. 

Positives:

  • There's a lot to do with kids. We rented a canoe for 1 hour and went to check out the native pictographs on Mazinaw Rock. The park offered amazing kids programs every morning at 10am, and most evenings at their amphitheatre.
  • The beaches are sandy and clean. The girls spent many hours wading, swimming and building sand castles.
  • The walk-in sites are beautiful - rocky and treed, and right on the water. You could easily jump off the rocks at your site and go for a swim. The lake is the second-deepest in Southern Ontario.

Camping 3

Negatives:

  • For a walk-in site, I expected to have neighbours who had done a lot of camping and respected general camping rules. Nuh-uh, didn't happen. We ended up with several yahoos camping on either side of us - one couple lighting their fire with charcoal and starter fluid, another dragging giant logs and brush to burn, and a group of campers with no respect for quiet after dark (to give them credit, they weren't drinking or anything - they were just obnoxiously loud people. In fact, the following group at that site were the ones drinking and carrying on, and even they shut up at 11pm. I could have kissed them!)
  • Walk-in sites and young children don't really mix (but as another positive, I'm in really great shape after all that walking back and forth!)
  • Lack of policing from park rangers: our friends were staying in the main Sawmill campground, and had a horrible experience with drunken teenagers (or maybe they were 20...whatever). And in the walk-in campsites, we didn't see a single ranger in seven days. I realize funding is scarce, but I think a walk-through each evening is warranted.  I could have made the park a ton of money by handing out tickets for all the infractions I spotted
  • The park was BUSY. Although I appreciate the human bodies surrounding me (as protection from bears, of course!), my hubby and I could have done with a quieter experience. We camped Achray in 2012 and it was very peaceful.

Camping 2

Although my negatives seem to outweigh the positives, we still had a wonderful time. The girls had a blast with their little friends, and the giant tarp my husband rigged up over the campsite saved us from days of rain. We're already planning our trip next year, and need ideas. What are your favourite campgrounds for kids?

Oh, and no bears were spotted. That didn't stop me from having a 2am heart attack after I heard what I thought was a bear - it was just a really loud racoon :)

 

Daytripping – camping without the camping!

by Shawna Did you love to go camping as a kid? The day at the lake/swimming pool broken up by lunch at a brownish-red-painted picnic table under the trees, and treks along dusty, pine-scented paths to the local campground store for icy cold bottles of pop and dime freezies (that you could get by returning the bottles for the deposit)?

Now that you’re grown-up, and you know the adult hassles that come with camping – the packing of clothes for hot/cold/wet/sunny weather and water/non-water activities that may or may not involve hiking, the organizing of coolers to make sure everyone stays nourished and hydrated, the drive to and from potentially far-flung destinations, and the laundry that comes home with you, not to mention the difficulty of getting the kids (and yourself!) to sleep in an unfamiliar environment (often a tent that has to be put up and taken down at your campsite, then put up again to dry thoroughly once you’re home before being taken down again and packed away) – you may not relish the idea of camping as much, particularly when you only have a limited amount of days you can book off from work in a year. Camping can be doubly daunting when your kids are still in diapers, but are mobile and seem to lack any kind of self-preservation instinct that stops them from wandering off cliffs or straight into the lake.

If you are an intrepid soul that has no idea what I’m talking about because you think nothing of portaging your way into the middle of Algonquin park to take your triplet toddlers canoe-camping, you will likely want to skip this entry, but if you’re like me and the second paragraph sounds eerily familiar, this information may change your life: you can go to a campground for the day and not, you know, actually camp.

Just imagine it: no tents to erect, no camp dishes to haul out – you can get by with a cooler of drinks and sandwiches for one day – and you know what the weather will be like because you only need to hear the forecast for the day you go, so no packing of raingear. You tire out the kids and everyone sleeps in their own, welcoming bed at the end of the day.

A quick search of the internet has turned up a number of places with pools and/or freshwater beaches within an hour of Ottawa. Day admission fees seem to run about 10 to 12 bucks for a family of two adults and two kids, and swimming and use of casual recreation facilities are included.

For example (and these are just a few of many - check for yourself!), Sandy Mountain is only ½ hour from where I live in Barrhaven, and has both a large pool and wading pool, as well as a games room, a playground, and a place to buy ice cream. You can play horseshoes for free, or pay the extra fees to mini-putt or even full-on golf. (They don’t post prices for just the day because they don’t consider themselves to be a public pool, but they do have day rates if you ask.)

Wildwood is not much further, and I enjoyed many a weekend day in the pool there with my grandmother when I was a child (the pool there is better for older kids who can reach the bottom in the shallow end and/or swim well) though, alas, they now only allow non-campers during weekdays (Fridays only until noon) and only for 2 hour stints.  

On the July long weekend we’re meeting up with my in-laws a little further afield: Pleasure Park near Mallorytown, which has a water trampoline, a dock for swimming, and large playground.

I’m not saying you should never go on any overnight camping adventures – it’s a fantastic thing for kids to experience and worth the effort. But you don’t have to wait until that expedition to Kilimanjaro; while you’re doing all the planning for your Big Trip, you can sample the camping life with daytrips here and there. It’s cheap, it’s fun, it’s easy, and it’ll make memories that last. What could be better?

Shawna is mom to 4-year-old Sage and 2-year-old Harris.  She has  been writing online since 2003, and her latest project is a fledgling photography blog.  She never appreciated the work her parents had to do to take her camping until she had kids of her own.