Saturday, June 27, 2009

Camping with Children: The Basics

With summer's warm days and late twilights, it's clearly time to think about going camping. Not only is camping it the cheapest vacation option (from $10 to $25/site/night depending on facilities), but as Mindful Mama's Karen Werner reminds us, camping is also eco-chic, meaning good for the planet.

I polled a group of Citymommy members to learn about their camping tips and avid campers responded with enthusiasm. Where to start? First, let's dismiss a few misunderstandings.

What is car camping? Let's face it, car camping and camping and nearly synonymous in the West. Hike-in, kayak-in, ride-in, bicycle-in, wheelbarrow-in camp sites are the exception. What that means is that you can pull up to your camp site with your car, unload a few yards away from where you will pitch your tent, and basically gravitate around your car as you go around your camping business. Car camping does not mean you get to overnight in your car - someone asked me. And if you are going backpacking, you might as well stop reading here. Car camping is just that: getting to your campsite in a car.

What's the best age for children? I've read that children under two years of age were not such a good idea for camping. Why? I can't be sure. According to my experience, there's no such thing as a minimum age for camping. Camping will work great whenever you are ready. Children do fine in most circumstances - it's parents who stress out. Our girls went camping as early as five weeks old. To get children excited about camping, get the animated movie called "Into the Great Outdoors." It's produced by Stephanie Rach-Wilson, a mother of two, and it's great educational material to teach children the ropes of respecting and enjoying the outdoors.

What are the best sleeping arrangements? Breastfed infants can sleep with mom inside the sleeping bag, even if that means not much of a good night's sleep for mom (except if you can join two adult-size sleeping bags and get room to move around). When children are bigger but not ready for a child's sleeping bag yet (say, up to age 2), they can sleep bundled up inside a pack'n play inside the tent. Yes, you read right. When with children, get a tent that your friends can call "the castle." Turrets and moat optional. A big family tent, that is. Big enough that you can walk around in it and set up a pack'n play. Believe me when it's cold outside or raining, you'll appreciate the extra tent room. During the day, you can move the pack'n play underneath a tree for Junior's nap or play time, or you can get some needed rest when you're preparing meals. And then one day your children are big enough for their own sleeping bag and you can proudly take them buy their big kid sleeping bag. Now's not the time to count your pennies. Nothing like a cold night to make someone crabby. Invest in a good quality sleeping bag that sustains +30 to +20 temperatures.

Should you go with friends? Yes, by all means. Camping is as much a community as a back-to-nature activity. As much as we can, we go camping with friends. Even if we don't do the same activity during the day (say, if they don't have children or diverging interests), we love spending the evening together around the campfire. My husband brings his guitar, children get to stay up until the first star shows up in the night sky, and we get to spend a lot of time catching up on each other's lives with a glass of wine. Plus, if your friends have children, theirs and yours can play together. I never worry when I know my kids are playing hide-and-seek in the campground close to us. It's like that old neighborhood feeling, except in the great outdoors. Just watch out for poison oak if you are in coastal areas - long sleeved shirts and pants de rigueur.

What should you not forget? Well, aside from the obvious (your camping stove - it's happened to us), there are a few items that make life a lot easier when camping.

- a plastic basin: to wash & rinse your dishes,

- a big bucket or plastic bin: if there are no showers around, you can fill a big bucket with cold water, boil two big pots full of water, and give a lukewarm "bath" to your children before bedtime. We usually set the tub on a tarp so that they don't have to step out on the dirt to get into their pajamas.

- flashlights, lanterns and glow lights: crazy, I know, but kids don't glow in the dark. So if you want to find yours when it gets pitch black, get them a cute flashlight at your local hardware store, or a lantern with a handle, attach it to a lanyard and let them walk around with their personal light. Glow tubes are sort of a not-so-great option because they don't last more than one night before going to the landfill. Golden environmental sticker to hand-cranked flashlights and lanterns. No batteries, minimal effort and great results.

- a child carrier: if you're going hiking, it's always easier to pick up a child than to cut a hike short.

- a roll of paper towels: you never know when you might have to clean up a mess. Wipes can be used too but they're usually loaded with chemicals so I don't like to use them.

- tweezers: first, ticks do exist in California. Here is all you need to know about ticks and Lyme disease by Tom Stienstra from his book Moon Outdoors Northern California Camping. Also, picnic tables can shed splinters.

- the S'mores set: Graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate bars. No need to explain why forgetting that part would be disastrous on the morale of the young troups.

- bug boxes: bug boxes are usually found at ranger stations or naturalist stores and allow children to admire smal living animals without hurting them, before releasing them into the wild.

- a portable potty: if you have children under 5 and you don't look forward to a late-night dash to the cabin in the woods, bring a smallish potty and TP.

- bring plenty of layers: that goes for kids and adults. You experience whatever temperature is out there. No fan, no space heater. Never underestimate evening temperatures in the sierras.

- a travel hammock: superlight and sturdy, these can be extremely useful ... and relaxing.

Ranger programs? Ranger programs are the quintessential vacation treat. Says Debbie Abrams from Frisco Kids, "some parks have junior ranger programs where you can drop your kids off for an hour or two. Of course there are also evening programs - they work better for the older set (starting around 6). And national parks have workbooks for the kids where they can earn junior ranger badges or something like that, if they complete them."

As a matter of fact, our girls became respectively Junior Ranger and Little Cub at the Yosemite National Park last year when they were only 3 and 5. Even if they were not quite old enough for this, the ranger was super nice and made a big deal out of it at the ranger station, announcing it to everybody and making my 5-year-old swear the junior ranger path, before awarding the coveted golden badge. Everybody clapped and cheered and my girls still talk about it.

Now enjoy the great outdoors and check back here soon for the best camping spots in Northern California.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Urbia: A Nature Hike with an Urban Flair

Last week, my good friend Susan Silber from Safe Routes to School Transform introduced me by email to Damien Raffa. Together with Barbara Corff, Damien co-founded Urbia Adventure League, an outdoor treasure hunt that rolled out last weekend.

On Saturday June 13, at the foot of the 16th avenue & Moraga mosaic stairs, Damien and his Urbia partners handed out more than 50 adventure packets entitled Islands in the Sky to San Francisco families. "At our adventure starting station," he says, "families warmed up their senses by smelling yerba buena (and tasting some homemade yerba buena tea), the tiny native mint that San Francisco was originally named after."

In a nutshell, Urbia is a way to discover San Francisco through a nature lens - and most likely neighborhoods you knew nothing about before. Urbia is based on the concept of questing - also called letterboxing in England - a variation on outdoors treasure hunts. Thirteen years ago, Damien took a workshop on this form of community involvement, particularly popular in New England.

People received by mail instructions for an outdoors activity including solving riddles, orienting yourself and finding clues. At the end of the itinerary, there might have been a box with a stamp that people used to stamp their booklet.

Says Damien, if you want to connect San Franciscans with nature, you have to make it a fun game. Currently naturalist at the Presidio Trust, Damien knows a thing or two about nature. Urbia was born.

I particularly like the idea of receiving an enveloppe with a mystery to solve in the mail, as my mailbox now only shelters invoices, publications and unwanted ads. It's the tragedy of the digital age, says Damien.

Intrigued by the idea, I asked him if I could "test run" the hike with four little girls from 4 to 6 years of age last Thursday. Obliging, he met me at the bottom of the stairs with a booklet for each little girl and short Urbia pencils with erasers. Off to a great start.

We opened the booklets and began by taking some notes for the exploration: date, starting time, weather, visibility (a must in San Francisco...), air temperature, team members and team name. On our route, we searched for sea stars made out of tiles, a red lfire alarm box, San Francisco's highest dune and rocky outcrops looking like layers of cake.

The girls' attention was piqued when we stopped to identify coast buckwheat, beach strawberry (not in bloom so trickier to tell) and yellow tree lupines - three plants that attract pollinators such as butterflies and bees.

This planted dune is part of the Green Hairstreak Corridor, a project to bring back a butterfly called the green hairstreak the size of a nickel. Expert at camouflaging itself amongst green plants, the green hairstreak has lost most of its habitat to land development. Hence the idea of re-planting San Francisco's hillsides with the appropriate vegetation.

On the green hairstreak note, we have a fun anecdote. In the booklet you're supposed to ask people you encounter if they've ever seen a green butterfly in their neighborhood. All four people we asked had been living in that neighborhood for a long time. None had ever seen that sneaky butterfly! Oh dear.

On with the hike. At the bottom of the booklet's page 8 are four words that made the entire hike worth the effort for the children: "Find the tree swing." What a swing! Part of Golden Gate Heights Park, the swing hangs from a tall cedar (?) tree and can comfortably accomodate two or three young children. Because of the heighth from which it is suspended, the pendulum effect is quite impressive and the experience exhilarating. Now, try to tear away four little girls from that tree swing... It takes a lot of persuasion.

The last part of the hike took us on a view of San Francisco I never dreamed existed. Since my camera does not shoot panoramic pictures, this is only one slice of it with the long green stretch of the Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin in the distance. To my right was the Bay Bridge hiding behind Treasure Island. If not for a powerful wind, I would have stayed there longer. Alas, all good things have an end.

We closed the loop and got back in the car, already excited about Urbia's next adventure. As a Russian Hill mother said last Saturday to Damien, "we often try to have an outdoor experience with guidebooks and they are too adult-oriented. This is perfect for our kids." True - and older children will appreciate the full flavor of snipets of local geology and environmental education.

Another Urbia event will be planned in the same neighborhood on June 27, 2009 from 10am to noon. Look for it here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cherry Picking In Brentwood

In case you haven't heard, the season for cherries is now. Bing cherries, Rainier cherries, Brooks cherries; there are more cherries than you ever dreamed of just 60 miles east of San Francisco. Hundreds of trees literally loaded with jewel-like shiny plump and juicy ruby fruits.

The Brentwood farmers are well organized and their great website references all the surrounding farms growing cherries (amongst 45 products) with description of the farm settings and "u-pick" options.

Based on recommendations, we took the 1.5 hour drive through golden hills already burned by the sun, fields of wind farms and silver ribbon of winding roads to get to Brentwood. Once there, it's like an oasis in the desert. Somewhere you can't help marveling at the wonders of irrigation. Green orchards all around, and more "Cherries" signs on the roadside than anywhere else I've been.

I fancied Rainier cherries (the whitish variety) so we headed to Pomeroy Farm. Much in the fashion of Half Moon Bay's pumpkin patches, Brentwoods orchards are close to one another and all grow the same fruit (more or less) so there's a lot of choice for families.

At the entrance, we signed a paper promising not to let the kids climb on ladders and to pay for a mimimum of five lbs of cherries ($2/lb) when exiting. We picked a galvanized metal bucket (with handy hook to hang from your picking branch) but our girls preferred to drag along the wicker baskets we brought from home. I bet they felt like the little red riding cherry-picking hood.

Since there were so many cars parked outside, I thought we would need to walk miles before finding a half-eaten fruit on the trees but lo and behold, we found some right in the second row. Sweet. The nice part, for people like us with little (read "short") children, is that most of the trees have low-hanging branches that make for scandalously easy picking at junior level.

Part of the fun is also getting to the highest branches for the "right" cherries and for this, we proceeded with a little imagination and a great team effort. We said kids wouldn't climb on ladders - yes - but we didn't countersign that they wouldn't climb on their parents' shoulders! One on my shoulders, the other one holding the basket, they thought it was great.

Before we brought our girls to the cherry farm, it's fair to say they were not cherry enthusiasts. They wouldn't try one if we bought a pound at our local market. However when in the orchard, I encouraged them to taste one cherry from each tree to find just the right flavor. That was genius, man. They got totally hooked and soon were reviewing sweetness, acidity and texture of the different fruits tasted, hurrying from one tree to the next and offering us better halves.

In less than an hour, we gathered 8 lbs of cherries. Ironically, the Rainier cherries, the very reason I chose Pomeroy Farm, were not quite ready yet. So we ended up bringing back home only red cherries. Plus, the Pomeroy Farm is a former walnut orchard and they still sell walnuts grown on the farm. They were simply delicious and I'm glad we brought back two bags.

Now. What do you do with 8 lbs of cherries? As my father always poetically says, eating too many cherries will have quick effects on your digestive tract. Thanks Papa for the reminder, but let's not forget cherries are loaded with all sorts of antioxydants.

The real answer to my question is a cherry clafoutis. In France there's only one recipe that rhymes with cherries as sure as wine rhymes with cheese, it's cherry clafoutis. Think of it as a thick pancake with cherries baked in the oven and dusted with icing sugar.

I won't post a link to the two cherry clafoutis recipes on because one offers to eat it with vanilla ice cream and the other one includes cinnamon in the recipe, which are both borderline criminal.

I took my recipe from Les Douceurs de l'Enfance, a lip-smacking book with artistic photos of French childhood favorites. However since not everybody reads French, the next best recipe was this one (with metric weight measures) or this one as a strawberry variation that Clotilde Dusoulier from the Chocolate & Zucchini food blog wrote for NPR's Kitchen Window. Enjoy!

As for me, I know I'll be driving on the same road this summer to pick some nectarines, apricots and peaches. Can't wait, apricots were already starting to blush!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tosca at the Ball Park

"What's more telling of opera than a hotdog?" That's how my friend John greeted me as I returned from the concessions stand with three hotdogs at San Francisco's ATT&T Park for the Tosca Simulcast. Tosca, one of the most celebrated operas, was transmitted live from the War Memorial House at the Ball Park on a 103-feet long HDTV screen.

Free opera for the masses, what a fantastic initiative! Opera should not be reserved to the few who can afford the cost of full-staged production with orchestra at an opera house. If opera wants to live on, it also needs to go to the streets just as opera arias did when people sang "Va' pensiero" at Verdi's funeral. These composers were rock stars then.

Their music is still as beautiful today and should not become extinct for financial reasons. That's why the Ball Park is such an appropriate place for opera simulcasts. The performance is free. And ... you can get your beer, popcorn and hotdog all while listening to beautiful music that transcends centuries and countries. Plus, the Ball Park has a few interesting twists sure to appeal to the non-opera crowd.

As free coded ticket holders, we got in half an hour early and spread our blanket on the lawn for our picnic. The children very much loved that.

Before the performance, everybody rose to sing The Star Spangled Banner. I was in the hot dog line then and grinned from ear to ear as people walked by with their hand on their heart.

At the intermission, we were treated to a rendering of "Take Me Out To The Opera" where everybody sang the words based on the famous baseball song. The best part, however, was how much people were involved in the story.

In theory, it's not a setting everybody can relate to. Rome, turn of the 20th century, a celebrated opera singer, a mean police officer, an artist on the run, the gallows ready. But hey, love is universal. So is injustice. Never before have I seen people cheer and clap so wildly at a woman stabbing an oppressor on stage. In the exit line, a young guy went "Man, did you see how she got him? Not once but twice, even in the back!" That's the kind of reaction opera should trigger. It means it's very much alive.

Now do yourself a favor and don't forget to sign up for the next Simulcast on September 19. It's going to be Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

From Bothe-Napa Valley to the Bale Grist Mill

Eleven miles south of Chateau Montelena, the winery that put Californian wines on the map with the 1976 Judgment of Paris - romanticized in the Hollywood blockbuster Bottle Shock - lies the sole survivor of Napa Valley's past as the Golden Valley: the Bale Grist Mill. Before the Napa Valley churned profit from red and white liquid gold, grain farming was the main crop in the valley. Along with fields of grain came a tradition of milling. That was 1846, three years before John Marshall kicked off the Gold Rush.

As we were camping at the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, we went from Bothe-Napa to the Bale Grist Mill by way of land. Passing by the park's spring-fed swimming pool, we veered on the History Trail and stopped at the 1850s pioneer cemetery.

Beneath a hill of rustling wild oats and rattlesnake grass, members of the Tucker, Cole, Kellog and other families lay low in the ground. We entered the white-fenced rectangular plot and looked at the stones. "This one was a baby," I said. And I read the name and age of the departed: Ida A. Hoover, one year, three months and four days, May 1869 - August 1870. Our children looked down in disbelief. One hundred and thirty years later, from then to now. It was a special moment.

We continued our way up the hill to the ridge before descending through an oak canyon traversed by dry river beds. Along this moderate 1.2 mile hike, we did not meet a single soul and our little ones played hide-and-seek in the descending portions of the trail.

As we finally arrived at the Bale Grist Mill, remains of ditches and ponds told the silent story of the once lively mill.

According to the ranger on duty last Sunday, there used to be 18 mills from Santa Cruz to Napa. I think he meant only grist mills as there were for sure a lot of sawmills - take Sutter's Mill up in Coloma or the "Old Mill" that gave its name to the Bay Area town of Mill Valley, they were sawmills. Anyhow, the Bale Grist Mill is now the only surviving historic mill of its kind in California.

Constructed by Dr. Edward Bale in 1846 and maintained after his death by his wife Maria, the grist mill featured a 36-feet high water-wheel using the diverted waters of Mill Creek through an aerial flume system. The system is still in place and every single weekend, rangers in costumes operate the machinery.

Inside the mill, our children got to follow the grinding process from grain to meal. As Eric the ranger took ears of dried corn in his hands, the children gathered round. They each got an ear of corn and fed it through a hand-cranked machine that separates the kernels from the ear in seconds.

After that, Eric lifted a trap door in the floor and uncovered the cogs turning below the building. He then showed the big round grinding stones coming from a Parisian quarry (now supposedly underneath Disneyland Paris' parking lot) and prepared the children for the water wheel.

Before the giant wheel was set in motion, the creaky noise of chains pulling, the smooth sound of belts sliding and the gurgle of water flowing filled the buildin and the surrounding grounds. At full force, it must have been a defeaning noise.

The childen ran outside and watched in awe. Big machines are beautiful things. That day they were grinding corn for polenta. In paper sacks on a table were other types of flour ground on site: spelt, whole wheat pastry, whole wheat bread, rye, cornmeal and polenta. The children got to pass around wooden ladles of grain before and after grinding. It was great.

After the demonstration, we took a sack of polenta back for the evening meal. At the campground, our friend Klas obliged by following Miller George's Polenta recipe and the Napa Valley grinding experience came full circle accompanied by bottles of wine from the nearby Summers Estate Wines.

Who knew Napa Valley had a past behind the bottle?