Over the weekend I took my three-year old son camping at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park in central Virginia. At a young age, my parents exposed me to this wonderful place and I have returned several times per year for as long as I can remember. It was only fitting to me that this would be my son's first overnight trip in the park as I wanted to start the tradition early and impress upon him the importance, fun, and beauty that only the outdoors could provide.
Initially I interpreted my own actions to be equal to brain-washing, a practice utilized by most parents in one way or another as they try to shape their children to the people they want them to be. Much like with my favorite NFL team who hasn't been a real contender in nearly two decades and yet my children both wear t-shirts and hats bearing their logo, I wanted my children to love the outdoors as I do. Fortunately, the outdoors has a way of enticing young and old without much effort. The drive up Skyline Drive, known for its expansive vistas into the valley's below, was enough for my son to start remarking how "pretty" the view was or how "cool" it was to see farms far off in the distance. His positive comments continued when we arrived to camp with every passing deer or with general camp activities. By the time he was barefoot, stuffing s'mores in his face, getting memorized by the fire, or tackling me as I tried to sleep in our tent, I was pretty sure he was hooked.
The campsite I selected for this outing was one that I am all too familiar with and consider it to be one of the best in the park. It's a deep walk-in site which opens up to a field of oak trees which really no other site offers. The site is as secluded as it could possibly be for a public campground which proved to be worthy of this designation even during the peak season of October which packs the entire park with leaf-peeping tourists.
Oddly enough, it was the site itself that proved to be the most entertaining. At a young 3-years old, my son wasn't about to "hike" in any real sense, so our entertainment needed to come from the area surrounding our tent. I brought a soccer ball, his velcro baseball glove, several kid books, and plenty of food that neither he nor I should eat should we desire to be anything less than a sphere in our old age - yet keeps a 3-year old's interest quite well. Fortunately, entertainment was quite easy to come by without all the stuff I brought from home.
Throughout our time, especially during the night, we were visited by an endless amount of wildlife. I had a point-and-shoot camera with me which did nothing more than capture darkness when the sun was anything but high in the sky, so I have little tangible evidence of the remarkable nature encountered of our trip. Deer were as close as 1 foot to our tent at any given time often doing little more than crunching away on acorns as I had casual conversations with them explaining to them that my son and I were trying to sleep. We had a visiting owl who apparently felt the need to be quite conversational. We had a fox who used the area as his personal racetrack and and endless number of chipmunks who proved to be terribly illusive to my son who otherwise had never seen one before and did his best to capture one to hold it still long enough to have a good look at it. Coupled with a strong variety of birds, leaves of every shape, size, and color, and the comedy routine of me trying to cook kid foods over a fire and grill (lightweight cooking is so much more simple folks), my son didn't lack for entertainment.
Probably one of my personal favorite moments, although disturbing in the middle of the night, was when two small bucks decided to test their antlers against one another. This practice first started next to my tent in the middle of the night and then progressed to no more than 50 feet away once the sun came up.
Funny enough, I was amazed at how un-scared and un-bothered my son was with all the new things around him. He didn't care that he was sleeping outside and actually considered it to be quite fun. He didn't care that animals were making noise all night or that bugs made themselves known every now and then. Simply, he was camping and enjoying himself which was an experience I hope he continues to embrace in the future. I know I will and I look forward to the time when he is able to carry his own backpack, hike for more than a run around the campsite, and participate in the greater wilderness experience.
Regardless of the age of a child, whether wholly dependent on their parents or knee-deep with their own family, I think camping and outdoor experiences can't help but offer unique and memorable experiences that should be sought throughout a lifetime. It is more entertaining than any TV show or movie and fills volumes of dialogue with no verbal communication whatsoever.
Upon returning home, my son filled my wife with stories of what he saw and things we did. Before bedtime, unprompted by anyone, he grabbed several pillows and a couple blankets and organized them in our living room into what he described as his "tent". He then told me he wanted to sleep in our backyard tent at some point this week. Calling him "my little camping buddy" seemed to be plenty fine by him too and he seems to be a little more loving and happy since we returned.
One last thing worth mentioning which I say for young parents in a similar situation - at 2am while snuggled under warm blankets and sandwiched between cheap sleeping bags suitable for a kid, there is a huge difference between "I think I peed my pants" and "I peed my pants". Fortunately for us, it was the former.