Kirsten, Chris, Oliver, Soren, Kiera and Matteo

Kirsten, Chris, Oliver, Soren, Kiera and Matteo

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Family Camp

Friends invited us to join them on a trip to western Montana where family friends of theirs rent out a Methodist church camp for a week of "family camp". I've been hearing about their Montana trips for years and it sounded just like my kind of family vacation because Chris and I could get our kids into the wilderness without having to camp. I'm not opposed to sleeping in a tent and enjoyed it quite a bit as a young adult, but at this stage in my life with four young children, camping is too logistically-challenging.  However, in order to really experience remote parts of the U.S., you almost can't not camp. The compromise was a summer camp with cabins, beds, flush toilets, hot showers, a laundry room and a dining hall that served three meals a day. I was sold.
The challenge, though, was getting out there. Camp on the Boulder, deep in the Absarorka Beartooth Wilderness, is nearly 15 hours and 1,000 miles of driving, with the last 14 on a poorly-maintained dirt road.  That's two days of driving and a hotel stay in each direction.  I tried to psych myself up by calling it a "road trip" because this term brings up feelings of adventure and nostalgia. But as soon as I found out that Chris had nearly enough airlines miles to get the seven of us to Billings and back, (and that there were direct flights) I decided the great American road trip was overrated (at least if it involves young children).  So we flew - and it was wonderful.

We exited the airport in Billings, Montana and I remembered why the state has the nickname "Big Sky".  The sun beat down on us from a cloudless sky, which somehow really did look bigger than the sky back home in Minnesota. I couldn't wait to get out and see some of state.

We stopped at a coop grocery store in downtown Billings to have lunch and pick up some extra snacks for the week.  The cashier was friendly and chatty, so I told him we were from out of state and asked him what he liked most about Billings.  Without missing a beat, he replied, "Leaving."

At our next stop, Pictograph Cave State Park, I asked the park ranger if he had anything redeeming to say about Billings. He admitted the city is considered the "red-headed step-child of Montana" because of the oil refineries, but he very enthusiastically talked about the city and region's highlights, such as the the arts scene and all the outdoor recreation opportunities. In addition to all the good things to say about his home city, he raved about Minnesota's state park system and gushed about it being among the nation's top three (along with Maine and Montana).

Hiking the short loop trail at Pictograph Cave State Park.

The park was tiny, but it was the perfect spot to get a dose of sun shining down from Montana's big sky and some exercise before piling back in our rental car and making the nearly-three-hour drive west across the Montana plains and into the mountains.  Fourteen miles from our destination, the pavement of the county road abruptly turned to dirt, the Boulder River tumbled toward the Yellowstone River and the mountains appeared bigger and bigger as we bumped along towards camp.

A river literally runs through it.
We turned into camp kicking up a cloud of dust behind us. With the exception of the difference in scenery, it immediately reminded me of my summers at a YMCA camp in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey with its small cabins dotting the property, the dining hall, playing fields and an outdoor chapel.

After spending that first afternoon unpacking in our cabin, getting ourselves situated at camp and meeting everyone, we headed out on the trail the following morning right after breakfast.We joined our friends Kelly and Jim and their children for a hike that started a half a mile up the road from camp, where we crossed over the Boulder River and connected with the Placer Basin Trail in the Gallatin National Forest.
Heading out on our first hike of the week!

The hike turned difficult as soon as we left the road, but surprisingly, the kids were in great moods! I was a little nervous about how my inexperienced little hikers would do, but I think a bit of peer pressure in the form of Kelly and Jim's five-year-old daughter, Claire, kept them going.  The only time we heard any whining or complaining was when they weren't walking beside her.
One of my favorite places to the bring the kids to is the natural playground at the Tamarack Nature Center.  The kids loved this playground they found on the trail.
Kelly and Jim use a tactic Kelly's parents had used on the trail when she and her sisters were little and that was to bribe them with jelly beans to keep walking.  A generation later, us adults had jelly beans stashed in our packs (along with M&M's, Skittles and fruit snacks) and we doled those out during water breaks and whenever spirits started to lag.

The kids were slow making it up the steep trail, but remained steady even in the spots that were difficult for little legs to navigate.  We stopped for lunch at the Lookout, where we had a beautiful view of the Boulder River below.

Snack time for five of the kids, nap time for the sixth.
Kelly, Jim and their kids were our guides for the week at camp. 
I was so inspired by how well the kids were doing that I wanted to push ahead to the end of the trail, but I was out-voted by those who wanted to take advantage of the good moods, not by trying to go to the top, but by making it back down to the bottom while everyone was still in a good mood.  That was a good call because the last half of the descent was trying on everyone.

Matteo was so wiped out that he just didn't want to walk anymore, so I ended up having to use my pack as a make-shift Ergo and carry him down on my back.  I hoisted him up onto my back, where he clung to me like I was giving him a piggy-back ride, and then Celina helped me put my pack back on and when I fastened the waist belt, Matteo was able to sit on the waist belt where it met my pack.  I cinched my shoulder straps, which kept him snug against so I didn't have to worry about him tipping back.  He seemed so chill that I kept asking others if he had fallen asleep. I couldn't have hiked the whole way with him on my back, but the backpack Ergo was a heck of a lot more comfortable than carrying him any other way and I was thankful we were able to make it down the mountain and back to camp in a timely manner.
At the end of our hike, we stopped at the Boulder River to dip our feet in the water and cool off.  And cool off we did! I'd forgotten how cold mountain streams are!
At dinner it was clear that my kids were going to need a recovery day after their hike.  Celina offered to stay at camp with them the next day so that Chris and I could do a long and hard hike. We again tagged along with Kelly, Jim and their children, as well as Kelly's parents. I enjoy hiking with them because they always have great stories and they've hiked the trails around the camp so many times that they notice all of nature's influences on the landscape.

We hiked Meatrack Trail, which I thought was ironic given that I'm a vegetarian. Meanwhile, my meat-loving husband was secretly hoping he'd get a steak at the end of the trail. I learned that the Native Americans would hunt up in the mountains during the summer and would dry their game on racks, which is how the trail got its name.

I felt guilty about leaving our kids behind, and it's possibly the first time in my life that I was out of cellphone contact should an emergency arisen, but it was ultimately the right decision because the trail was tough!  Long sections of the trail consisted of switchbacks up the side of the canyon and it was very rocky. It was on this trail that I realized that hiking in Montana is like learning to ski in Switzerland - there are no easy trails.

While the hike was the most difficult one we did all week, it was my favorite. The scenery was gorgeous and completing a hike of that difficulty was physically rewarding.  We stopped for lunch along the Boulder River and could see the end of the Box Canyon and its majestic mountains looming before us. When I imagine Montana, this was one of those views.

After the hike up the Meatrack Trail, Chris and I needed a day off too. So Wednesday was our day to rest our legs and escape the heat to the air conditioning of our car.  Our destination was Big Timber, the nearest town, about an hour and a half away from the camp. 

Halfway to Big Timber, we stopped at the Natural Bridge Picnic Area, which has a beautiful waterfall on the Boulder River. After hiking up mountains, the trails, many of them paved or well-packed dirt, could barely be considered a hike, even for children.

The only reason our kids are smiling for the camera is because we promised them fruit snacks.

Celina, Chris, Oliver and Soren wanted to hike down to the waterfall, which was a very steep hike down. Unfortunately Soren got stung by some sort of Stinging Nettle as soon as he got to the bottom, so with barely a moment to take in the view, Chris hoisted a screaming, crying little boy into his arms and made the steep climb back up carrying an extra 35+ pounds.
Our first stop in Big Timber was The Fort so Chris could buy his fishing license. Our friends had described the truck stop as a small town's version of a very tiny Walmart. You could get anything you needed - or didn't need - there. Groceries, ammo, clothes, fishing gear, lots of kitschy art with the American flag and Bald Eagles, The Fort had it all. I picked up some bison jerky to add to the assortment of prizes for Thursday night bingo.

Some other treasures I found...
The rest of our time in Big Timber was low-key. We stopped for ice cream at an old-fashioned pharmacy with a soda fountain and then visited the Crazy Mountain Museum on our way out of town.

On the dirt road leading towards camp, we had a surprise bear sighting. Where we were in Montana is technically Grizzly and Black Bear country, but none of the regulars at camp had ever seen a Grizzly and Black Bear activity in the area is rare enough that the camp had open trash cans outdoors on the property.  Our bear sighting was brief and from inside the safety of our car, but was nonetheless exciting for everyone. 

We were back at camp with plenty of hours left in the day to relax and read a book, play on the playground or play board games in the dining hall. That's where Soren found his new favorite game, The Game of Life. 

When we arrived on Sunday, the week seemed to stretch endlessly in front of us, but by mid-week, I realized how little time we had. Our simple schedule of meals, hiking and lounging around camp had been deceiving - a week wasn't enough time to do all I had wanted to do.

Thursday arrived and I really wanted to get the kids back into the mountains. I learned that the only trail folks considered easy was the Bambi Trail, which traversed the ridge line overlooking camp. I was warned the trail was overgrown, but that it would otherwise be obvious where to follow the trail.

Overgrown was an understatement.  We bush-wacked our way through the first half of the trail and were never sure if we had found the trail, left the trail or had ever even been on the trail. We were excited to see a blue blaze, only to turn around and see blue "blazes" on multiple trees.  The markings weren't trail blazes after all, but most likely trees selected for chopping down.  I was relieved when we finally heard the roar of the Speculator Creek, because I knew once we arrived at the creek, we'd make a left and follow the "trail" up the creek. 

We stopped at the creek for a snack and I marveled at how lush this area of the mountain seemed compared with the arid landscape around camp.  Moss covered many of the rocks and tree stumps on the banks of the creek and I expected to see a gnome peak out from behind a tree.

Speculator Creek

Much of the trail was overgrown or covered in debris, like this section, which looked like a giant game of Pick Up Sticks.

Even though we were finally on what resembled a trail, the hike up the creek was a scramble as we climbed over lots of blown down trees and other debris.  We eventually found the turn off towards camp and after a little more bush-wacking, we spotted the roofs of the camp buildings. 

Later that night we participated in the camp's Thursday night bingo. The kids were so excited to try to win. Celina ended up being one of the first winners though! She picked out a cool memento from Montana. The kids eventually won and were overjoyed to finally have their chance to look over the prize table.

On our final day in Montana, Chris stayed behind with the kids so Celina and I could hike at our own pace. I was thankful I had this final hike with our wonderful au pair. Our trip to Montana was bittersweet because it marked the end of Celina's year with us. We would arrive back home in Minnesota on Saturday and Celina would leave us forever early Monday morning. But I had this last hike with her where we reminisced about her year amid the peace and quiet of the Montana mountains.
The mountains were just begging me to do a cheesy Sound of Music reenactment.
After all these years hearing about "family camp" in Montana, I'm glad we finally got to join Kelly and her family.  I can see why she loves that place. It truly is family camp. Our children had the freedom to roam and be kids with hours of unstructured time outdoors. Us adults had the camaraderie of other adults ranging from fellow parents of young children and as old as great-grand parents. Camp was like a small town where everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other. It had its own culture that we quickly acclimated to and everyone welcomed our large family with open arms.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


A former ECFE classmate of mine works for Visit St. Paul, who produced #mystpaul, a spoof on Adele's "Hello". The video plays up the rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul and showcases all there is to see and do in St. Paul (they are a tourism bureau after all) and watching it makes me giddy about my city. 

I love St. Paul, although I'm not from here.  I'm not even from Minnesota, although many people assume I am since I blend in rather well with a name like Kirsten and the long o's I find rolling out of my mouth.  I'm actually from New Jersey though and came to Minnesota over a decade ago to attend graduate school.  I settled in Uptown in Minneapolis because that's where one of the only two people I knew in the state at the time lived and because many university students lived in the neighborhood.

In those two years I fell in love with Minnesota and Minneapolis.  I could bus to school, walk to the grocery store and run every morning around one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.  I played soccer in a city league and met friends at bars and restaurants in my neighborhood.  I learned to cross-country ski in a city park with a view of downtown Minneapolis. By the time graduation arrived, I already had lots of friends, a full-time job and no interest in leaving Minnesota or even Minneapolis.

I tried to buy a house in my adopted city.  At the time I was frustrated that I couldn't afford even a condo on my government-wage income, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That's because shortly after my house search stalled out, I met Chris, and a year and a half later, he finished school in Duluth and planned to move down to the Twin Cities for his new job. My apartment, or anywhere in Minneapolis for that matter, was too far of a commute for him.  Our compromise was to find a new place that was in between both our jobs and that meant moving to St. Paul.

I considered St. Paul Minneapolis' sleepy twin. It didn't have the vibrancy I thought Minneapolis had and so little drew me to the capital city that I rarely ventured across the river. I was as loyal to Minneapolis as my friends who had been born and raised there. I moved because I loved Chris, but I felt like I was leaving a part of my heart behind in Minneapolis.

Fast forward nine years and my Minneapolis friends still tease me about living in St. Paul, but I'm proud to say that my loyalty now lies on the other side of the river. St. Paul is where my I'm raising my children. It's where my parenting community with ECFE, my kids' schools, and playground chats with other moms resides. It's where my brother-in-law and sister-in-law live two blocks away. It's where my neighbors let my kids play with their daughter's extensive Lego collection while they're away on vacation. It's where I work.  It's my St. Paul.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

4th of July

Our long 4th of July weekend was pretty low-key since Chris, Oliver and Soren were out of town. They went to the cabin, where they met their aunt and uncle and Watson, their Goldendoodle. A long weekend at the cabin included what you would expect - lots of family time and time spent on (or in) the water.
Both the boys really enjoy tubing, and Oliver tried waterskiing for the first time.  We learned that he's one really strong kid, and not because he got up on skis the first try, but because he didn't let go of the rope and instead held on for dear life as he was dragged across the water for 20 feet. That experience began and ended Oliver's attempt at waterskiing for the weekend.

Soren also wanted to give waterskiing a try, so Chris strapped the skis on his feet, but the thought of bobbing around in the water was too much for him and he decided trying the skis on in the water was good enough.  

Until the kids grow bigger and stronger for waterskiing, the pedal boat is more their speed.  Chris sat in the middle and Oliver and Soren did all the pedaling.  They don't move very fast, but I think they found satisfaction in making the boat go all by themselves.

A 4th of July tradition on Mule Lake, as well as I'm sure many lakes across Minnesota, is the boat parade. Every decks their boats, from pedals boats to pontoons, in red, white and blue and then makes a loop around the lake, waving to those on shore or on the docks.
Chris' Uncle Clyde visited a couple of times and took the boys fishing. Soren caught the biggest fish, a 10-inch Rock Bass, but he loses interest quickly and didn't fish anymore after that. Meanwhile, Oliver's persistence meant he caught the most fish of the group.
A throw-back picture (circa 2012) of Oliver catching his first fish!
Like their Grandma Nan, the boys like a good campfire.  Watson even helped Oliver hunt for sticks and once they got the fire going, they did their other favorite activity - making S'mores.  

The boys were able to share a twin bed, which is convenient for a cabin short of bedrooms and bed space.  Unfortunately, this is probably the last summer they'll be able to do that since Oliver is getting too big.  Chris checked on them one evening and Oliver's feet were shoved in Soren's face with a big toe angling precariously towards Soren's nose.
I stayed back in St. Paul with Kiera and Matteo where we enjoyed a mostly quiet weekend. The weather was so nice - sunny, but not too hot or humid - and we spent a lot of time outside.

It wasn't all fun though.  Did you know there are dentists in the Twin Cities open 365 days a year?  I didn't know either until Matteo cracked a tooth and I desperately searched for an alternative to the ER. Once Matteo's tooth was fixed though, he was back to his old self before the Lidocaine wore off and we resumed our weekend.

While the days were nice, the late evenings were tiring and we didn't even go anywhere, not even to a late night fireworks display.  Instead the fireworks came to us. For three nights in a row, it sounded like fireworks were being set off in our backyard. I realized that they were being set off in the park across the alley from us. Kiera slept with her noise-cancellation headphones on every night.

I eventually adopted a "If you can't beat them, join them" attitude and lounged in my bed and watched the fireworks shoot over the trees in the park. I was still excited that a big storm rolled in tonight.  Even with the thunder, I predict a better night's sleep.
It was a little tough getting up early on the morning of the 4th of July, but it was worth it once we were out in the strawberry patch picking the last of Minnesota's strawberry crop. We lucked out with beautiful weather and enjoyed sitting in the sun even after we'd finished gorging ourselves on berries.