It seemed like a good idea at the time, taking the kids winter camping for their dad’s birthday. I figured he would really appreciate waking up in the woods on his special day.
He did, but the kids were another story.
“My feeeeet are cooooold!” my 5-year-old cried as he biked along the Davidson River near our campsite. Lecturing him yet again about keeping his feet dry, I stripped the cold, wet sneakers and socks off his feet. I rubbed his blue toes, blew on them till they were warm and then put my own wool socks on his feet. Sticking my bare feet back into my hiking boots, I silently cursed the clothing industry for making it so hard to find fleece and wool socks in small sizes.
In the meantime, our 9-month-old—snuggled in a backpack—started shrieking. His beautiful, hand-knitted hat had once again spun around on his head, and the tassel was hanging down over his face like the nose guard on a Viking helmet.
My girlfriend’s 7- and 9-year-olds bounced around without coats, oblivious both to the cold and to their mother’s attempts to keep them dressed. Despite our warnings about the dangers of a frozen river and our insistence that the agenda did not include a frigid river rescue, the boys continued to venture out to the edge and beat at the frozen chunks with their “light sabers” (aka large sticks).
Meanwhile the birthday dad was ushered off for a mountain-bike ride, so that on his return he’d be greeted by a roaring fire, enchiladas simmering in the Dutch oven, a cold beer and a tent ready for bedtime. The boisterous boys ripped around the deserted campground on their bikes, swooping through the empty loops and down to the river. But the only thing the fleece-swathed baby could do was squirm around on the tarp: I had wrapped him in six layers, crowned by a large pair of fleece overalls lashed together with rubber bands beneath his feet. The limited mobility kept him out of trouble long enough for us women to set up camp.
It was downright cold, driving us to light a fire and huddle in close. We hunkered down until our hot meal was done, and as the sun sank, so did the temperature. Still, it was difficult to tear the boys away from their obsession with the fire and their constant battling over the same most excellent stick.
“Do NOT swing the large stick around the campground—especially when it’s on fire.” “I’m cold!” “Put on your coat.” “I’m cold.” “Run around then.” “Hey, Mom, look at me in the tree!” “Tell Vito to give me my stick back.” And a broken-record refrain of the perennial No. 1 kid question: “Why?”
Bellies full and hands sufficiently coated with a layer of marshmallows and dirt, the boys had to be lured inside with promises of a down-filled bed in the pop-up camper … and a Star Wars movie. I never thought television belonged in the woods—till now.
What a relief. With the boys entertained, adult conversation could proceed uninterrupted.
Soon the baby was fast asleep in my arms; I tiptoed to the tent to snuggle him into bed. He awoke screaming, and I returned to the fire, sleeping bag in tow, figuring we could doze together in the warmth. We were as close to the fire as we could get when the snow began falling, silently coating us. The other adults hopped on the kids’ bikes, rediscovering the joy of leaving tire tracks in the snow and skidding through the turns. Happily, they stopped before anyone got hurt.
When it was time for bed, they carried baby and me into our tent, where he began a pattern of sleeping for 20 minutes, waking to scream bloody murder, then dozing off again. I checked his hands and found them warm; I reached inside his clothes and found his belly warm. He was just mad.
But clearly, this kid is no dummy. Around 3 a.m., after nursing for probably eight hours straight, he let loose a string of what led me to believe his diaper would need to be changed. That’s when I realized there was absolutely no way I was going to strip this baby naked in the cold. Groping for the car keys, I kissed daddy happy birthday and had the baby in his own warm crib by 4 a.m.
Bettina Freese lives in Asheville.