With summer in full swing, many of us are eagerly anticipating family vacations. As diverse as our region and residents are, traveling seems to be the universal tonic that allows us all to tolerate the remaining 50 weeks of turmoil. Whether you’re taking a weekend camping trip to the Smokies or embarking on an adventurous, month-long family road odyssey, these tips from experienced adventurers might prove indispensable.
Think like a child
Put yourself in your child’s shoes when considering traveling with kids, suggests Katy Polombi, the outdoor-program coordinator for Asheville Parks and Recreation.
“Don’t be afraid to act silly and stupid to keep them entertained,” says Polombi, who directs year-round, outdoor-recreation programs for kids and adults.
“Whenever I’m leading children along a trail, we always take a lot of breaks,” she continues. “For the younger groups, we pace it with the slowest person in the group so that everyone has a good experience.” A child’s first encounter with the outdoors is rife with potential, both positive and negative: “Keep it fun, entertaining and start slow,” Polombi suggests.
Don’t drop your bag of tricks
Sooner or later, on any trip, someone gets whiny, hungry, tired, sick, or simply bored — Polombi observes this behavior whether she’s working with eight-year-olds or leading overnight trips with adults to Mt. LeConte. “I try to always have a bag of tricks to keep folks entertained. Slack time or downtime can be disastrous,” she laughs.
Cyclist Lani Anderson agrees, admitting that his wife, Pegi O’Hagan, is the more-creative spouse when it comes to child-pleasing strategies. “I’m pretty good about taking breaks and saving candy for midday treats,” he says, “but Pegi always pulls through with special ideas.”
The Anderson clan spent two weeks together in 1999 touring the state on bikes with the inaugural NC Bike Tour. O’Hagan brought along books-on-tape for the couple’s daughter, Maggee, on the 770-mile tour. Anderson captained the odyssey, and third-grader Maggee listened to The Yearling and Old Yeller as the family pedaled across mountains, cycled in the rain, and fought dreaded headwinds along the coast.
Ultimately, however, Anderson came up with the most imaginative diversion: “We’d make it a point to stop at cemeteries along the way,” he says. “It was always interesting to see some of the dates engraved in the tombstones, and observe the family plots.”
Flexibility equals peace of mind
Cemeteries have provided the ideal remedy for some of my own family outings. On a recent weekend trip to Tybee Island, Ga., a wicked nor’easter tried its best to disrupt my family’s plan for beachcombing. Our go-with-the-flow alternative was a morning stroll through historic Bonaventure Cemetery in nearby Savannah. More than 100 years ago, the young naturalist John Muir nested among the tombs of Bonaventure while traveling along his thousand-mile walk to the sea. Muir journaled, “Bonaventure to me is one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant creatures I ever met — never since I was allowed to walk the woods have I found so impressive a company of trees.”
“Planning is everything,” says Polombi, who coordinates a variety of outdoor-recreation programs, including the popular Treks for Parents and Tots. She recommends thoroughly researching a trip via maps, the Internet, and accounts from folks who’ve taken similar trips. When considering a new program, the outdoor specialist scouts out the terrain and researches safety issues — including accessibility — and permits. With younger participants, Polombi selects a trail that’s not too long or steep. In some instances, she looks for a groomed trail where even a baby stroller might work.
Let the kids call the shots
Tom Pulliam of Black Mountain suggests backing off sometimes and letting the kids run the show. Earlier this year, Pulliam and his two daughters, Min, 16, and Emma, 11, spent a week on a guided paddling trip in the Everglades. The trip was organized by The American Adventure Service Corps (TAASK), based out of Black Mountain and Morganton. “It was a bit more that I bargained for,” Pulliam admits. “We didn’t touch land for the first 50 hours. Each canoe carried boards that we carefully orchestrated into camping platforms for us to sleep on.”
During the trip, the kids were in charge of planning menus, cooking and cleaning up. They used compasses and charts to navigate the challenging, meandering waters of the Everglades. “Part of the experience was designed for adults to parent less and let the kids run the program,” Pulliam explains. He confesses there were times they took longer routes than necessary, but the end result was increased confidence and skill for his kids.
Act their age
Another trick outdoor leaders learn is matching activities with appropriate age groups. “An easy mountain-bike ride for a 12-year-old might be pushing it for a younger rider,” explains Polombi, who goes on to suggest whitewater-rafting trips for teenagers.
For adventurous parents, adjustments can be as subtle as an unscheduled snack break to a complete change in environment. A few years back, we paddled coastal South Carolina’s Edisto River with another family. The experience — praised as tranquil and scenic by the adults — was condemned as boring, “captive” canoeing by our nine-year-olds. My friend Doug redirected the kids’ downward-spiraling morale, quickly deciding to take a break from the river to spend the next day sightseeing in nearby Charleston. We resumed our journey down the blackwater river without missing a beat, thereby avoiding a potential “campers’ sabotage” from our kids.