I paid for everything described in this post at my own expense and nobody at the Olympic Park Institute knew that I would be blogging my experiences.
It will either be a complete disaster or one of the kids favorite trips ever, I told my husband as I mailed off the check that would let us spend Memorial Day Weekend at the Olympic Park Institute's (OPI) Family Camp in the Olympic National Park.
The Family Camp concept is new to me. It's sort of like a summer camp, where you stay in the sorts of cabins that you remember from your own summer sleep-away camps, but with your entire family. Counselors (called Educators at OPI) are on hand to lead activities. Meals are served in a communal dining room, and showers? Just like you remember, they're in a separate building.
Family Camp seemed like a nice way for us to ease into camping with the kids. Ever since our trip to the Mar Vista Cottages in Mendocino, CA, when Everest and Darya cried as we packed them in the car, I've known that we needed to bring our kids out into nature more. While I'm happiest curled up with a book and a cup of hot chocolate, the kids crave the outdoors. Running in the grass, looking at bugs, and checking out animals seems to fuel them.
This is the first year that OPI has run family camps in the Olympic National Park, but the educators have been working all year (and some of them for many years) with school age kids, who come out for several days or even a week, to learn more about the rainforest.
I suspect that I come across as very confident about traveling with my young kids, but the truth is that I worry non-stop before every trip, and this trip gave me more gray hairs than most. What would the cabins be like? Would the scheduled activities be too demanding for our young kids? Would the kids deign to eat the food? Would I? But most of all - what would happen if E or D needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night?
The first surprise for us were the cabins. Ours was very "rustic" with three aged bunk beds, and mattresses that seemed just as old, but the in-cabin bathroom alleviated the worst of my worries about middle-of-the-night potty runs. We set everyone up with a sleeping bag, and the helpful staff provided an extra mattress on the floor for baby Eilan.
The daily activities couldn't have been more tailor made for the kids. Each morning, our family joined other families with kids under 5 (there were lots of them) in an outing with the educators. One day the kids were armed with bug nets and magnifying glasses, and we searched a nearby creek bed for bugs. On another day, we canoed (the lake was perfectly quiet, and we absolutely were not), and on a final day we searched for banana slugs. Those morning activities gave the kids a chance to get comfortable with the educators. By afternoon, they were ready to have their own wild adventures with the other kids, the educators, and any parents foolish enough to come along. With the kids safely and happily settled, I curled up with a long-neglected book.
For the kids, the long wet days were a fantasy come true. There were smores, talent shoes, pretend camp outs, and lots of stories. On our final night, too excited to sleep, E told me "Mommy, I'm trying to guess all the wonderful things we will do tomorrow."
For me, this kind of trip is far more satisfying than the over-the-top excitement of an amusement park, and I think it was for the kids too. There were no battles over which toys we'd buy, who would ride in the stroller, or any of the usual stresses that come along with a family vacation. The kids were freer than they are in a park or playground at home. With no cars whizzing by and nobody to disturb, we let them run and explore outside with very few limitations. Sure, I was grubby. True, the laundry required extra attention when we got home. Absolutely, I prefer most restaurants even to the organic salad greens and homemade soups served at OPI, but sometimes a little effort and discomfort has a payoff, even if it can't quite be quantified.
And leaving? A disaster. The kids bawled. Everest claimed he wanted to live in the park, and both kids begged to return the next weekend. What could possibly make me happier?
There are still a few weekends left with availability, and if you want to learn more about OPI, visit their website. (p.s. I don't get a commission or any other compensation, but I hope you try a family camp this summer.)Readers: I feel like there's a lot more to tell about this experience than I thought to cover in this post - feel free to ask your questions and I'll do my best to answer