By Melissa Hart
In his groundbreaking 1869 guidebook, “Adventures in the Wilderness, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks,” Boston preacher William H.H. Murray wrote that spending time recreating in nature rejuvenates both body and spirit for the city dweller. Murray wrote of the Adirondacks: “I deem the excursion eminently adapted to restore impaired health. I most highly recommend a month’s experience among the pines.”
The idea that people needed to escape the cities to immerse themselves in wilderness was seen as radical at the time. Fast forward to today and it’s now firmly embedded in our psyche. Camping has long been a popular pastime and affordable family vacation, and it’s enjoying a new wave. For evidence, do a search online to book at Fish Creek Pond (spoiler: most of the campground’s 355 sites are booked solid through summer) or any of the other popular camping spots around the region and you might be surprised at how fast they can fill up.
This trend isn’t limited to the Adirondacks. More than 7.2 million households in the U.S. have started camping over the past five years, bringing the total number of camping households in the U.S. to a new high of 78.8 million, according to KOA’s 2019 North American Camping Report. What’s more, the number of non-white campers is growing, as well as the numbers of Generation Z and Millennials, showing increased interest across all demographics.
The next generation
Camping was a big part of my childhood in the 1980s, growing up outside of Syracuse. My parents towed our family’s pop-up camper across New York State, spending time in the Adirondacks, along the St. Lawrence River and out to Niagara Falls. Now that I’m settled on the Champlain Valley side of the Adirondacks, with a family of my own, my husband and I have taken it upon ourselves to embark on camping adventures with our 3-year-old twin daughters, Madeleine and Marcelline, aka Maddie and Marcie.
The region’s state campgrounds offer plenty of family-friendly recreation: from boating to beaches to playgrounds and hiking trails. For the twins’ first two years of life, we took them a few nights at a time to Ausable Point Campground in Peru, which happens to be about 10 minutes’ drive from our house. (Research shows we’re not the only campers enjoying “staycations,” as the KOA report found the majority of campers are traveling less than 100 miles from home.) This year, we decided to branch farther afield, although sticking within a few hours’ drive, and for a longer stay.
While many of us don’t have the spare month that Murray recommended, my family and I headed into the pines of Lake Harris Campground in Newcomb for our first weeklong Adirondack excursion. Located on the north shore of 275-acre Lake Harris, which is fed by the Hudson River, the campground is set back from the road by a few miles, nestled in the forest. In an average year, the campground sees close to 14,000 visitors (compared to more than 104,000 visitors per year at Fish Creek), and the week we were there in late June and early July it was quiet, secluded. Lake Harris has 89 sites, two-thirds of which are on the shoreline, making it a great water-based getaway. Campers took part in swimming, boating, fishing and general R&R. Santanoni Preserve and numerous hiking trails were within striking distance, making it a great launching point for other Adirondack adventures.
Family friendly destination
For now, camping’s big draw for us is that it’s something we can do with our young children to get them interested in the outdoors. That was also the case for our Lake Harris campsite neighbors Patti and Rich Messmer of Oneonta. They raised their four children camping, starting when their firstborn was two weeks old. They have fond memories of bringing their kids—now 24, 27, 29 and 31—to Lake Harris, most recently 10 years ago. “We never stopped camping. We went everywhere,” Rich said. “The Adirondacks, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire.” As their family expanded, they eventually bought a pop-up camper. All four of their offspring still enjoy camping.
This trip also was special for the Messmers. It was to celebrate Patti’s retirement from teaching. This time around, they traded in the pop-up for a modest-sized tent and were joined by Effie, their springer spaniel-poodle mix.
The Messmers’ story inspired me and reminded me that we were not the only ones who have
attempted camping with high-octane preschoolers (who are also in the final stages of potty training!). Upon arrival, my husband and I got to work setting up our mammoth 10-person tent and the various other “necessities” packed into our stuffed-to-the-gills minivan.
Even though my husband, Ian, and I have 18 years of experience camping together, adding a pair of preschoolers to the mix is a whole other ballgame. I started making lists about a week out and ended up making a handful of trips to various stores gathering supplies. We practiced setting up the tent and when the morning came we felt generally prepared. Luckily, we weren’t just flying solo this time around. We were joined by my mother-in-law, Lori, and her husband, Dan Connors, who were camping in their 24-foot camper a few spots down from us.
The stories to tell
Part of what makes camping so special are the stories to tell around future campfires. As we sat around our crackling logs at night, Ian and I reminisced about our four times driving the Alaska Highway, going back and forth to Fairbanks, where we lived from 2003 to 2007. Lori shared her fond memories of camping as a kid with her family in Black Lake, outside of Ogdensburg. Dan told us a story of the time in his youth camping in Cranberry Lake when a bear cub broke into his sister’s tent and ate molasses cookies she had stowed away inside.
Maddie and Marcie made their own memories during this week. Our waterside campsite had its own private beach and they spent happy hours digging in the sand, splashing in the water and marveling over the bright, sparkling quartz rocks that lined the shore. They pointed out the chipmunk and blue jays who visited our site looking for crumbs.
This was a week of firsts for them:
First time sleeping in sleeping bag. (Their first two years they slept in portable cribs)
First time on a watercraft. (We rented a rowboat and journeyed across the lake to the public beach and playground.)
First time roasting a marshmallow. (They preferred to eat them raw.)
Off the grid
Time flies in nature. The days fell into an easy rhythm: Get up, breakfast, girls’ play time, maybe a stroll around the campground or playing at our campsite beach. Then lunch, and after lunch an outing: boat ride, swim, playground, followed by dinner, campfire and vain attempts to get the girls to go to sleep.
While in some ways the routine wasn’t so far off the one we keep at home, the biggest difference was taking time away from technology. Being unplugged is more than not having to answer emails or removing the temptation to scroll through the mindless distractions of social media feeds and news headlines. It means stepping away from the feelings of constant motion: always needing to do something. All of that fell away and I could enjoy being in the present moment, without feeling harried or rushed. Even though we were just as busy and exhausted keeping up with two toddlers while camping as we are at home, I found myself actually able to relax and enjoy it. I can’t help but think of William H.H. Murray’s advice to city dwellers and how these days it’s all of us who could use a break from screens, devices and gadgets to reflect, unwind and recharge.
The last morning, my husband and I were busy breaking down camp and attempting to systematically fit it all back into the van, while Maddie and Marcie lamented the loss of the tent. “Why are you packing up, mommy?” They were sad to stop camping, and even though I was thinking of all the work ahead of unpacking, sorting, washing all the dirty clothes, I also was sad to have to say goodbye to Lake Harris.
Camping with toddlers can be lots of work with plenty of challenges, but all the rewards make it worthwhile. I’m already looking forward to our next opportunity to spend time among the pines.