8 Men, 16 Children, a 100 Acre Wood, and 100,000 Blue Rocks

My ingredients for a perfect weekend include: Fresh air, the woods, hiking, a tasty IPA and a S’more around a crackling campfire, freewheeling conversation with my kids, camaraderie with good friends, wading in cold water, sleeping with snuggly children in a tent, and maybe a few camp-stove-grilled pancakes if I can pull it off.

By this metric, last weekend was utopian. It checked every box. Including camp pancakes from a box.

Each spring for the last decade, my college buddies (Messiah class of ’02!) have embarked on a 2-night Daddy-Kid Camping trip, or DKC for short. I only started coming to DKC last year, once my kids were old enough to pull it off. They were 5 and 3 then, and we stayed 1 night. This year they’re 6 and 4, and we opted in for the whole 2-night odyssey.

Our college buddy crew embraces this annual paternal tradition for 3 main reasons. First, we are capable and engaged dads as opposed to ineffectual and detached sitcom archetypes, the kind of men who would say they’re “watching” or “babysitting” their own children. (Helpful hint: Don’t do that.) The prospect of single-dadding for 48 hours is exciting to us, not daunting.

Second, we love the heck out of nature and camping, and we would do anything to instill this love in our kids. Speaking for myself, that’s a load-bearing pillar of my parental ethos.

Third, as anyone who camps or hikes knows, all food tastes better when eaten in the woods. And it doesn’t hurt that a few of my buddies are bona fide camp chefs. They’re like Gordon Ramsay, without the deranged verbal abuse.

This year, 8 dads and 16 kids made the trek. The kids ranged from 3 to 16 years old, so my own kids were in the youngest tier. And since they need my attention and help on a near-constant basis, I had my work cut out for me. But that’s my kind of work, and I’m cut out for it — especially when my mental health is sturdy, as it is at the moment.

The site for our annual weekend retreat is Blue Rocks Family Campground, a sprawling wooded wonderland that boasts multiple playgrounds, multiple creeks, a good-sized pool, a huge sandbox, a snack bar, a pond with a fountain, hiking trails, and probably close to 100 campsites spread out over 100+ acres.

Which means it’s our very own Hundred Acre Wood! But I didn’t spot any melancholy donkeys, bouncing tigers, or type-A rabbits. And at no point during the weekend did an affable, shirt-wearing bear ask me for a pawful of the honey I ate for breakfast. Oh bother.

Best of all, the campground is built around one of the largest boulder fields I’ve ever seen, which functions as its own natural playground. My kids played happily at the edges of the boulder field, hyper-imaginatively as always. I could live with the fact that they chose not to venture out farther like the older kids. That will be a boulder adventure for another year, when they’re a bit bolder (and more coordinated).

DKC weekend is largely freeform, with the older kids roaming around the campground, coming and going at will, while the dads tended to the campfire, set up and cleaned up after each meal, and leaned into the casual camaraderie we’ve enjoyed since our college years nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Given the staggered ages of our families, most of the other dads didn’t have to tend to their kids as much as I and one other dad did. I was glad for the close contact with my kids, though, and one of the guys with older kids remarked that he missed the days when his kids still needed his help. Those dads have more freedom and relaxation on these trips, but less face time with their independent kids. I have more face time with my dependent kids, but less freedom or relaxation.

Everything in life is a trade-off. The trick is to lean into the good side of the ledger.

The one orchestrated activity each year is a very rocky, 2-mile group hike up to Pulpit Rock, an expansive vista. Or at least I hear it’s expansive. The pictures are certainly nice! But my two nature lovers and I haven’t made it to the end yet.

Last year, we were waylaid by a meltdown that kept us from going farther than about 2/3 of a mile, and this year we were prevented from getting to the 1-mile point by… you guessed it, another meltdown. Which turned into a double meltdown. Every parent’s bad dream come true.

But I felt good about staying calm and handling it adeptly, which is not always the case. I’ll leave the meltdown details to your imagination. Just picture Three Mile Island. Now picture it happening twice at the same time. (But with no radiation. And it blew over in 5 minutes. And it caused zero long-term damage.)

So the hike part of the weekend was a challenge, despite my kids being seasoned hikers. I’m just glad we made it a little farther up the trail this year than last year. Baby steps, right? I’m wagering that we’ll make it all the way to Pulpit Rock by the time the kids are 8 and 6. Or at least while I’m still in my 40s.

The kids also climbed around on a playground… and delightedly cavorted in the tent… and played in a giant sandbox… and we all waded in a cold creek. And we tried to keep up (in a golf cart!) with the bigger kids as they ran around doing an impromptu campground-wide scavenger hunt cleverly organized by one of the dads.

That’s right, a golf cart. At this place, groups can rent them for optimal campground mobility. This allows campers to quickly get around the 100-Acre Wood, since we don’t have Tigger’s tail-bouncing ability or Owl’s wings. So numerous times over the weekend, my little Piglet and Roo snuggled next to me as I drove a golf cart over the “bumpety” dirt roads (Violet’s word) en route to various campground destinations.

At first, Violet didn’t like the golf cart experience but Greyson loved it, defying each of their personalities entirely (Violet is fairly fearless, Greyson is sensory-sensitive). But she quickly warmed up to it and came to love the bumpety excitement. Violet, snuggled in the middle, steadied Greyson with her hand on his leg. And I wrapped my non-steering wheel arm around both of them. I’m pretty sure we didn’t follow the 5 mph campground speed limit very assiduously. But some rules were made to be broken.

We also rode a fire truck! How random is that? Every Saturday at 3:00 during peak camping season, a local fire truck comes to Blue Rocks and puts on its siren, a kind of siren song to lure all the kid campers to the loading spot. Ranger Sue, the kind and capable queen bee of the campground, helps each kid climb into the fire truck with their parents.

My kids had missed this chance last year and they were thrilled this year to loop around the huge campground on a real-life fire truck. Their favorite part was when we drove past our own campsite. “That’s where our tent is!!”

Ahh, the beauty of simplicity. And my kids have it in spades.

So there you have my idea (and my kids’ idea) of a perfect weekend. A weekend which began with us almost, just-about getting rear-ended 2 miles away from our house because the car in front of me slowed down for a wild turkey.

But the turkey emerged unscathed. As did our back bumper. As did my kids’ sweet little necks. As did our hopes for a happy weekend.

A weekend for the books. A weekend for the ages.

A weekend that made me grateful to be in the world.

And grateful to be able to show my kids the wonders of that world.

One thought on “8 Men, 16 Children, a 100 Acre Wood, and 100,000 Blue Rocks

  1. “one of the guys with older kids remarked that he missed the days when his kids still needed his help.” I still remember the day I was walking my very young daughter to school, and she looked up at me and said, “you don’t have to walk me to school anymore, dad.” She was right – it was only two blocks to the school, one street to cross with two crossing guards there who obviously took their job seriously, and lots of other kids going the same way. Twenty-five years later and I still remember how sad I was when I turned around and let her walk to school herself. Treasure every moment, Jeremy.


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