Families go camping on Sierra Club trip Vacation: Out-of-doors in Maine, parents and grandparents help children build friendships and self-confidence as they learn to enjoy nature.

Taking the Kids

November 03, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Pancakes never tasted so good, filled with plump, fresh blueberries and dripping with syrup.

Twelve-year-old Matt, all smiles and the designated breakfast chef, happily accepted lavish praise for his culinary achievement on the camp stove.

Plates empty and stomachs full, the adults lingered at the picnic tables in the morning chill over coffee, discussing the plan for the day. The kids raced off to inspect each other's tents and toys. It was hard to believe we had been strangers two days before.

Seven families, including 14 children ages 1 to 12, gathered here at a campground just outside Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, Maine, the last week in August. They came from New Jersey, Rhode Island, Illinois, California and New York to share a weeklong family camping experience under the benevolent guidance of Sierra Club leader Virginia Coombs and two helpers.

An opportunity

"This trip is an opportunity for you and your children to experience the outdoors and build some positive memories around nature," Coombs told us the first night after we'd set up our tents (we had to bring our own gear) and eaten a spaghetti dinner.

A health-care administrator in her 50s from Philadelphia, Coombs urged us to "find any way you can to empower the children and make them feel confident."

The children, she promised, would motivate and entertain one another. The adults could be as candid as they liked "because you'll never have to see any of these people again!"

We all laughed, looking around at the rumpled, disparate group. We were teachers, lawyers, nurses, homemakers, financial analysts, medical writers, executives and sales reps. We ranged from people in their 30s to Helen Yeisley, a 55-year-old grandmother from Teaneck, N.J., with her 5-year-old granddaughter, and George West, in his 60s and the proud father of a 3-year-old.

"I wanted Samantha to know there's more to travel than hotels," explained Yeisley.

Some in the group were seasoned campers, including Sierra Club official John DeCock. He came with his family from California because he knew his 4-year-old daughter would enjoy camping with a group. Others were outdoor neophytes more comfortable with a guide overseeing the details, though they gladly helped in the kitchen.

Coombs and her two assistants, all volunteers, certainly did all they could to make it a vacation for the rest of us.

Besides organizing hikes, visits to tide pools and beaches and a trip to nearby Bar Harbor, they toted the cooking gear, planned meals, shopped for groceries and chauffeured the group in two vans.

Minimizing the work

"Not having to deal with food was a huge draw for me," said June Carter, a businesswoman from Oyster Bay, Long Island. She was only persuaded to come camping with their kindergartner when her husband agreed to a later trip to Orlando.

"Until now, I thought of camping as work, not a vacation," agreed Deborah Rosen, a professor from the University of Rhode Island. Also important for the family's happiness, she added, were the activities organized with their interests and abilities in mind.

One day, for example, we parked on top and hiked down a steep Cadillac Mountain trail, stopping for a picnic along the way with a drop-dead ocean view in front of us. The younger kids were thrilled at their accomplishment on the mountain. Many would never have made it had we started at the bottom.

That same afternoon, we boarded a boat for a lobster tour on Somes Sound. A lobster fisherman told us how the crustaceans are trapped, along with plenty of funny stories. To keep the kids amused, he had an assortment of sea critters for them to touch.

Before bed, we gathered around the campfire for ghost stories and graham cracker sandwiches made with a toasted marshmallow and square of chocolate.

For the three days we were part of the group, I heard hardly any whining or grumbling. I'd never seen so many consistently happy kids or parents on vacation. Melanie, 5, was in heaven with so many new playmates her age. Matt and 10-year-old Reggie, both experienced campers and by far the oldest kids, found themselves playing new roles this trip: elder statesmen and teachers.

There was plenty of family time, too. Matt and Reggie went off fishing and canoeing with their dad. Other families biked or swam.

The Sierra Club hopes that these pleasant outdoor memories -- enhanced by the first-rate campground and sparkling bathrooms -- will help create a new generation of nature lovers who will work to preserve the environment.

Just show up

"Besides, it's so easy to do something like this," explains the San Francisco-based Sierra Club's John DeCock, who until recently oversaw the Outings program. "All you have to do is show up."

The concept obviously strikes a chord with busy '90s parents, thousands of whom are seeking more active, affordable vacations with their children that allow them a break, too.

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