Our first camping expedition with the girls was disastrous to say the least. Yet, the misery had not yet ended and Papa Bear and I were already talking about the next one. Why? Three words: Texas Outdoor Family. This program has to be one of the best-kept secrets in the entire Lone Star Republic. Run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the program aims to teach camping basics to aspiring family campers. No experience required. In other words, the State of Texas pays park rangers to travel from park to park and spend their weekends out in the woods with people who really have no business being there.
Papa Bear and I each did our fair share of camping as youths. Much of the summers of my childhood growing up in Western New York was spent either sleeping in a pop-up camper or being nauseous from motion sickness in the back of the vehicle that was towing it. We took our camper to favorite haunts close to home, most notably Sprague Brook, as well as more far-flung destinations like Florida and Arizona. With five kids and a single income-earner in the family, camping was a fun and economical way to take family vacations. Papa Bear and I went camping together a few times as adults and still own a small tent, camp stove and sleeping bags but two moves and more than ten years’ time have depleted both our knowledge base and equipment stores. Plus, there’s the whole kid factor now. Still, the itch for outdoor adventure plagues me.
So, I’m scanning through my tweets one day and a person I follow tweets about participating in a program called, “Outdoor Woman Academy.” Or something. I follow the link and read about this weekend program wherein the ladies get together and learn how to navigate without a GPS device (you can do that?), catch dew with a plastic bag and other essential skills for wilderness survival. Cool. Except that the program is in I think Alabama (again, don’t quote me) and I travel enough for work that I can’t really imagine myself stealing from precious family time to go commune in the woods with a bevy of Iron Janes, no matter how fun that sounds. Hmm, I wonder if there’s anything like this in Texas. Insert search terms in box, press return, refine search, repeat, repeat. Voila! Texas Outdoor Family. I email Papa Bear: This is what I want to do for my birthday.
The Texas Outdoor Family Program: Concierge camping
The Texas Outdoor Family program is held at various Texas state parks in autumn and spring, the only times of year sane people would elect to spend time outdoors in this climate. (True, winter can’t truly be called winter here but, remember, this program is aimed at newbie campers. Newbie Texas campers who no doubt start whining about the cold when the temperature drops below 60F.) Our first-ever camping trip with the girls was at Stephen F. Austin State Park in Sealy, TX, just about an hour from our home. Two days, one night (It’s only one night), all major camping equipment provided, including six-person tent, camp stove, coffee press, air mattress, pads (for kids), lantern, etc. Helpful rangers and park volunteers at hand to demonstrate how to set up and break down camp, cook outdoors and use a GPS device. Guided nature walks and junior ranger activities for the little ones. All for less money than we would spend dining out. If we even did that anymore.
From start to finish, this program was amazing. The pre-trip information materials were detailed and communicated well in advance via the website and snail mail. We even got a call right before the weekend reminding us to bring commonly forgotten items. Too bad jelly wasn’t on their list. Logistical planning was impeccable. As we were sharing the park with a couple of Boy Scout troops, all the campsites reserved for us were marked with custom signs. A printed hour-by-hour schedule of the weekend’s activities was provided along with trail and park maps. Every detail had been considered, down to the provision of brooms to help us sweep out our tents before breaking camp. Every snafu anticipated and prepared for. We personally tested this several times. Extra supplies for boneheads who forgot their charcoal. I have to confess I was expecting an old moldy tent but the camping equipment was in pretty good condition and they had extra gear in their custom trailer in case it wasn’t. It was the camping equivalent of staying in an upscale hotel with a really helpful, service-oriented concierge on staff. The only thing they could have changed was to have soap in the bathrooms. Eventually someone left a small travel-sized bar in the ladies’. As for whether Papa Bear was washing his hands, I adopted my own Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
I could go on and on but the single greatest thing about the program was the people. The rangers and volunteers were never more than a shout away to answer questions, help with a technical question or hold a squirmy pre-schooler during a demo. They toured the campground by foot, bike and truck to inform us about programs start times, drop off our heavy Dutch ovens, check in to see if we were OK. They were infinitely patient with the children, who ranged in age from preteen to infant. We got know a couple of other families as well when our daughters wandered over into their campsites and started rummaging through their food. Some, like us, had long-past or limited camping experience; others had never been camping before in their lives. There was a great spirit of camaraderie that was heartening to experience, especially in the present divisive political climate. At the end of the weekend, when we were attending our little graduation ceremony, one of fathers practically choked up when he thanked the staff on behalf of all 16 families that participated.
Papa Bear and I were marveling at how the state could afford to offer this program at such a low price. Answer: generous corporate sponsorship. Duh. That it took us so long to make that connection is a testament to the fact that the rangers never pushed this down our throats. Yeah there were sponsor pamphlets in our packets and logos on the Frisbee and high-quality gimme caps we took home. But you know what? This program rocked so hard that it never bothered me. I would recommend this program without reservation to Texas families looking for a gentle introduction to the outdoors. If your state doesn’t have anything like this, ask for it!
If you missed the account of the late-night puke, here it is