I can always tell when it is time for our family to have a camping weekend. When we got back into camping six years ago, it became the family activity that individually re-centered each of us and brought us back together as a family unit. While a day trip to Brazos Bend during the Easter weekend had given us some much needed time out in nature, we needed a short family getaway. I was neck deep in end-of-the-year grading, Jeff was busy making plans for a quick business trip in the coming weeks, and our son was vacillating between all of the excitement for end-of-year activities and sadness that his first grade year was coming to an end and he was going to miss his friends. His sporadic behavior was becoming somewhat unbearable and we hoped that some time out in nature away with his family would be just what he needed to refocus his energies and start the summer off right.

Thankfully, a couple months ago, as we were looking at the typically full (for camping at least) Memorial Day weekend, we decided to give it a shot to see what was still available within 90 miles of Houston. There wasn’t much, but Jeff found a single spot at Hunstville State Park, just over an hour away.

We had found a compromise that would allow our family to camp to celebrate the end of the school year and would be close enough for me to make it back for the graduation ceremony that always falls on Memorial Day weekend. I was willing to do the driving necessary if it meant that we got to go camping for a three-day weekend and temporarily unplug from everything.

The weekend plans got a rough start when we discovered that we couldn’t pack up the night before because a dead battery prevented us from hooking up the camper so we could park in front of our house overnight. Instead, while the kids attended closing chapel and awards at their school, Jeff and I went to pick up the camper so that all of us could pack up once I picked the kids up from school. Once we were all home, I handed the kids their packing lists, Jeff and I handed the camping notebook back and forth, and by the time everyone finished eating lunch, we were all ready for a weekend of camping.

Our first night in Huntsville State Park was more than a little disjointed. For the first time ever, we intentionally parked twice, deciding that we were too far off level after the first attempt to be satisfied for the next three days. We hooked back up, moved the leveling blocks, and parked again, somehow doing it without arguing with each other, taking the change in position in stride. I headed back towards Houston for graduation and Jeff and the kids were on their own for dinner and recreation, biking around the campground and checking out the friendly neighborhood alligators hanging out under the fishing pier attached to our campground loop.

One of the nice things about our kids being a little older is that we can leave them for very short spurts to do our own exploring. It was nice to have a fifteen minute “date” while they sorted through their Junior Ranger backpack.

When we all woke up the next morning, everyone had their own plans for what would make an ideal first full-day of camping. I made our typical bacon, sausage, and eggs breakfast before our daughter convinced me that she could handle riding her bike to the main office to pick up the Junior Ranger backpack that both kids have determined is a must before we do any kind of exploring. When we finally returned (she struggled with the hills), the kids sorted through the items in the backpack while Jeff and I went on a quick bike ride to the lake recreational area, enjoying just a few minutes of alone time before heading back to the madness that was two kids and two dogs at our campsite.

Our post-lunch hike around the Prairie Branch Loop took us along the lake and through wooded forests, the kids stopping every five minutes for a water break and looking at wildflower and dragonfly guides to help them decipher everything that they saw. Huntsville is a pretty state park with several different terrains, and I love watching our kids excitedly explore everything there is to see along hiking trails. Our son hit his hiking stick along the boarded walks under the guise of scaring away venomous snakes and our daughter took charge of their backpack so she could lead the way, telling us that we had to stay behind them for the duration of the trail.

Despite the kids’ insistence that we take frequent water breaks, the heat took every ounce of energy we all had left. When we returned to the camper we were once again thankful that we had left the tent camping days behind us because it meant that we could cool off in the air-conditioned quarters before heading back outside. Our son eventually convinced me that we needed to get him worms so that he could finally go fishing in the evening, so the two of us rode our bikes over the the camp store to buy the worms and check out the swimming situation at the “beach.”

Yes, we have moved to the Gulf Coast region of the country where heading to the beach often means heading to Galveston and the Gulf of Mexico, but Jeff and I are still “lake people.” And having been raised in Michigan, we have pretty high standards for lakes. After all, until we moved to Texas, our kids spent every summer frequently visiting Lake Michigan. Their earliest childhood water memories are of long beaches with soft sand and small waves crashing on the shoreline. We might be water snobs.

That being said, it didn’t matter how crowded the water and picnic area was, our kids needed to cool off and we needed to exit the camper. After our son and I returned from purchasing worms, we all changed and hopped back onto our bikes, ready to swim and cool off outdoors. Once we were there, our kids did what they love to do most when along a shoreline: swim and dig in the sand.

That night our son finally got his way and dragged Jeff down to the dock so that he could fish. Our daughter also tried her hand at fishing but was not nearly as successful as our little boy who caught at least one little fish that he then threw back into the water. Bored with the fishing, I watched as the resident alligators swam back and forth underneath the dock; eventually our daughter got bored with the activity and we were able to head back to the camper.

Before we even left from home, we resigned ourselves to the fact that it was probably going to be too hot to have a campfire during the weekend. Besides, the evenings may have cooled off enough to be tolerable outside, but no one had any desire to sit beside a roaring fire. Instead, I decided we could still have s’mores with the help of the s’more roasting plate we bought over a year ago for such an occasion. I turned on the Traeger and prepared the marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate, waiting for the marshmallows to puff up to perfect, melted goodness. The result wasn’t quite what we would get with a fire-roasted marshmallow, but it was still pretty good.

The next morning Jeff and our son got up extra early to make it to the boathouse in time for a ranger-led fishing talk. Unfortunately, the Huntsville ranger game was not completely on point (it was pretty clear that they were understaffed and the park was full to capacity for the majority of the weekend) and no one ever showed up. They headed back to the campground dock and Jeff called me shortly after they got to there to let me know that the big gator had come out to say hello, so of course I had to take a quick look while our daughter finished breakfast.

While the boys fished, we headed out on the Dogwood Trail, this time with plenty of water to keep us hydrated through the whole hike; our daughter made sure that we stopped frequently for water breaks. In between the breaks we talked about everything, from Hamilton (their current favorite musical) to what makes a bad word a bad word to animal conservation and global warming to the ever-so-light question of “Why did God make people if He knew that we were just going to screw it all up?” I loved the whole hike. I had time with just my daughter, we were out in nature, she was hiking (and exercising) without complaint, and we were able to just talk to each other without the conversation being forced. I know that we are getting close to entering a time when that level of honest mother/daughter intimacy will most likely be rare, and to just have that hour together was everything to me.

After lunch and some time cooling off inside (we were trying to avoid overheating and for the second day in a row our son was breaking out into a disconcerting heat rash) we finally headed back to the crowded Lake Raven beach for flavored ices and swimming. This time, both kids spent most of their time playing in the sand on the shore, enjoying both the cool water and the chance to create sculptures and waterways with their hands and the beach toys that another little girl had had the foresight to bring along.

After dinner we headed back for one more night of fishing, something that has become one of our son’s favorite camping activities. While my husband learned a love of fishing from his grandfather (a love that he is gladly passing along to our kids), I have never seen the allure. Of all the stereotypical camping activities, fishing is my least favorite. I don’t understand any of it: the worms are gross, sitting and waiting for fish to bite makes me antsy, and I have no desire to touch a live fish, let alone prepare it for food. Granted, my family was just doing “catch and release” fishing, but I still wasn’t the most patient observer. While we were sitting waiting for fish to bite, one of the alligators came back and several campers walked over to the dock to get their own peek. As I sat on the deck waiting for something else to happen, I made myself a one-person gator sighting welcoming committee, helping fellow campers find the lonely swimmer so that they could get their own pictures.

Eventually I left with a despondent little girl who couldn’t understand why her little brother had been successful with catching fish (they were only little ones) but she hadn’t been. Determined to not be outdone by our son, she headed back to the dock after our son returned to the camper, intercepting Jeff right before he left. Since our son had finished off the worms, they asked a fellow camper if they could have a single nightcrawler. Our little animal-loving conservationist, the one who had been asking me earlier in the day why God made people if we were just going to ruin the planet, caught a small catfish on the first try. Thrilled that she had caught something yet determined to let the catfish live another day, she got help taking it off the hook and threw it back into the lake, only to watch the freed fish get gobbled by one of the three gators that called that side of the lake home.

Her excitement over the successful catch and horror over the catfish’s untimely demise was amplified when she realized that she had just inadvertently fed an alligator, and according to all of the signs that she had read over the course of the weekend, feeding alligators was worth a $500 fine. Suddenly our 10-year-old was trying to figure out how to pay the fine and whether or not she should turn herself in to the rangers.

Needless to say, we’re not concerned about our little girl committing any crimes any time soon.

Once our kids were finally in bed, Jeff filled two glasses with adult beverages and we walked around the loop one last time, stopping at the end of the pier to enjoy the coolish breeze coming off of the open water. By the time we returned to our home-away-from-home, we were ready for some quiet, kid-free conversation and then finally much needed sleep.

It would be disingenuous to say that the weekend was perfect. It was still really hot, our son had a couple heat rash outbreaks, our daughter came home with a headache, and both kids had inexplicable ornery moments that left us looking at each other wondering what more we could possibly do to help them turn their emotions around. At one point we frustratedly kicked the kids out of the camper, giving them the choice between dishes and playing at the playground, and after about 45 minutes our upset little boy returned telling us “You kicked us out of the camper and we got lost.” Apparently, they got turned around while on their bikes and were temporarily uncertain about where they were going, but they were never lost and we repeatedly pointed out that they had learned important life lessons and they still got “home” safely, completely unharmed although recovering from the stress of forced independence.

But nothing is perfect. Most of our camping trips are mostly great, but rarely near perfect. Thankfully, we weren’t looking for perfection; we were looking for a significant quantity of quality family time. When we parents are looking for both quantity and quality, some things are bound to go wrong and we can’t do everything that we plan, but it shouldn’t matter. In the end, we found bountiful togetherness, which is just what we needed as we headed into summer vacation.

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