Small campers in the big outdoors

ROUGHING it is my favorite pastime. The summer we got married my husband and I purchased a tent, along with a slew of basic outdoor living paraphernalia and we went camping every weekend. By the time next camping season rolled in, we had a new addition to our family. We added a pint-size sleeping bag to our equipment and we introduced our son to camping at the ripe age of five weeks.

We soon discovered that fulfilling the needs of our baby while camping wasn't exactly rougher - it just took a little more maneuverability. We took turns crawling out of our cozy sleeping bags to make predawn excursions out to the camp stove, to pump it up and warm a bottle. On nippy mornings we'd lift up our son, sleeping bag and all, into our arms for feeding (a new twist to breakfast in bed).

During black fly season we formed a makeshift assembly line when it came to preparing baby formula. I would line up the bottles and fill them while my husband stood by to cap them in split-second timing. But invariably a few flies that were quicker than the hand managed to make a nose dive and tainted the milk, and we only achieved about an 80 percent success rate. We'd discard the ``protein enriched'' formula and start again.

A couple of years later my husband felt we were deserving of a bit more comfort and suggested we buy air mattresses. I protested. It just isn't camping if you don't wake up in the middle of the night to unearth that boulder or branch sticking into your back that somehow missed inspection before retiring. Aren't you supposed to rough it while camping? I could see my line of reasoning was not going to budge him, so I reluctantly gave in and we bought the mattresses. Now I can't imagine camping without them.

At that point I realized that maybe roughing it wasn't just my favorite pastime, but more of my outlook on life. I've always avoided shortcuts and shied away from the easy way out. I felt a goal was somehow more satisfying if attained through hard work and perseverance. Looking back, I wonder if I might have often mistakenly chosen ``the road less traveled'' simply because it appeared more difficult. I've come to the conclusion, though, that raising a family (and camping) is challenging enough without making it harder for myself. Although I still shy away from shortcuts, I can now occasionally accept a helping hand with a bit more graciousness.

I am still just as enthusiastic about camping, but now with two preschoolers to contend with, roughing it takes on subtle nuances. Roughing it is now more a matter of how to keep our sons entertained, a task made easier because they are more than eager to help me with camping chores.

Campfires highlight the evening and serve as a source of warmth, entertainment, and a marshmallow roasting center. It doesn't take much coaxing to get our children to help gather kindling - just a little patience. At first I'd go along to show them exactly what I needed. They'd scamper off, select a twig, and then run back to me.

``Mommy, is this a good stick for the fire?'' one would ask.

``Yes, it's perfect!'' I'd reply. Then off he'd race to the woods. After repeating this ritual several times, he'd finally have a sizable pile.

My knack for keeping our two boys occupied with absence of TV was put to the test one rainy day in May. We all huddled in our sleeping bags to keep warm while I read - and reread - all their books we had packed. It was still pouring. Next we sang our repertoire of childhood songs. There was still no sign of the rain letting up. Restlessness started to creep in, and out of desperation I started telling stories to keep their interest.

I was just about out of steam when we noticed that the torrent hitting our tent roof had slowed down to a drizzle. Before I knew it they anxiously scrambled out of their sleeping bags and asked if they could go outside and play if they put on their raincoats and promised not to step in puddles. ``It's still raining a little bit,'' I warned. ``But mommy, that's the best time to catch toads!'' they replied. While I helped them with their raincoats, I couldn't help wondering if maybe I was better off with black flies and baby bottles.

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