Cold Weather Getaways – Dogsledding

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Whether you have palm trees or evergreens outside your window, consider that not all getaways must be to warmer climates. Consider this dog sledding trip we did last winter that ran in the December/January issue of Family Fun Magazine.

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While I made this trip on assignment, I’d venture to say it is my favorite travel experience to date. The founder of Wintergreen kennels, polar expedition leader, entrepreneur, husband and father of three, Paul Schurke is considered one of the best, if not the best in the business (so said every one of his peers while researching my article). Paul ensured our safety and comfort every step of the way, and his family’s hospitality and warmth were a terrific incidental benefit. This was a family-friendly experience, from bundling then-two-year-old Aaron inside a sleeping bag while he rode in the front compartment of a sled to offering our oldest son the chance to drive a team solo.

Here’s a video clip hosted at the web site of the outfitter we were lucky enough to work with, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. (Watch carefully for shots of the family’s home they designed and built themselves–aka the model for our dream house). If this isn’t enough to tempt you to explore fun in the snow, check out their photo gallery.

You really have to love or at least not loathe the cold, and bringing proper winter clothing is highly recommended (synthetic fabric long underwear, sturdy gloves, cold-proof winter boots, snow pants, windproof, warm coat, hat–I suggest ski masks for kids to avoid windburn). The Schurkes will either loan or sell gear you may not have from either their lodge or their retail gear store in downtown Ely.

Our family is definitely planning to repeat this trip for longer than our previous half-day adventure. The boys keep asking when we’ll return, and we may even head up for another long weekend this winter, budget permitting. I also have plans to attend this photography workshop, possibly next year.

What’s your dream cold-weather getaway? Have you done it already or is it in the planning stages? Share your ideas, thoughts and questions in the comments section.

 

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Quaking Bogs and Boy-Eating Plants

At the trailhead.

As I mentioned in my previous post lamenting our lack of snackage, the boys and I did a brief but fun hike at Volo Bog State Natural Area in Ingleside, Illinois (about 45 miles northwest of Chicago) last weekend.

Carved by the glaciers that ambled through here a few thousand seasons ago, we learned that Volo Bog is more technically a fen. The boys and I agreed that bog is more fun to say, so we’re content with current nomenclature.

 

The open water portion of Volo Bog.
The open water portion of Volo Bog.

There are two main trails at Volo Bog; the shorter 1/4-mile interpretive trail and a 2.75-mile hiking/cross-country skiing trail. Given the unseasonably warm weather and resulting potential for muck (not to mention my single mom status for the weekend–no way was I carrying our sturdy 3-year-old for that last mile!), we opted for the interpretive trail with a brochure keyed to numbered posts along the way.

At the trailhead.
At the trailhead.
Rightfully confused but determined moss jostles for its share of the sunlight.
Rightfully confused but determined moss jostles for its share of the sunlight.

While my middle child traditionally serves as the dictator keeper of the map, all we had was the handout, so he quickly lost interest. I gave him the job of seeking out the numbered posts instead.

Nolan earns his keep by spotting guideposts
Nolan earns his keep by spotting guideposts

The boys set out along the wooden boardwalk trails that literally sit on top of the water, quaking and tilting with each bounding, boot-clad step we took. I’d purposely waited to take this hike until Aaron was a little older, and at three and a half, I’m glad I waited. I don’t know how deep those waters are along the interpretive trail, but I wasn’t planning on finding out, either. Of course, the three of them jockeyed for the lead throughout the hike and I had to hiss and squawk at times to keep someone from going into the drink. There are hand rails for some portions of this hike, but some of them are seriously shaky and at points, nonexistent, so parents of very young children will want to keep their kids within snatching distance.

Aaaand they’re OFF!
Aaaand they’re OFF!
One of the hinges that keeps hikers bog-water-free
One of the hinges that keeps hikers bog-water-free

At each numbered guidepost, they stood and listened to about 3/4 of what I read from the information listed on the guided tour handout. There was a too much information for a three- and five-year-old (who accuses me of “blah blah blah” if I go on too long), but older kids will probably stay put for longer. The terrain changed often enough and, coupled with the factoids we picked up, like our discovery of a carnivorous plant (take it from me, boys LOVE the idea of carnivorous plants) and a deciduous evergreen tree (the tamarack pine, which sheds its needles each fall), this short hike packed a lot of punch.

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Exactly how wrong is it to tease your kids that carnivorous plants can chase them?

In the thick of it
In the thick of it

The bobbing and weaving of the trail itself adds an element of danger and adventure to the hike, something the boys enjoyed but that I’m sure contributed to the completely white head of hair I’m sure to have one day. What’s even better is that Volo Bog changes greatly with the seasons, so there’s often something new to see with each visit.

There are also usually guided tours along the trail we took, except for the one day we actually showed up on time, ready to be guided. The Visitor Center is kid-friendly and packed with exhibits that encourage touching, and questions are always welcome. Just be sure to be polite or the coyote greeter will escort you off the premises.

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We’re waiting for the next big snowfall for a return visit to see if those meat-eating plants will be poking up out of the snow.

 

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Staycations – All You Ever Wanted?

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Sure, the term “staycation” is kind of annoying, but I’m going to argue in favor of the idea of a “stay-at-home-vacation,” if not its shorthand term-du-jour. Call it something else if you’d like, but there are benefits to “traveling” close to home during these tough economic times.

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Create your own getaway by exploring your own back yard

For one – this should get your attention – if you play it right, you’ll save money. While I realize it’s just as easy to drop a ton of cash in your own back yard, right now people are holding on to that cash–which is probably a wise move. If you think about it, money spent on air fare or car rentals could easily fund a fabulous local getaway. Send half of that money to your savings account or use it to pay off debt, and you get to enjoy yourself while also benefiting your family’s bottom line. (Maybe we should call it a “smartcation” instead).

Second, local independent businesses need our support now more than ever. After all, nobody is bailing them out; they must swim within a far lower-risk business model or sink, as many are doing.

Third, not shelling out money to an all-inclusive resort (something my family isn’t really into anyway) removes the creativity and spontaneity from travel. While it’s perfectly fine to do so in some instances–or all the time, if it’s your thing–we like to think of ourselves as explorers in our family and we love customizing our vacations. Finding new things in our area becomes a unique challenge, not something that makes us feel deprived.

Fourth, Traveling close to home – whether in your own neighborhood, town, or in nearby major cities – requires you to think like tourists and view well-traveled destinations and attractions in a new light. Taking a staycation is a great opportunity introduce your kids to museums, parks, and restaurants you might otherwise take for granted. Contact your area’s convention and visitors bureau to see what they suggest; you might find a few untapped surprises in your midst.

Next month, my husband and I were going to spend a long weekend at a swanky spa resort, but after we did the math, we realized that we could vacation at home (with a mandate to not work or do anything but necessary chores) without the kids and go exploring for less than half the cost. I’ll write more about what we decide to do when we’re done planning our staycation.

Are you traveling more or less this year, and is the economy affecting how you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments section. And if you hate the word “staycation,” suggest a better word and if I like it, I’ll adopt it here from now on!

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Photo Friday: Exploring Our “Back Yard”

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Today’s Photo Friday image was taken almost three years ago during a long weekend trip to Chicago. We live a little over an hour northwest of the city in a quiet rural county, and while we take a couple of day trips there each year, we really enjoy spending a long weekend in the city whenever possible. (In those instances, Priceline is our friend; we’ve snagged 4-star rooms for as little as $40/night–though keep in mind when booking a room that parking downtown usually runs into the mid-30s per night).

On this weekend trip during “spring” break (note the winter coats–leave it to our cold-hardy family would spend spring break exploring a Midwestern city!), we took the kids to several popular Chicago attractions, including: The Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, and Pizzeria Uno* (where we learned we’d been remiss in raising our kids to enjoy Chicago Style pizza, because the deep dish, buttery crust combo did not appeal to them at all!). Their favorite thing about The Art Institute? The elevators! And their favorite part about the entire trip? A train ride on the El from the Loop to Lincoln Park and back for under $10.

That’s the cool–albeit sometimes frustrating–thing about traveling with kids: what wows you (Uno’s pizza!) won’t necessarily register with them (”Mommy! What’s wrong with dis pizza?”), and they find complete joy in things most grown-ups take for granted. When I was a miserable law student riding the El every day to school and work and back, I’ll admit I enjoyed those train rides but everyone commuting looked so miserable and blah. When I was pregnant with Jackson and working for a nonprofit organization downtown, I used to ride up in the front car like this to keep my nausea at bay. But to my kids? That elevated train ride was magical and exhilarating.

I love how reciprocal the parenting relationship can be; while my husband and I encourage them to explore and appreciate the world around them, but they teach us to remember to experience the simplest of things with joy unfettered by expectations.

Thanks to Deb Dubrow at Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday each week.

*Insider Tip: To fully appreciate the Chicago style pizza served up at Uno’s, skip the chains in other cities and even in the Chicago suburbs. There’s no substitute for eating at the original restaurant on Ohio Street, or its sister site a block away at Wabash & Ontario, Pizzeria Due.

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Photo Friday

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Debbie at Delicious Baby recently started a Photo Fridays meme featuring travel photos. Since I have no shortage of those, I’m excited to jump into the pool each week.

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In honor of postseason baseball, which is a big hit around our casa, here’s an image from this summer’s road trip to Kansas City. Here’s our middle son enjoying cotton candy at a KC T-Bones minor league game. This was the first time he really started to get how the game works; he’s very numbers-minded so I showed him the scoreboard and we worked on deciphering how many balls, strikes, and outs there were for each inning. If I had to pick a favorite family travel moment from this summer, this would be near the top.

To join the fun and post your own travel photos while also discovering some great new family travel blogs, visit the Photo Fridays page at Delicious Baby for the how-to. (But don’t be a moron like me and link to your photo on the instructions page; post the link to your photo at the Photo Friday post for October 3rd, here).

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