It’s not all fun and games: Our worst camping moments

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that my son accused me of always focusing on the positive aspects of camping while consistently ignoring everything that ever goes wrong. And he is not the only one who has charged me with practicing “joy-washing” as I called it. My friend says that whenever she asks about a trip, my answer is always: “It was great!”

Well, I’ve never denied that camping involves certain hardships and inconveniences but to me they are insignificant compared to all the joys that every trip brings.

However, in the spirit of total disclosure, I decided to pull together some stories when things didn’t exactly go as planned starting with…

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Add Some Nature to Your Summer

Summer is finally here, and it is meant to be spent outside soaking up the warmth of the sun and storing it up for the upcoming winter. You don’t need to go away on a long extravagant vacation to the Caribbean or an African safari to get closer to nature. There are many ways to add more vitamin N to your everyday life, even in the city.


grasses in the sun

Summer is here – time to soak up the sun!

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Camping in Canada’s “deep south”: Wheatley Provincial Park, Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island

May long weekend camping is always a gamble. Will it be cold? Will it rain? Will the temperature drop down to freezing at night? Where to go? Which park to book? This year, we decided to go to Wheatley Provincial Park with the intention to also visit Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island located nearby. When we arrived in the park late Friday night, the trip didn’t look very promising. The weather forecast showed high chance of rain and thunderstorms for the next couple of days. Our campsite was soggy and wet. On top of it, our neighbours turned out to be Top 40 fans (not my type of music, especially in the woods, where I want to listen to birds not Taylor Swift). On the plus side, the weather gods waited patiently till we finished setting up (it started to rain the exact moment I zipped up the tent door behind me) and the sound of rain drowned out our neighbours’ music.

eating breakfast under an umbrellaThe next morning, we woke up to a drizzle that would occasionally intensify to a medium strength rain. After finishing our breakfast under the umbrellas and playing a dice game (I lost), we started wondering whether we should put up a tarp to get some protection from the rain. Miraculously, it stopped raining sometime around noon and the rest of our stay was rain-free. I am even happier to report that our neighbours didn’t turn on their music after that first night. The mud on our campsite never went away, though. In fact, the ground seemed to be getting soggier and muddier the more we walked on it and we brought back a good deal of Wheatley mud caked onto our boots and tents. But then you can’t have everything. Continue reading

Our Road Trip to Florida: Part II – Florida Keys

After a long drive from Tampa and a stop for groceries, we finally crossed the bridge to the Keys just as the sun was about to set down. We stopped for dinner at the aptly named Sundowners restaurant in Key Largo. More yummy seafood plus beautiful views.

view from Sundowners restaurant in Key Largo

Camping at Sugarloaf Key

Our destination was a KOA campground down at the Sugarloaf Key. My original plan was to book a site at Bahia Honda or any other state park in Florida Keys. Unfortunately, since campsite reservations for Florida parks open eleven months in advance, there were no campsites left by the time we started planning our trip. After some research, I found a KOA campground not far from Key West. During our road trips, we often book cabins at various KOAs for one- or two-night stops. It is less expensive than a hotel room and doesn’t interfere with the whole camping vibe of the trips. We weren’t sure about tenting, though, since the tent sites we’d seen at different KOAs varied significantly – from decent-size wooded lots to small pebble-covered patches tucked in between RVs. The site we got at this KOA exceeded our expectations by a lot: it was further away from the RVs, and had lots of shade and space (enough space to even play soccer). We then discovered that there were other tent areas, with the green one (where we stayed) and the yellow one being the best. All the others were across from the RV area, which looked more like a parking lot than a campground and made me claustrophobic every time I had to walk through it.

two tents at the Sugarloaf KOA campground

playing soccer at Sugarloaf KOA  playing soccer at Sugarloaf KOA

The campground as a whole was far from the wilderness camping experience we are used to and reminded more of a resort with its own bar, café, tiki huts and inflated bouncing and climbing structures in the beach area. It had some nice features, though, like kayak, canoe and boat rentals, and was a good base for exploring the Keys and visiting Key West (plus we had lots of wilderness waiting for us over at Everglades). We stayed there for three days going on bike rides, kayaking, soaking up the sun and watching pelicans and iguanas. Pelicans were abundant, especially around the fish cleaning station waiting for occasional fish remains or lining up on the fishing bridge seemingly oblivious of the people right next to them. Dozens of iguanas were sunning in the mangroves, their striped tails hanging among the branches. It was a fun game to see who could find the most of those masters of disguise. Sometimes, they would scatter around the campsite or play hide-and-seek around the car. (For more pictures of pelicans and iguanas, go to my Random|Pix blog.)


fishing bridge

pelicans  pelican in a tree

iguana in a tree   iguana in a tree

iguana on a car tire   iguana on a car tire

The best part of the trip, of course, was getting to spend time with my family, my brother and his wife. In the evening, we would have long conversations around the fire or listen to our friendly neighbour Roger play his guitar.

around the campfire

Key West

We dedicated one day to exploring Key West since it was only 20 miles away from the campground. Instead of driving there, we decided to take public transit. There is a bus running all the way through the Lower Keys and it only costs $4 for adults and $2 for kids. Biking would be another green transportation option since there is a bike lane along most of Highway 1 that runs from Key Largo to Key West. The bus does take some time, though, since it makes frequent stops and circles a bit around Stock island and Key West but then you don’t have to worry about finding parking, not an easy task in a town as busy as Key West.

key west

Key West is a pretty, lively town at the very south of Florida Keys so almost everything has ‘Sounthernmost’ in its name, like “Southermost Hotel’ or ‘Southernmost Beach.’ The southernmost point in continental USA actually features a huge buoy with the ’90 miles to Cuba’ marker, a very popular destination with a huge lineup of people wishing to take a picture in front of it. I guess this fascination can be explained by the fact that for now Americans can’t get any closer to Cuba. ’90 miles to Cuba’ is another popular sign you’ll see around the city.

90 miles to Cuba

two boys near the sea  sea

southernmost beach

Key West, just like the rest of the Keys, has a bit of a Caribbean vibe. Beautiful houses, tropical plants, roosters wandering in the streets, lots of restaurants and cafes, delicious seafood (again), yummy ice-cream and famous Key Lime pie, music and dancing everywhere. And, of course, the sunset celebration at Mallory Square with flaming skies and street performers.

key west

rooster in key west

ice cream shop  restaurant


sunset at Mallory square


street performer at Mallory square

We had great time exploring the city and taking silly pictures, like looking over the fence of Hemingway’s House or pretending to be taking a selfie with a statue at the Museum of Art and History.

hemingway's house in key west

mallory square in key west

key west   selfie

For more pictures of Key West, check out my Random|Pix blog.

Before long, it was time to leave Florida Keys. As always, it felt that there was so much we hadn’t done. We had plans to stop at Bahia Honda Park on the way back since it has the best beach in all of the Keys. Unfortunately, the day use area was packed so we had to readjust our plans. We ended up at Sombrero Beach, a lovely public park in Marathon. It felt surreal to be swimming in the ocean at the end of December and the water was the warmest we’d experienced in 2014 (yes, much warmer than the lakes in Canada were this past summer). After a few hours on the beach and a grocery shopping trip, we headed for Everglades, with a beautiful Florida sunset in our rear-view mirror.

sombrero beach in marathon

sombrero beach in marathon  reading

seven mile bridge  seven mile bridge


Off to Everglades…

Accordion Baked Potatoes

Kawartha-26No other food says camping more than baked potatoes. Some of the best memories from my childhood backpacking trips are of pulling hot blackened spuds out of the red glowing coals. They were slightly charred on the outside but deliciously soft and crumbly on the inside. Preparing a perfect baked potato may seem easy (what could be difficult about tossing a few potatoes into the coals?) but it requires some testing before you figure out the correct timing and a few burned or overcooked potatoes along the way. It also takes time because you need a nice big pile of coals, which means you need to burn some wood before you even get to the tossing-potatoes-into-the-coals part. These days, we usually wrap them in foil and put on a grate above the fire.

This recipe is for a fancier kind of baked potatoes and requires some preparation. We usually do all the cutting and filling at home, wrap the potatoes in foil and then the only thing left to do at the campsite is to bake them.


– Baking potatoes for however many people you are planning to feed

– Filling: butter, onions sliced, garlic chopped, salt, pepper

– Possible topping (optional): yogurt or sour-cream, grated cheese, salsa


– Wash the potatoes

– Make cuts in each potato about 2/3 through and 1/4 of an inch apart (when done it should open up like an accordion, hence the name)

– Fill each opening with a slice of butter, a couple of onion rings and a few garlic pieces, add salt and pepper to taste

– Wrap in foil

– Bake for about 40 minutes to an hour depending on the size of the potatoes, turning them over from time to time. Test readiness with a knife. It should insert easily when the potatoes are done.

– Take them off the firegrate, let cool a little, add the toppings and enjoy!

Finally, experiment with fillings and toppings. So many delicious combinations can be created. Let us know which ones you like the most!

Kawartha-25   Kawartha-28

Our Other Home is a Tent

I am writing this post from our tent. I can hear the rain pelting on the roof and the waves of Lake Ontario crashing outside. We’d just come back from our failed hike on the Marsh Trail at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, all soaked through. Since it doesn’t look like the rain is going to stop any time soon, my husband and a friend of ours are outside trying to pitch up a tarp so we could make a fire and cook something for dinner later. I feel sorry for them because it is so cold and wet out there. Sprained ankles have their benefits. I can stay in our warm, cozy tent and cuddle with our kids without feeling too guilty.

Of all the gear we schlep around on our camping trips, a tent is probably the most important one. It’s not only a place to sleep. It’s where we play card games on rainy days, read books by the flashlight at night, share our impressions of the day and just cuddle. It’s our second home, sometimes for a few weeks in a row. The importance of a good tent cannot be overstated. We’ve gone through our share of tents so I know what I am talking about.


Our first tent was huge, I mean really big. It could easily fit ten or even 12 people and my 6 foot 4 husband could stand up straight in it without having to even tilt his head. Some people probably have apartments not much bigger than that. Why did we need a tent that big? I don’t know. There were only four of us. All I remember is that it was two days before our first camping trip, our friends dropped us off at Costco, this tent was on sale, the size sounded impressive so we just bought it. Later we discovered that it was pretty cold on spring and fall nights. Plus setting it up required three to four people with some serious upper body strength.

We retired it after a few camping trips and bought a smaller, more manageable one. It was easier to set up, took up less space, had a vestibule where we could leave our shoes and stuff and it seemed to be working. That is until our first rain when we were woken up by water dripping onto our heads. We still kept it for some time afterwards, covering it with tarp on those wet days. And then a raccoon tore a hole in it so we had no choice but to buy a new one.

(True story about the raccoon. We woke up in the middle of the night to find a raccoon halfway inside the tent going through a backpack with our son’s books and other stuff that keeps him entertained when he wakes at 6 a.m. giving us some extra time to snooze. As it turned out, there were also some snacks at the bottom of the backpack that we’d completely forgotten about. Our little friend was fishing them out and throwing outside through a hole he’d just made. Since then, everything that goes into a tent must pass a rigid inspection to make sure some forgotten morsel of food isn’t smuggled in inside someone’s pocket).

BonEcho hiking-15   tent-2

But going back to our tent. Once we decided that it was time for a new one, we made our must-have list. It had to be light and small or as light and small as it was possible for a four-person tent. It had to be waterproof (no more tarps). It had to be easy to set up. We were about to go on our first three-week road trip. During that time, we would have to set up and pack up a tent every three-four days so some complicated scheme of ropes and poles that you can’t figure out without a Master’s in engineering wasn’t going to work. It had to have a vestibule or even two to store things during our back-country trips. It had to be breathable and warm. Well, and not cost a fortune.

We did find it. It is Kelty Trail Ridge 4. It is a Goldilocks of tents for us: not too big, not too small, just the right size. The four of us can sleep there comfortably and it also feels extra roomy because of its special configuration and light colour (never thought about the colour before but it does make a difference). One person can set it up in about ten minutes. It has two vestibules so plenty of room for shoes and backpacks. With a full-length fly, it is warm and dry. We’ve had it for four years now and so far not a single drop of rain has grazed our foreheads. And we’ve been through some serious rain. Last year, while camping at Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills, we woke up in the middle of the night to the lightening so bright and frequent you could read and the rain was coming onto our tent with the strength of Niagara Falls or so it felt. And yet not a single drop made it inside.

It is also fairly light for a four-person tent. There are lighter tents out there and we may consider investing in a back-country tent once we start doing more multi-day hiking trips, but for now this one works. As it turned out, its aluminum poles are pretty flexible too. On our trip to Badlands, we returned to the campsite one day to find our tent lying flat on the ground. It was day four of our four-week trip and the prospect of looking for a new tent wasn’t particularly exciting. Upon inspection though, we discovered that nothing was broken or ripped and after some unbending and untwisting it was standing back up good as new.

tent-4   tent-3

So to sum it up, we love our tent. It keeps us warm and safe and happy. Truly our second home with ever-changing breathtaking views. Does it have any drawbacks? Well, I wish it had more windows. And a skylight to watch stars at night. A skylight would make it perfect!

Things to consider when buying a tent:
1. Size: Bigger isn’t always better, certainly not for a tent. It has to be big enough for the number of people you plan to fit inside. It is always easier to find a good level spot for smaller tents, especially on back-country trips.
2. Weight: it may not be important if you only do front-country camping. If you are planning to take it backpacking or canoeing, every pound or should I say ounce matters.
3. Waterproof: no one wants to get wet in the middle of the night so it’s better to invest in a good waterproof tent.
4. Warm: Full-length fly means there are fewer drafts on cold fall nights.
5. Set-up: the less time you spend setting up your tent, the more time you have to enjoy camping.
6. Vestibules: space to keep you shoes when it rains and store backpacks on your back-country trips.
7. Colour: You may think that darker colour tents are better because of dirt but they allow less light in, feel smaller and heat up faster in the sun.
8. Ventilation: Mesh walls make the tent breathable. Windows and doors that you can open on hot summer nights are important too.