For the past three summers my husband and I have hosted what we call the “Family and Friends Flotilla.” Basically, we invite everyone to join us for a meandering paddle on a nearby river. That was the original idea anyway, but it’s turned into a whole lot more.
It started when my husband decided he wanted us to do something fun and outdoorsy with the WHOLE family. What you don’t know is that most of his side of the family is not the outdoorsy type. So asking them to come up to New Hampshire to go camping, kayaking, and hiking required a lot of cheerleading and positive reinforcement to get them excited about the idea.
The first year we did it, I was six months pregnant, but otherwise we had no children. That allowed us to do a lot of planning and river scouting before we chose a spot to throw our relatives into the current. Still, while we felt prepared and psyched, we were a bit nervous about being responsible for the fun of the whole family, some of whom were really new to this kind of adventure.
The paddle, along the Merrimack from the put-in near the County home down to the Hannah Dustin memorial in Penacook, turned out to be a bit long for some of the group. Those on either end of the age spectrum (every year we have some in the single digits and some octogenarians) were pretty spent by the end of the day. Thankfully the insane thunderstorm that descended upon us as we took out hadn’t come any earlier in the day. As it was it was a wild climax to a great, but exhausting, day.
The first year we focused primarily on the paddling, including just a short jaunt up the (easy) Warner side of Mount Kearsarge to initiate some of the younger cousins, nieces, and nephews into hiking. It was all over too soon, and everyone had so much fun that we decided to expand the festivities the next year.
While Year One had been based at our house, with some people camping in the yard, some on the couches, some just crashed on the floor in our loft, in Year Two we decided to get everyone to stay at the Baker River Campground for several nights. We figured that would give us a lot more time for visiting around the campfire and doing things in smaller groups. Some went to the Polar Caves while others hiked Mt. Moosilauke. It turned out to be a long hike under the circumstances, i.e. after a leisurely breakfast and more visiting around the campfire, but a good time was had by a few (minus my husband not staying hydrated and totally bonking on the trail…but that’s another story). Initiating a few people into the world of campgrounds was also an interesting experience.
Our paddle in Year Two was a short—maybe too short—jaunt down the Baker River, which you can read about second-hand here. While fun for everyone, last year was tough for me. No longer was my son conveniently stowed in my uterus, but he was now a boisterous and inquisitive ten-month-old who liked his extended family, but generally preferred his Mama. And the whole camping thing was a new environment. We’d done several day hikes with him, but hadn’t ventured into the realm of overnights. I know I’m probably being a wuss, but I find the logistics of diapering mixed with overnight hiking off-putting.
So last year’s flotilla saw me mostly in charge of Max and feeling pretty useless and helpless. I couldn’t really help Doug with the tent or moving boats around, and I even spent the whole river trip under a canopy with barely a glimpse of what was going on around me. It was Max’s first time in a boat and he slept most of the trip, but even when he was awake, neither of us could really see. And I was being carted down the river like some kind of precious princess, which I most definitely am not!
Still, everyone had so much fun that they wanted to know what the plans were “for next year” even before they’d left the campground. So for Year Three we went with the same basic idea again, this time paddling the Bearcamp River and staying at Whit’s End Campground in Ossipee, NH.
Our biggest concern as the weekend drew near was lack of water. New Hampshire has been a dry place this summer and the Bearcamp is not overendowed with water in any August. So when Doug and I visited the campground two weeks before our mid-August float, we were relieved to see that the river, while low, looked easily passable with just a little bit of negotiating. We sent out an email to all our participants reassuring them and reminding those who were renting boats to check on their reservations.
We’ve been very excited to get a lot of newbies to come play in the woods and water with us and renting a boat is the best option when you’re just getting started. All of our rentals this year were from Ski Works in nearby West Ossippee. They delivered the boats to the campground, where we put in just steps from our site, and picked them up from the northwest side of Ossipee Lake when we were done. If we’d needed them to they would have transported even the non-rentals, for a fee of $10/boat. Parking is limited at the takeout and we did consider this option, but decided there was room for our pickup and trailer along the road.
The paddle itself was an easy float downriver. We took several breaks, allowing people to switch from doubles to singles if they wanted, and kids to switch out of tubes. There was even one rope swing that had enough water below it to allow even the big guys to let their inner-Tarzan out. We saw deer tracks and one swimming garter snake which caused quite a stir, (especially when I confessed I’d tried to catch it!) but I think even the most suburban of our campers had more fun than they expected.
For those of you with young children, wondering how all of this might work with a toddler in tow, let me reassure you. They will probably have more fun than you will. During the paddle, Max was relaxed and cool headed on the water; he sat in the middle with his Nona for a while, then took a nap. Later I took him up in the bow with me. With him sitting at my feet I was able to paddle almost perfectly. He couldn’t see too well like that, so some of the time I let him sit on the seat between my legs. Since that put his head in my way a bit, when we got out on the choppy lake I asked him to sit down. Like the trooper he is, he sat right down and we went along just fine. He didn’t even blink when a jetski gunned it right next to us and created a wave or two that came up to the gunwales.
With a little planning ahead (make sure you don’t change their routines too much and be ready to let them get used to new things slowly) camping and boating with a little one are a blast. He doesn’t talk much yet, but I think Max thought these were the best days of his life. He didn’t have to come inside for three whole days and he got cleaned up for bed by playing in the river. Bliss. Most of the weekend he was a giggly blur of sand, clean only when he was actually IN the river. He was more than happy to go off and play with the older kids, and instead of spending most of my time holding a baby, I was able to have fun, relax, and do my part to help out. I just looked up occasionally to make sure my toddler was still in sight somewhere. At night he was so overtired he was literally bouncing off the tent walls and being thrown, still giggling, into the sleeping bags. When we got home he slept twelve hours the first night and more than three hours the next day.
We’ve found that one of the benefits of making a “weekend” (some arrived at the campground as early as Monday!) of it is that you can enjoy more of what the area has to offer. We still found we didn’t get to do all we wanted. I had hoped to fit in a trip to Monkey Trunks, the ropes course on Rt. 16 in Chocorua. It’s just a few minutes away from the campground and looks like a blast. For anyone wanting to take some time off from having adventures, there’s always the shopping in North Conway.
Any way you slice it, taking time to get outside with your family is always worth it. Having seen how mellow Max is in the canoe, I can’t wait to get out on the lake and nearby rivers.