Last weekend was the long-awaited first time camping with our little guy. We booked our campsite in July after realizing that nearly every weekend this summer was and is scheduled to be consumed with events and engagements. We knew if we didn’t pencil in a trip just for us the season would be here and gone and it would be another year before camping would become an option again.
Since we booked our trip during a brutal heatwave in July we looked for some northern location that would hopefully provide some late summer relief. Jay Cooke State Park outside of Duluth, MN was our destination. Set in the Northwoods of Minnesota, Jay Cooke has over 50 miles of hiking trails within its borders. The St. Louis River runs through the park and provides some amazing views as it sweeps over lots of exposed rock on its way through the dense forest. It is beautiful and provided us with a wilderness fix (something we deeply need), but was accessible and friendly enough to camp with a family.
View from the swinging bridge in Jay Cooke State Park
The three of us spent several nights in the woods and made some day trips to Duluth and beyond to enjoy the panoramic views of Lake Superior. Camping with a toddler is…well, definitely different than the days of old when we were unencumbered and could hang out around the fire relaxing (now those two words don’t look like they belong near each other), hiking for hours on gnarly singletrack trails, camping minimally in a tiny tent with just a sleeping bag and camp pad. But it is certainly doable and having our 15 month old fill up his bucket full of pine cones and rocks, watching his face fill with curiosity and wonder listening to a ground squirrel or chipmunk, and seeing him toddle down the trail, well those are the images we had in mind when we decided have children and I wouldn’t trade this trip for anything.
We arrived Friday afternoon and set up our camp. Harper immediately started exploring his new surroundings, picking up handfuls of dirt, rocks, and sticks.
He even got in on setting up the tent…
We didn’t bring an air mattress because we felt like Harper wouldn’t sleep next to us well on one, and instead laid our sleeping pads on the ground and then covered them with a feather comforter and a thick flannel-lined sleeping bag. We topped this with another feather comforter for sleeping under. We brought our biggest tent, which I won in 10th grade at an after prom party. It hasn’t been used much over the years since we prefer to pack small and light, but I have a feeling that it’ll be making more appearances now that we have a child. Having that extra space to stash gear (and toys) as well as let little ones play was a must, especially when we needed to wait out a quick rain shower one afternoon.
With our camp secured we decided to head into Duluth (only about 12 miles away) for an evening stroll along the boardwalk that follows the shore of Lake Superior. Duluth is one of our favorite towns and the weather was perfect. We spent a leisurely two hours meandering along the shore and through the downtown before heading back to camp.
Watching the ships
Playing in the sand and checking out the immense lake
Braving the water with Daddy (Harper still hasn't warmed up to lakes, pools, or sprinklers...maybe next summer...)
Back at camp the sun began to set and we readied our fire and began cooking our supper of delicious pork chops (from Maveric Heritage Ranch Co. in Dell Rapids, SD). As the delicious scent wafted through the campground we plated up potato salad, veggies, and chips. Just as we were getting ready to pull our chops off the fire I spotted in the dark a little black animal near one of our chairs and then saw its big white stripe down its back: A SKUNK!
I swept Harper up instantly and flew into the car. We were completely astounded that a skunk would approach us and Wyatt went out to see if he was gone. He found him out there circling our pork chops and not seeming afraid of us at all. He even walked toward Wyatt nonchalantly and made his way around our camp like he owned the place. Turns out, he did! After calling the park staff over and ascertaining that the skunk had finally moved on a friendly ranger asked us if this was the site with the drain pipe running under the tent pad. Well yes, it was. Apparently we are not the first campers to have this skunk visit He told us that skunks are attracted to food and that since there were no other campsites available we should just try to keep a clean camp and if the skunk came by again to shine our lights on him and made clicking sounds to get him to go away. Seriously? He went on to talk about the strange behaviors of wild animals who become habitualized to humans over time…skunks who are fed by hand by campers, garbage can raiding bears, and a story about a tenacious fox up at Temperance River State Park who had somewhat of a shoe fetish and stole campers’ shoes. One family had four pairs of shoes outside their camper when they went to bed and only one lone shoe left when they woke up (later on Wyatt and I laid in our tent imagining this single-minded fox carrying off shoes, one at a time, getting to his den with one and obsessively turning right around for the next. We imagined him racing against the sunrise for that last shoe and not quite making it back, watching despairingly as the family woke up and snatched their one remaining shoe back into their camper…). Eventually someone found the fox’s den and there were around 60 shoes stashed there.
But back to our current skunk problem. The ranger left, seeming not too concerned about this unwelcome visitor at our site and we spent the rest of night doing “perimeter checks” with our headlamps and worrying. The skunk did come back again that night and he wasn’t afraid at all of us, showed no aggression and we didn’t receive a spraying.
Drain pipe under our camp pad, a.k.a. the home of "Jimbo," our campsite skunk
After a somewhat sleepness night next to a fitful baby we awoke bright and early to the cool woods and the promise of a new day. We made our fire and cooked a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon over the flames.
The camp kitchen box doubles as Harper's breakfast table and chair
After washing down the meal with hot coffee we dressed and wandered over to the visitor center to inquire about “child-friendly” hiking options. We wanted something that would allow us to easily hike with a baby on our back, or something we could take the jogging stroller on. The staff was incredibly friendly and helpful and we left with a map of highlighted routes and scenic points.
We decided to take the stroller and make a long hike along the Forbay Trail en route to the Munger Trail, a 63-mile paved bike trail running from Hinckley, MN to Duluth. We packed lunch, water, and a diaper bag full of supplies and headed out.
We first stopped at the Swinging Bridge (a brief hike from the visitor center) and took in the gorgeous view of the river, then took the Forbay Trail through the park and joined with the Munger Trail.
It was a beautiful walk and we passed through both the towns of Thomson and Carlton along the way. At one point we crossed a bridge with beautiful views of the river.
Harper did wonderful. Around nap time he drifted off easily in the stroller and took a hearty snooze. We passed the time checking out the abundance of wildflowers along the trail and spying trees that were showing the first signs of the changing season.
We ate our lunch at a picnic shelter in Carlton and spotting rain clouds on the horizon began speed walking back to the park. We received a few sprinkles but after walk/sprinting for a little over an hour we made it back dry. We collapsed in the tent after three hours of hiking and listened to a brief shower pass over. Since he had spent the duration of the trip lounging in the stroller Harper took this rest time to expel his pent-up energy by jumping on our heads and crawling over our limp, exhausted bodies.
Energy to burn
Once we recuperated we tried to spend some time relaxing at camp, but quickly realized that instead all we were doing was chasing Harper as he climbed onto the picnic table, went out onto the road, tried to work the water spigot, and just generally attempt to injure himself in this new and freeing world of “outside.”
Trying to figure out how Mom and Dad get water out of this thing
Taking himself on a walkabout
After a while however, this became exhausting and we decided we needed to find something else to do. We loaded into the car and headed out for a drive along the North Shore. We headed into Duluth first and cruised the historic district checking out the huge homes built in Duluth’s port town heyday. We then drove out of town and headed up Hwy 61 to Two Harbors. We stopped at Betty’s Pies, a place we had visited after a rainy backpacking trip a few years ago in Crosby Manitou State Park and had fond memories of. We ordered broasted chicken and all the fixings and of course a slice of Apple Strawberry Crunch a la mode for dessert.
The boys chowing down
Stuffed, we unbuckled at least one pants button and drove over to the lighthouse off of downtown Two Harbors and took an evening stroll. The light was beautiful and it was so amazingly peaceful on the lengthy walkway taking us to the lighthouse. The water lapped below us and as far as the eye can sea stretched Lake Superior.
Walkway out to the lighthouse in Two Harbors, MN
Feeling the breeze off of Lake Superior
We spent a while taking pictures in the fading sun and strolling around the shore and the rocky outcropping nearby.
Feeling content we headed back to our camp where we ate a cold supper (fearing a return of the skunk, who by now we had nicknamed Jimbo, and who returned again anyway but without incident) and hit the hay early.
The next morning Harper rose early again and we cooked up a second helping of bacon, eggs, and coffee before striking camp around 9am. On our way out we stopped by Oldenburg Point for one last short stroll in the woods and a sweeping view of the forest and river below.
View from Oldenburg Point--woods as far as the eye can see
We then hit the road taking Hwy 23 down to the junction of I-35 to avoid the heavy road construction on the interstate. Harper fell asleep and we made good time back through the cities heading east. We decided to make one more fun stop on the way home to break up the drive and give Harper something to do. We stopped at Emma Krumbee’s Apple Orchard outside of Belle Plaine, MN and went apple picking.
After steeling ourselves with coffee and an apple fritter we headed out to the orchard where we were able to fill up our bag with over 10 lbs. of Stella apples (we paid $11 to do so). We helped Harper pick some apples off the tree, but soon he was mainly interested in getting an apple in his mouth. Once he did he was content to hang out in the grass.
Harper continued to munch on his apple for a good part of the drive home and we arrived safe and sound around 6pm on Sunday to greet our dogs and chickens, who had been cared for by Wyatt’s sister during our trip.
It was a wonderful experience being able to share our love of the outdoors with our young son, and a reminder that babies do grow up (in the blink of an eye, actually!) and activities you love aren’t gone forever with the arrival of children. With patience, a little flexibility, and some creativity camping can be a had with young’uns. You can bring your babe to the woods!