Personal Stories

Books that Inspire Outdoor Play

By Auntie Shelley

Our kids love to read.  While we all know that reading is good for kids because it exercises their brains, improves their concentration and imagination, increases their vocabulary, etc., one thing that’s often overlooked is how reading can actually encourage outdoor play - if you pick the right books.

Chloe & Eva ready to thwart the Sheriff of Nottingham's evil plans

Chloe & Eva ready to thwart the Sheriff of Nottingham's evil plans


Over the years we have come across many books that really inspired our kids to play outside for extended periods of time.  Most of them have been classics that involve some kind of adventure.  Thankfully our neighbourhood backs onto a protected woodlot where our kids are free to run about slaying dragons and orcs, searching for hidden treasure, and outwitting the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Queen Jadis and her sledge have also been known to make an appearance or two, but so far we haven’t run into any talking beavers.  

Here is a list of some of our favourites:


The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

Hobbits, dwarves, wizards, trolls, goblins, elves, dragons, giant spiders, magical forests, battles….these books have inspired hours and hours of forest play for our family.


The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Set in the fictional realm of Narnia, this series tells the adventures of children who play pivotal roles in battling evil and restoring the kingdom.  There are enchanted forests, talking animals, mythical beasts, an evil witch, and Aslan, the Great Lion.  We found The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian particularly inspiring.


Robin Hood

An outlaw and his band of merry men, a beautiful maiden, an evil prince, the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham, bows and arrows, sword fights, and it all takes place in a forest.  What more could you need?


Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

A shipwrecked family that goes on to build themselves a huge tree-house to live in.  This is a classic adventure story.  Wyss wrote this book as a way to teach his sons about the natural world and self-reliance, as well as the importance of frugality, cooperation, love, etc.  The book provides detailed lessons about the natural environment, farming, animal husbandry, etc.  


Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

This is another classic tale of a shipwrecked castaway, only this time some cannibals are added to the mix.


Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler

This story is based on the author’s true account of being lost in the Katadhin Mountains for almost 2 weeks when he was only 12 years old.  This story definitely influenced Josh’s obsession with survival skills.  Just make sure you get the original version and not the recent graphic novel version which is awful.


The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London

These are great books to read in the winter since they are set in the Yukon and involve dog sledding.  After reading these our kids made their own dog sleds out of Rubbermaid bin lids and string.  The older ones spent hours pulling the younger ones up and down the snow covered streets.


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

These classics are sure to lead to raft building and searches for hidden gold.


While the novels listed above probably most appropriate for school-aged kids, Play with Me by Marie Hall Ets is one book that I love for toddlers.  It is a sweet little story about a girl who goes out to look for animals.  Each animal she tries to catch runs away from her - until she sits still by the pond.  Then they all come back.  I have found this book really helpful in teaching toddlers and preschoolers how to sit still and observe nature.





A Few Final Notes:

Eva with her  Lord of the Rings  inspired "Camping Cloak"

Eva with her Lord of the Rings inspired "Camping Cloak"


  • I have found that if we add one or two simple “props” from the book, outdoor play lasts even longer.  One of our favourites is what is now known as, “The Camping Cloak.”  When we read through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the kids were constantly raiding the linen closet, stealing blankets to use as cloaks.  We ended up sewing some real cloaks and the kids have spent countless hours running through the forests with them.  


  • A big spool of heavy string is a worthwhile investment.  It can be used to tie rafts together, as spider webs, to catch goblins, to make bows, etc.  It might seem simple, but the possibilities are endless.


  • If these books are above your child’s reading level, consider reading them aloud or have them listen to a recording. has great recordings of them.  


  • Although many of these books have been made into movies, I recommend avoiding the movies at least until your kids have read the books.  My observation has been that the books always inspire more imaginative outdoor play than the movies do.  


Have you found any books that inspired your kids to play outside?  If so, please share them with us in the comments section below.

Hail in Algonquin Park

By Cousin Luke (Age 5)

Cousin Luke having breakfast on the day that it hailed.

On my last trip to Algonquin Park it hailed.  

Hail happens when water droplets turn into ice.  A strong wind called an updraft can push the water up to where it’s really cold and then they freeze.  Then they fall down from the sky as little ice pellets.  

If there is a strong updraft the hail can get bounced up and down in the sky, and it gets coated with more ice.  Sometimes they can get as big as a snowball.  

When it hailed on our trip the pellets came in little sizes, about the size of a little “Nerds” candy.  They melted right when they landed on the ground.

I’m glad it wasn’t a big storm, because it would really hurt if I got hit in the head with a big hail ball.

A note from Luke’s mom:

Here's a video explaining how hail is formed.


And here’s a link to a video about how hail forms and the largest hail stone in the US (excuse the overly dramatic music).


Hammocks - An Essential Piece of Gear for Naptime and Beyond

By Auntie Shelley

When we first started camping with toddlers, naptime was a bit chaotic.  Our naptime ritual went something like this: I would head to the tent for a “rest” with the little people.  The plan was for us to cuddle up, read a book, and then the little people were supposed to fall asleep and I would have some free time to paddle, read, drink coffee, etc.  In reality we would climb into the tent and the little people would immediately push all of the sleeping bags and gear into one big pile.  They would then proceed to launch themselves head first into the middle of the pile.  This would go on for at least half an hour.  Eventually, after much effort on my part to get them to settle down and sleep, I would pass out from exhaustion while they continued to roughhouse.  Yes, that was naptime.  It was fun for the little people, but not so fun for me. 

Then a few years ago on a last minute trip to Adventure Guide, I picked up a hammock.  Oh how the hammock changed things.  Luke was 2 on that first trip with the hammock.  When he started to look tired I asked him if he wanted to swing in the hammock with Mommy.  He hopped right in, snuggled up and within 5 minutes was out cold.  I think I fell asleep about a minute later.  A new ritual was born.  

Cousin Luke and Auntie Shelley enjoying the hammock.

I have found that my little ones will nap longer in the hammock compared to the tent and often when they wake up they are content to hang out there and watch the trees swaying above them.  I usually put a pad or blanket down underneath them for warmth.  Typically they like edges of the hammock folded up over them so that they are in a little cocoon.  If we’re out during bug season I will drape a mosquito net overtop.  I have also found that on the rare occasion when I don’t fall asleep in there with them, it’s pretty easy to sneak out without waking them up. 

Now, I will admit that when I bought the hammock I wasn’t really thinking about naptime.  I had visions of myself relaxing in it, enjoying a picturesque view of the water while my children canoed and explored the campsite.  In reality, I only got to use the hammock when I was putting Luke down for a nap in it.  The rest of the time it was full of children squirming, giggling, swinging, snuggling, reading, chatting, etc.  There were six or seven children on that trip and I think at least one of them was in the hammock the entire time.  At one point I did try to take back my hammock from the children, but I was out numbered.  They knew it and so did I. 

Since that trip the hammock has become one of our “must have” pieces of gear when camping with little ones.

Cousin Anna lounging in the hammock on a 2010 backcountry trip.

This year we ended up bringing two with us, which was a good thing since Grace staked her claim on the older one the moment it came out of its sack.  She’s rather small, but she is the fifth child and knows how to hold her own.  We all agreed it would be best not to mess with her.

Our latest addition is the ENO DoubleNest.  I picked this one because of its size.  Inevitably three or four kids want to be in there at once and the DoubleNest can easily accommodate them all.  It comes with two carabiners and an attached compression sack and packs down to the size of a softball.    

Cousin Josh in the ENO DoubleNest.

We have lots of webbing kicking around from climbing, so we use that to attach them to the trees, but the Atlas Straps would be worth picking up if you don’t have webbing already.

We have been interested in trying out hammock camping for a while now.  On our recent fall trip, Cousin Chloe tried it out for the first time.  I will let her tell you all about that experience.  For now let’s just say that I think hammocks will be showing up on some Christmas lists this year.

Camping With a Newborn? Seriously?

By Auntie Shelley

Backcountry Shelley.

Dan and I were outdoors people before we had kids.  Our shared love for the outdoors was one of the things that attracted us to each other and we both wanted to share this with our children.  So, when our first child Anna was born, we decided to take her out into the backcountry soon after.  Anna was born in April and by late July we had taken her on her first canoe trip in Algonquin Park. 

Auntie Shelley with baby Eva in the backcountry

As a new mom I was incredibly nervous about this trip.  The internet was in its infancy in those days and so I couldn’t rely on Google.  The few books that were available focused more on car camping and backpacking and barely mentioned infants.  And when I would mention to friends that we were going to take our newborn on a backcountry canoe trip, they would respond with raised eyebrows and question whether it was a good idea, or whether it was even possible, to take an infant into the wilderness. 

Auntie Shelley with baby Eva.

We decided on a short trip (two nights), which, when measured by our pre-kid standards, seemed like a joke.  We were used to going on much more rigorous trips.  Between the two of us we had experienced gruelling, uphill, non-maintained portages, bugs so thick you couldn’t fall asleep because of the noise, pouring rain that soaked everything, unexpected snow storms, rough waters and so on.  Our pre-child way of thinking was: “go big or stay home.”  Now, with our first newborn, we were thinking: “go small rather than stay home.”

My post-partum brain churned over every possible negative (and unlikely) outcome:  What if the canoe tips?  What if we hit really big waves?  What if it rains?  What if a bear comes into the campsite?  What if the temperature suddenly plummets and we all freeze in the middle of July?  This new anxiety about going into the backcountry wasn’t something that I expected when I became a mom.  I grew up in Northern Ontario and most of my childhood and teen years were spent on water and in the bush.  The sense of fear of the wilderness and the need to protect my child were new.

Dan, on the other hand, was much more relaxed about bringing an infant on a trip and patiently worked with me to relieve all of my anxieties.  So, what were my concerns and what did we do?

1. Water Safety

Water safety was probably my biggest concern.  We took several steps to deal with this one.  First, we found the smallest lifejacket possible.  In those days, Salus had not yet come out with their Baby Bijoux Vest, which is what we recommend now (see this post), so we were left with rather ill fitting alternatives.  The jacket we ended up using was serviceable but it didn’t fit as well as I would have hoped and I was still concerned.  Second, Dan assured me that when we got on the lake we would stay close to shore.  We wouldn’t go any further out than an easily swimmable distance in case I had to swim the baby to shore in the unlikely event that we capsized.  Third, we picked a small lake that we knew was most likely going to be calm.  Fourth, I decided that I would hold Anna the entire time and leave the paddling to Dan.  Finally, we decided to avoid taking routes that involved portages on this first trip to minimize time in transit.  This way we didn’t have to worry about portaging gear or being too far away from our car if an emergency did arise.  The lake we chose had a slowly moving river feeding into it and this meant that we could go on easy day trips if the weather was nice.  With these countermeasures in place I was able to worry less about water safety.

2. The Weather

Baby Eva napping in the backcountry.

We knew from experience that even when nice weather is in the forecast, weather systems can change quickly and unexpectedly.  Our trip was in July and although the forecast called for warm sunny weather I worried about an unexpected rainstorm and plummeting temperatures.  My ‘new mom’ fears on this topic came fast and furious and I could imagine a storm emerging out of nowhere throwing rain and hail at my baby and freezing her into a blue solid chunk of ice.   So what did we do?  Well, I packed extra fleece sleepers and base layers, and we picked up a fleece bunting suit.  I brought a raincoat for myself that was big enough that I could slip Anna underneath it, keeping her dry and warm against my body if necessary.  We also agreed that we wouldn’t travel if it was raining.  In addition, I packed a back-up bag of baby clothes, diapers, wipes, etc. and left it in the car; it was reassuring to know that it was there and that Dan could quickly paddle back and get it if it was needed.  As it turned out, the weather was fine and nobody froze. 

3. Night Time

I was also concerned about the baby being comfortable during the night because if the baby is not sleeping well, no one ends up sleeping well.  Fortunately, we already had a short ultralight Therm-a-rest® that was the perfect size for a baby.  I decided that I would wedge it up against my Therm-a-rest®, put down a fleece blanket that would cover both of our Therm-a-rests® and then cover both of us with my sleeping bag**.  Anna usually slept beside me at home so I was comfortable with the idea of co-sleeping in the tent.  We would also bring extra blankets just in case.  This arrangement ended up working out perfectly!

**Update - my friend Keeley gave me a good word of warning about this.  If you're sleeping bags have any type of draw string (mine didn't) then you will want to remove them so that there's no risk of it getting wrapped around your baby.  I also keep anything that could pose a suffocation threat on the far side of the tent.  The entire area around the baby is kept clear.

4. The Bugs

The mosquitoes and black flies can be pretty intense in the backcountry.  If you’ve never been in the backcountry in the summer, just take a look at the “blackfly song” below and you’ll get the idea.  So, I worried about Anna being “eaten alive” by bugs.  To address this concern, we planned our trip for the end of July when the bugs aren’t as bad in Northern Ontario.  I also decided to bring my brother’s extra large bug shirt with me so I could wear it with Anna with me inside the shirt.  And, I planned on nursing in the tent if things were really bad.  In the end the bugs were really mild that year and I didn’t even use the bug shirt. 


In hindsight I will admit that I dramatically over packed for that first trip, but I didn’t know what to expect and being over prepared helped alleviate my anxieties.  Even now I tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to keeping our little ones dry and warm. 

In the end, our trip with our first child turned out to be a wonderful experience for all:  Anna was a happy camper and so were we.  It was different from our previous trips, but I learned new things that I didn’t expect.  I learned that canoeing with an infant wasn’t nearly as hard I thought it would be and that reassured me that I could share my love for the great outdoors with my new baby. I also learned that I was facing a new type of adventure.  An adventure where the battles would be less physical and more psychological; one where the challenge would be less about growing as an individual and more about growing as a family; one that would require me to learn how to put my own desires aside so that this new little person could grow up to love nature and outdoors as much as I do. 

Looking back 12 years, 5 kids, and countless trips later, I can’t believe I ever questioned whether or not it was a good idea, much less possible, to take an infant into the wilderness.   It’s definitely doable and truly rewarding for all.  But it can be hard.  We often think of ‘extreme’ sports as those that involve hurling oneself off a cliff with a thin piece of nylon or jumping out of a plane.  But if you really want to go extreme, try backcountry camping with five little kids.  Now that’s hardcore for all involved!

Kids grow up fast! Anna (11 years old in this photo) enjoying an early morning with baby sister Grace (1 year old) in the backcountry.

A Quick Fall Trip

By Uncle Dan

It was only a few days after I finally finished taking the medicine for my Giardia infestation that my strength began to come back and with it, my desire to experience the fall colours in the backcountry. The weather forecast was favourable and so we contacted the Sudbury crew, hitched up our trailer, loaded our gear and canoes, and off we went.  It turned out that we missed most of the fall colours and instead of the forecasted sunny skies we received some rain and hail.  Nevertheless, the trip was fabulous!  Here are a few photos that capture several moments from our trip. While my photos don't do the landscape justice, I hope you get at least a small glimpse of its beauty!  Additional photos from this trip have been placed in a Fall 2014 photo gallery.

A fall evening on the river.

Josh enjoying what is left of the fall colours.

Beaver Fever: Oh Crap! (by Uncle Dan)

Never in 30 years of backcountry camping have I come back from a trip with stomach issues -- at least not until this year.  I have known for a long time that the lake water in northern Ontario can contain parasites and so we have always been careful with our drinking water, diligently treating or filtering our drinking water on every occasion.  In fact, we don’t even brush our teeth with unfiltered lake water for fear of one of those little parasites and its friends finding their way into our intestines.  But, as it turns out, this year I wasn’t careful enough.

When I first came back from our two-week trip I felt fine: I experienced a little muscle fatigue from all of the physical activity I engaged in during the trip (portaging canoes, paddling, foraging for firewood etc.), but otherwise I felt rested and even mentally refreshed.  About a week and a half later, things changed.  I started to develop symptoms that at the time I thought were consistent with a mild stomach flu.   I began to experience indigestion, minor cramping, intermittent diarrhea, some rather dramatic and potent flatulence, and extreme fatigue.  One crappy day turned into another, and then another.  I wasn’t getting any better and in fact, I was feeling crappier.  Two weeks later, with symptoms unabating, and even worsening, I began to think this might be something other than the common stomach flu. Meanwhile, during those two weeks Shelley started to develop similar symptoms.  It was time to do something other than wallow in our crappiness.

Applying her prodigious internet-search skills, Shelley began to aggressively work Google’s search engine, entering our symptoms to see what possible diagnoses Google would return. A theme started to emerge rather quickly: 'Giardia', or more colloquially, 'Beaver Fever! '

Oh crap! This was not good!

The symptoms described in one website after another almost perfectly matched the crap we were going through. 

You can read about Giardia here, here, here and here.  Giardia is a parasite that coats the lining of the intestine.  It is microscopic, but magnified it looks like a real ‘bug’ with a body, a flagellum (tail) and other useful equipment. Oddly enough, the body of this creature looks like a face.  If it was much larger, I could envision my kids wanting one as a pet.  There would be fighting over who gets to keep it in their room and in the end everyone would want one of their own.  But you really don’t want one of these.  As they line the intestine, they block absorption and breakdown of food that is consumed, particularly fats.  The undigested fats lead to malodorous crap, and I gather that somewhere along the line sulfurous gas is released, which might explain the exotic flatulence.  It turns out that the symptoms begin to manifest about one to two weeks after infection, which explains why I felt fine just after I came home from the trip.  According to my sources, some people who contract the parasite never actually show noticeable symptoms.

Giardia parasites are often carried by beavers (hence the colloquial name “Beaver Fever”) and are expelled into the water when they crap.  Not surprisingly, Giardia is most commonly found in lakes occupied by beavers.  The thought of drinking remnants of beaver droppings sends shivers down my spine.  Ingesting crap is generally not recommended and both common sense and expert consensus dictate that it should be avoided at all cost. It turns out that it is possible to contract Giardia even if you filter your drinking water properly.  You can unsuspectingly contract Giardia just by getting some water in your mouth while you are swimming in the lake, or from high-fiving a beaver who hasn't washed his hands after going to the bathroom.

The thought of beavers sends my mind back to one particularly gorgeous calm evening on our camping trip. As I stood and watched the still water and the ominous dark clouds brewing in the distant sky, a slow yet steady movement of the water caught my eye. On closer inspection of the water, I noticed that there was beaver casually swimming by our campsite.  I called the children over to see the beaver and we all enjoyed a truly Canadian moment in the wilderness. At the time, standing with my wide-eyed and awestruck children, I thought “what a beautiful beaver!” Now, sitting buckled over on the toilet, bearing down as I brace for another wave of stomach cramps just before generating another explosion from my back end, I think “that %$@# beaver!” 

This is likely the offending beaver.

It was time to go to the doctor. 

The doctor agrees that Giardia is a likely cause of my suffering.   Handing me several containers he explains that I have to fill these vials with stool samples (that’s doctor speak for filling the vials with crap). He explains that I have to trap the crap into a container and bring it to the lab for testing. Back at home I read the instructions for collecting the samples of crap.  Apparently, crapping into a container without contaminating the sample by urine requires some nimble maneuvering and maybe even a bit of practice.  I’m quite dexterous though and so I'm able to get the job done on the first go. It felt odd, but it had to be done.  Now it was time to deliver the samples to the lab. I soldiered on. 

I arrive at the lab and approach the receptionist.  The waiting room is filled with people looking sick and bored. I hand the receptionist the doctor’s form together with the two bottles of crap hidden in an envelope.  I try to be inconspicuous because it really feels weird when you’re handing some stranger two vials full of your crap.  Without a moment of hesitation, the receptionist opens the envelope, pulls the samples out and holds them up to the light as if she was trying to read a letter through an envelope!  The samples are in a clear bottle and are now in full view of the people in the waiting room.  “Yes, that’s my crap,” I think to myself as I scan the room. “Wonderful.  Please advertise my samples to the whole world!”  What can she possibly divine from a public inspection of my samples?!?  I'm guessing she was trying to read the label.  After what felt like an eon, she accepts the samples, places them back in the envelope and informs me that the doctor will be notified with the results in two or three days.  The job is done.  I retreat. 

The phone call comes about three days later; the lab has confirmed that there was Giardia in my samples.  The doctor prescribes Metronidazole (250mg), which is a standard treatment for Giardia. As the pharmacist hands me the bottle of white pills he rattles off a seemingly endless list of possible side effects.  I listen as he mentions “metallic taste in your mouth,” “vomiting” and “diarrhea” and then I zone out.  Seriously? A metallic taste in your mouth?  It sounds like the side effects of the drug are worse than Giardia!  I tune back in as the pharmacist mentions that absolutely no alcohol can be consumed while I take this drug.  Evidently, even the alcohol in mouthwash can make you violently ill while on this drug.  Nice!  This drug is like napalm for your body.  Apparently, in addition to its use as a treatment of Giardia, it is also used to treat severe uterine infections.  At least I don't have to worry about those.

As of this writing I’m three days into taking the meds and so far so good.  The side effects aren't nearly as bad as I expected.  Here’s hoping I'm back to normal soon!  Right now, though, I'm still carrying a memento of my dear Canadian friend -- the beaver! As someone who has 'bin there and done that' I humbly offer this advice: Don't take any crap from a beaver!