Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Back for More Fun in the Dells

July 16-17
We had so much fun beginning our adventures in the Wisconsin Dells that we are glad we planned to come back to have a few more adventures here on our way home.  We arrive back at Meadowbrook Resort mid-afternoon, and Andrew is in the pool within minutes of our check-in.

Our main event today is the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski and Stage Show, celebrating 60 years of entertainment in the Dells.  We find a somewhat shady spot in the huge amphitheatre overlooking Lake Dalton, and buy icy treats to cool off in the record breaking temperatures climbing somewhere in the 90s.

Once the show starts it is so exciting that we forget about the temperature.  There are barefoot skiers and acrobatic men who do stunts and jumps on skis that are just thirteen inches long.  A team of beautiful young women do synchronized moves on skis, and racing boats with loud engines compete in time trials.  Our hands are just about sore from applauding after all the great water acts.

After the intermission there is a stage show with a juggler who juggles chain saws and knives and eats apples while he juggles them.  A team of three acrobats does balancing and strength feats, and even involves real audience members in their act.  A man and woman team do tricks on a huge double wheel.  It is just like a little circus.

When the show is over, we drive around the lake to have dinner on the deck of a restaurant that is right across from Tommy Bartlett ski show amphitheatre.  It takes so long for our dinner to arrive that we get to watch skiers from the show practicing and warming up for the second show.

After dinner, we pick up our complimentary bucket of s’more supplies at the front desk of our hotel, and head to the campfire to toast up some marshmallows and make s’mores for dessert.  There is a party of people speaking Polish enjoying a cook-out at the picnic tables nearby, and one of their little boys is toasting marshmallows at the campfire with us.  One of the men from the group brings us plates of food, and encourages us to enjoy his Polish specialty. It is a very delicious combination of bacon, onions, peppers and potatoes cooked in a lot of bacon grease and some other spices, and it has enough cholesterol to really clog our arteries but good.  We can’t eat it all, but we do eat enough to be polite and have an authentic cross-ethnic experience. Of course, we have to top it off with another s’more.

We head for bed shortly after we leave the campfire—we have a busy last day in the Dells planned for tomorrow.

We wake to a day so hot and humid that our camera lens fogs up the minute we go outside.  The temperature is predicted to hit a high of 99 with a heat index taking it close to 110.

We start the morning at the Bigfoot Zip Line course, which includes six long lines, including the longest zip line in North America.  Dick wears a helmet with a video camera mounted on it to capture the action and leaves his fancy cameras in the car, so that he will not be inhibited from doing fancy tricks, like hanging upside down while zipping down the wire at forty or fifty miles per hour. 

Yes, he and Andrew both actually do this upside down trick.  I do not.

By the time we are done with the course, we are all soaked in sweat and the temperature is definitely approaching 100.  We had had an exhilarating time flying through the air on the zip lines, but we are eager to get to our next destination -- America’s Biggest Water Park.

We change into our bathing suits in the rest rooms at Bigfoot, then go just a short distance up the road to Noah’s Ark Water Park, where we spend the whole afternoon enjoying the wave pools and wet and wild attractions.

Our favorite experience there is America’s longest water coaster, the Black Anaconda.  The three of us ride together on a specially designed raft.  We hold on tight as we streak up and down and all around in dark tunnels and the daylight, while being spritzed and splashed and dumped with water all along the way.

Andrew chooses where to have dinner tonight, and we are delighted that he wants to go back to the fanciest restaurant with the best food we have enjoyed during this trip.  We have the best table in the place, next to a window with a view of Japanese fish pond with koi swimming beneath the water lily pads.  We spend the meal talking about all our great memories and favorite experiences of the past ten days, and there are many.

We are all ready to go home, but sorry that our adventure is coming to an end.

Roller Coasters in the Rain

Mall of America
July 15
We enjoy our last lumberjack breakfast at camp (including cinnamon rolls that are way bigger than our fists), then pack up our car, which with the addition of our camp projects and purchases appears to be at maximum capacity.  Andrew’s nest in the back seat is getting smaller, as the pile of essential items surrounding him gets bigger.

What started as misting rain as we loaded the car becomes a gusher of a rainstorm as we drive south.  Although it is not the best of driving weather, we are thankful that the rain came today instead of this time yesterday, when we were doing Adventure Ropes.
Today weather does not matter nearly so much, because our destination is Mall of America in Minneapolis, site of an awesome indoor amusement park with lots of thrill rides.  As a self-described “roller coaster maniac,” Andrew has several to choose from here. 

The obvious first choice twists like a writhing snake, turning the riders upside down more times than we can count.  Gayl is the designated photographer, granddad rides with Andrew. 

His next coaster has cup and saucer-like cars that twirl and swivel wildly as they careen around the mountainous track.  Granddad actually kind of likes that one.

Andrew goes solo on a ropes course that has multiple levels, soaring much higher than our Wolf Ridge Course, culminating in the opportunity to walk a plank sixty feet above the floor of the amusement area.

Here is a close-up of him at the end of the plank.   

Fortunately this ropes course has a “two falls and you are out” rule, so our little dare devil is not tempted to dangle from this height just to see what it feels like. 

We have dinner in the lushly landscaped jungle of the Rainforest CafĂ©, where there is a tropical thunderstorm every half hour.  This is somewhat ironic, since there are severe thunderstorm warnings in the area, so we are pretty sure that we are enjoying artificial storms while the real thing is raging outside. 

We top off our very good meals with a massive chocolate volcano dessert (a brownie mountain filled with vanilla ice cream, with chocolate and caramel lava oozing down its sides, delivered with a sparkler blazing atop it).   We aren’t sure that stuffing ourselves like this is wise before heading back to the amusement park for more rides, but we just can’t resist.

We try a few more rides and visit Lego Land, then Andrew decides he really wants to swim in the hotel pool.  His day ends with a good long swim and a relaxing dip in the hot tub before it is time for bed (or, more accurately, quite a bit past his bed time).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On the Ropes (and the Dance Floor)

July 14, 2011
This morning we do the Adventure Ropes Course, our most exciting adventure of all this week.
We wear harnesses like the ones we wore rock climbing a few days ago.  Today, we attach two “pigtails” to the front of our harness.  We clip the carabiners on the ends of our pigtails to the two safety lines that run along the ropes course.  Each person high in the air has a family member ground crew following along below to cheer him or her on and provide encouragement when the walking gets tough. 
The course is laid out so that once you enter it, the only way to get off is to turn around and go back the way you came or to just keep going--no steps down from the platforms along the way.

We’ll take you on a tour:
A swinging suspension bridge leads up from the deck of the climbing building to the first tower.  It isn’t too scary, because you can hold onto cable “handrails” on both sides of it, and when you look down, you see wooden slats below your feet. (Note that Andrew finds it unnecessary to use the handrails.)

The rainbow bridge—one cable to walk and two to hold for balance.  This one really swings and wobbles when you walk on it because it is strung pretty loose.  The view of Lake Superior from the platform at the end is spectacular, although there is a lot of fog on the lake this morning.

The double logs—piece of cake.  Andrew does it without using his hands for balance.

The tightrope—just one wire to walk and no guide rails for your hands, we count on holding our pigtails at the end of outstretched arms to help us keep our balance.  Andrew finds the tightrope so easy that he decides to do tricks.  He falls off on purpose, just to see how it feels to dangle, then he pops right back up to stand on the wire—amazing!

The single log—seems very wide after the tightrope.

The zip line—zips us back to the front steps of the climbing building in one quick swoop.


We are the only family in our group whose members all complete the ropes course.  In fact Grandma Gayl is the only grandma in the group who even tries to do anything more than walk on the swinging bridge at the start of the course.   We find out later that a few grandmas who were in other groups finished the course, including one we think is about eighty, but we are a rare few.

Our other big event of the day is a folk dance evening.  We have a fiddler, our accordion playing counselor Erin, and a terrific dance caller who can also play a lot of different instruments, including the banjo and the harmonica.  Teenagers from other programs in the camp come and join us for part of the time, which makes it even more fun and festive. It is a great way to end our last night at camp--do-si-doing and swinging and joining hands to circle left with all our new friends.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Superior Field Trip

July 13
After breakfast, we board a school bus for on an all day field trip off campus, but on the way we stop at Wolf Ridge’s bird banding operation to see a few birds they have just pulled from their mist nets, to listen to the heart beat of a chestnut-sided warbler and a Cedar Waxwing held right up to our ear, and to check out the mist nets for any new catches (there aren’t any).

After many of us check out the bird lab’s environmentally friendly composting toilet, we pile back on the bus for a twenty minute ride to Sugar Loaf Cove, a privately owned and funded nature center.  (We were supposed to go to a state park, but Minnesota has closed down all their state agencies in a budget tug of war.)

We make Swedish birch baskets with willow handles in the morning.

We use our free time after lunch to take a short trail to Lake Superior, where we walk the shore and collect beautiful smooth stones of many colors.  The boys can’t resist the urge to throw and skip countless rocks.

In the afternoon we hike up a trail along the falls of the Temperence River—so named because most rivers deposit sand when they flow into the lake, creating sand bars, but this river does not, so there is no bar at the mouth of Temperence. 

After dinner we use the camp’s GPS units to go on a Geocaching search for caches hidden around camp.  Each cache has a clue to help us fill in a crossword puzzle with words related to things we have done while at camp. We proselytize about the joys of geocaching (we are up to over 900 found by now), and we are pretty sure that several families will look for caches after they leave camp.

Then it is time for our campfire with s’mores, and entertainment provided by our talented fellow campers.  The kids surprise us with a skit they learned yesterday during their outing to the lake. 
Did we sleep well tonight?  You betcha (as they say around here).

Water Sports

 July 12, 2011
Not by design, but by happenstance, this turns out to be a day filled with water sports. 

Fishing:  Our Morning Program is entitled Fisheries Management.  Fortunately, it turns out to be much more fun than it sounds like from the title.  We stare down the local fish species in a huge aquarium tank that fills one wall of our classroom, learn about brook trout and their habitat, then hike to a stream that we recognize immediately as the perfect habitat for brook trout.  The hike includes 248 stair steps down the side of a very steep hill.    

This is a photo looking down on the stream and boardwalk from the top of the ridge, where the trail begins.

Before fishing, the boys make a stream on a water table, and modify it to improve it as trout habitat. 

Then they use nets in the trout stream to catch trout food (bugs and minnows). 

Finally, they get fishing rods, bait their hooks with meal worms and drop them in the stream.  Within two minutes of dropping his line, Andrew pulls up the first fish of the day.  He catches two more, and another (his biggest) gets away.  He is the run-away winner in this fish derby. 

The grandparents slowly slog and pant their way back up the sloping trail and its 248 stairs, while the boys run ahead, eager for lunch and the next adventure.

Swimming:  The kids have an outing to the lake without grandparents.  There Andrew gets in the water long enough to pass the swim test, then gets out because it really is too cold to swim.  They play games and make ice cream from scratch.  

Laundry:  We engage in a much needed water sport—laundry, and an even more needed activity--relaxation.  When we dug around to find Andrew’s beach towel for his swimming outing, we realized that the beach towels we used at the water park were still damp, and after moldering in a beach bag for all this time, a little laundering would do them a world of good. We are happy to have this excuse to skip the grandparents program that runs concurrently with the kids program, because we have hit our limit on back-to-back organized activity, and we know we have a busy night ahead of us.

Canoeing:  After dinner, we hike down to the lake for a pleasant little paddle in the canoes.  Our relaxing paddle turns into a more spirited water sport when we spot a beaver swimming across the lake.

Beaver Chase:  You’ve heard of Steeple Chase, but it can’t hold a candle to beaver chase.  We try to paddle over to the beaver, but every time we get close, he slaps his tail on the water and dives.  Then we watch for him to come up someplace else far across the lake, and  paddle hard in that direction, only to have him dive again when we get close.  Eventually, more beavers arrive, so we have more targets to chase.  We are sure the beavers are quite relieved when our counselors call us off the lake at the end of our designated canoeing session.

Our final activity of the day is not a water sport, but a Logging Camp Life presentation by our very talented Voyageur guide from yesterday, who tonight plays the role of a very amusing lumberjack cook.  He gives kids in the audience laminated cards with lumberjack lingo phrases on them and the English translations on the back, then interviews them for a job at the logging camp, urging them to read their cards to establish to him that they are real lumberjacks who can talk the talk.  Along the way, he talks about all aspects of life at a logging camp (and Wolf Ridge is near the site of an old logging camp).   Behind him he projects a Power Point slide show of scenes from logging camps that illustrate his talk, but we have no idea where he is hiding his remote control. He has lots of lumberjack jokes and funny stories, but between the laughs, we all learn a lot about the rough tough life of lumberjacks.

Then, we come back to our dorm, where our nightly cookie snack and hot chocolate awaits us.  We are eating like lumberjacks, but not working quite as hard as lumberjacks.  We fear the bathroom scale will tell the tale when we get home.

We Put our Lives in Andrew’s Hands

July 11, 2011
Our first activity of the day is rock climbing on an immense indoor wall designed to look like a real cliff face.  We learn the skills for safe climbing and safe belaying (managing the rope connected to the climber’s safety harness), and all three of us climb and belay each other.  Granddad and I put our lives in Andrew’s hands while he belays our climbs, and we are proud of the great job he does in keeping us safe.  

On his second or third climb, Andrew somehow manages to get his elbow stuck in a crevice, and we all have some tense moments while he tries to maneuver himself and his arm to get his elbow released.  With a little help from one of the instructors, Andrew gets unstuck.  After a bit of recovery time, Andrew is back climbing the wall with boundless energy.  We are proud of (and relieved by) his resilience.

After lunch we learn about the Voyageurs, French Canadians who paddled big canoes around here transporting beaver pelts and supplies for the Northwest Company Brigade in 1793. We all get costumes and learn the names and histories of the characters we will play this afternoon.  Most of us are dirty swarthy uncouth uneducated guys, but Dick is Mr. Harman, our very smart well-paid brigade clerk and Andrew is George Bongo, the first Black Voyageur.  Andrew is happy to learn that he earns twice as much as me, because he can read and write and is a very strong paddler.  

We hike to our big canoe, struggle to paddle in synchrony across the lake, and enjoy an outing on the other side featuring games the Voyageurs would have played and opportunities to play with fire and knives—a big attraction for our team of five young boys.   The most popular activity is attempting to make a fire with flint and steel (both Andrew and Granddad succeed—most others do not).  They also try using a drawknife to make a tent stake. Then we have biscuits cooked over the campfire served with maple syrup as a snack, before paddling back across the lake.

After dinner, we go to star lab, where Andrew knows more about stars and constellations than anybody else there, with the possible exception of  the instructor. He points out several constellations and tells some stories about them to the group. As far as we are concerned, he was the hit of the presentation, but we may be biased.

After Star Lab, we attend a raptor presentation, where we meet Wolf Ridge’s great horned owl, peregrine falcon and red-tailed hawk, as well as a chicken.  The highlight of the evening is a demo of the strength of an eggshell. A whole parade of kids, including Andrew, pick up rocks, weigh them, and pile them carefully into a crate balanced on top of a normal chicken egg.  They put 47 pounds of rocks on top of that egg before it breaks!  Now we all understand why birds do not break their eggs when they sit on them (except when they were exposed to DDT, and the shells became so thin that just a few pounds of weight would break them). 
We are amazed at how much we learned while having so much fun today. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Destination: Finland

July 10, 2011
We are up before 7 a.m. and on the road before 8.  Our destination is Finland, Minnesota, where we will be having great adventures at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center for the next five days.  

We drive through a deluge, including one lightning flash with synchronous thunder that seems to hit right in front of the car. We are thankful that this was not the weather we had yesterday at the water park.  Speaking of yesterday, I seem to be the only one whose arm and shoulder muscles are sore this morning from clutching the steering wheel tensely during my go-kart drives (and also holding tight to the bar on the roller coaster, while Andrew was waving his hands in the air).

Fortunately the rain lets up mid-morning, and we have a mostly pleasant drive.  We are a bit confused when we get to Duluth, and the temperature is 81, despite the weather channel’s claim that it is 69.  Locals at camp later explain to us that the temperature varies widely throughout Duluth (sometimes by up to fifteen or twenty degrees), depending on how close you are to Lake Superior and which direction the wind is blowing.  Those same locals are sweating, fanning themselves and complaining about a temperature of 81 degrees (with no humidity), which we find quite pleasant.  They are promising us the weather will get better as the week goes on, meaning it will get what we call “chilly.” 

We have a crowd-pleasing spaghetti and garlic bread dinner, followed by “getting to know you” games and a camp fire (featuring us singing along while our counselor plays Havah Nagila and This Land is Your Land on her accordion). 

Our post-campfire game of dominoes with Andrew is disrupted somewhat after we finish our first round and find that we not only cannot find a double eight domino to begin the second round, but there is also no double seven in the camp’s domino set.  This puts the credibility of the entire set of dominoes in question, but does not hinder Andrew from beating the pants off us.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wisconsin Dells: Water Park Capital of the World

July 9, 2011
The Wisconsin Dells is verifiably the Water Park Capital of the World—no less authority than the TV game show Jeopardy corroborates the claim.  When in Rome . . . we spend the day at Mount Olympus, a massive theme park with both water and amusement park attractions.  By day’s end, Andrew has ridden four roller coasters—Hades, consistently rated in the top five wooden roller coasters in the U.S, featuring a steep 140 foot drop, two very long underground tunnels, and speeds up to 70 m.p.h.; Zeus, reaching soaring heights; Pegasus--the only coaster wild enough for him and mild enough for me; and Cyclops. 

We expect the coasters to be his favorite attraction, but it turns out that Mount Olympus has other treats in store for him—and us. 

Mount Olympus offers Go Karts we drive on courses that look a lot like roller coasters.  One track climbs the heights of the Trojan Horse, passes through its belly, and spirals back down again.  Another course, Poseidon, twists and turns above ground, and sends us below ground in long dark tunnels.  On our last Trojan Horse ride of the day, Andrew flies past both of us in his Go-Kart, firmly hitting the back of our cars as he passes.  This is exactly how he drove his virtual car in the Arcade last night, so why are we surprised?

One of our favorite spots is Poseidon’s Rage, a huge wave pool that creates a six or seven foot tsunami every four minutes or so.  When we hang out in the deep water, the crest of the wave sweeps us (and a thousand other people) up and leaves us gently behind, but in the shallows where the wave breaks, it throws everyone about in a wild frothy melee.  There are thousands of people in the pool, and we can’t believe that no one is hurt or drowned while we are there being manhandled by Poseidon.

There are lots of different slides combined with tubes and mats, and we sample most of them.  A lot of the time, Dick and I alternate shifts on the rides or in the water with Andrew, and even so, he wears us out. We arrived at 9:20, shortly after the park opened, and we leave at 7:20, shortly after the water park closes (although the amusement park was still open—if he hadn’t been so hungry, Andrew might have been tempted to stay until it shut down, too).

Amazingly, Andrew shows no signs of sunburn, which I take full credit for, since I purchased, applied and reapplied the sun screen on both Andrew and myself, while Dick, who is the only one among us who has had skin cancer cells removed, just put a little sun screen on his face and head.