We went to Bear Creek Lake for the first time when Kairi was two. It was a nice day and we wanted to take advantage of the weather, so figured we’d drive the hour outside of Richmond to check out the beach on the man-made lake at the park. Unfortunately, storms passed near the area not long after we got there, so while we never saw any rain, the lake closed on account of lightning.

Since then, we’ve gone back several times, and had Kairi’s birthday party there last year. I debated asking people to drive so far, but figured it was still a lot closer than the beach or the mountains, and it’s such a beautiful location that surely everyone would feel like it was worth the drive.

As far as I know they did, because we had her party there again this year and they still showed up. ūüôā

I was admittedly very skeptical about camping here. We’ve driven past the campsites frequently, and while the water-view sites always struck me as beautiful, I worried about privacy, and about losing the wildness that we tend to seek when we go camping (and why we tend to do a lot of primitive camping). Even booking our campsite almost three months in advance, there were only two water-view sites left, so I had no idea if the site we were getting was going to work for our family, or if we were going to be looking at busy roads, overcrowding with our fellow campers, not enough shade, and limited firewood options.

My reservations? Completely unfounded. This was easily one of the prettiest sites I think we’ve ever had.

The tent pads were filled in with shredded tires which gave the ground a little more give than gravel or packed dirt, and the sizes have a wide range. We were in the only tent-only loop (so no electric or water hook-ups), and our 6 person tent could have easily fit in every site, and I saw a few sites with 10 person tents set up.

There are two sections with water-view sites. We were in the one closest to the park entrance, and in this loop there is boat ramp to launch canoes or kayaks (and very clearly labeled no swimming). A few of the sites (8-10) border the lake, about 4′ above the water with a fence and a retaining wall serving as barrier. Site 11 is right on the water with no barrier whatsoever. We were in site 12, which had the boat ramp and the driveway to site 11 between us and the water, but I think we had one of the best sites in the loop. We were elevated a little and had a great view of the lake, while still having a small degree of privacy and a lot of space–and the bathrooms were just up the hill on the side of the site opposite the water, with a small meadow and growth of trees protecting us from view.

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The other sites at Bear Creek Lake are the Acorn Loop sites without a water view, and then two loops on the other side of the main entrance to the park–there is a trail that leads from the sites to the water, about .2 miles, and from that point connects to the Channel Cat Trails for another .2 miles to get to the beach. Our loop was .4 miles from our site to the beach, but followed the lake the entire way. The kids and I made that trek several times, often with both kids barefoot because they were too excited about going to swim to be bothered with anything but their bathing suits and floaties.

I tend to forget, in my constant fretting that my kids are going to disturb other campers, that the more maintained and less primitive a campground is, the more OTHER kids are going to be there. Of the other sites in our loop, at least half of them were occupied with families with kids both nights we were there. Of the two families in particular we spoke with, one had two little girls a year older than each of our kids respectively, and the family closest to us was celebrating an 11th birthday party, and those boys took both of our kids completely under their wing, letting them watch while they built their fire, and even sharing their fishing rods. (I suspect it’s my introversion that drives me to seek places where we don’t have to interact with other people far more than it is actually worrying about my kids…)

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At site A11. You really are camping right on the water.

Things of note:

  • Swim bands are included with your overnight fee if you camp. You get them when you check in at the ranger station.
  • Cumberland County is still in the piedmont region of Virginia, and is only at 455′ above sea level. It. Was. Hot. Like, miserably hot. We are so used to camping in the mountains where that higher elevation knocks down both the temperature and humidity, and we had forgotten just how awful it is camping when you can drink the air through a straw. Fortunately the storms that rolled through Friday were the result of a cold front, and Friday night/Saturday were gorgeous–but plan your trip according to Virginia summers, not Virginia mountains.
  • Boat rentals are available near the lake–as of July 2018, paddleboat rentals are $6/hour and canoes are $8/hour. Kayak rentals are also available, but I forgot to ask what the rates are for those.
  • If you choose to rent a boat, there is a spillway at the end of the lake nearest the water-view camping sites. You can actually see this from the road right before turning into the park. When the water is low this shouldn’t be a hazard, but we avoided it just in case.
  • The campground bathrooms have showers, if you need/want those.
  • Our last morning there Kairi got into something that gave her a rash all over her arms and legs. There was only one plant near where she was playing I didn’t recognize, and the ranger thought it was an immature orange creeper vine. The campground host who saw us gathered together expressed her surprise, stating the rangers do a very good job of removing poisonous plants, and this is the first issue we’ve ever had in a Virginia state park. We treated the itch with calamine, but she continued to have redness, swelling, and little white bumps, until we got home and could give her Benadryl.
  • The campsites allegedly have Wifi. We never tested this, but I saw a sign posted about it near the lake.

Overall Family Friendly Rating: 3.5/5. For older kids, I would have no problem giving this 5/5, but for young children there are safety hazards that require a lot more vigilance than we prefer.¬† Both of my kids kept wanting to go down to the boat launch, and the water there gets deep pretty quickly. Staying away from the water-view sites would eliminate this hazard, but that puts you in the more populated loops with a lot more vehicle traffic–cars, RVs, and bicycles–and I actually find that a lot more stressful than being near water! However it really was a beautiful camping experience, and there is so much to do at the park for kids of all ages, that as long as you are comfortable having to helicopter your kids a bit more than might be usual, this is a great place for kids, and a REALLY great place if you’re looking to bring friends who are hesitant to leave behind any amenities.

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Raise your hand if your kids don’t think it’s camping without roasted marshmallows!

I will likely skip next week’s post on account of us getting ready for our move from Richmond, VA to Chattanooga, TN. Make sure to subscribe to my email list below to receive a special farewell gift in the coming week!¬†

 

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A change of pace from my normal trail and campground reviews–because I couldn’t write about those places, if we didn’t have them to write about.

I’ve had a distant relationship with the concept of patriotism for most of my adult life. I was a junior in high school when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and I remember being confused–and honestly disgusted–by the attitudes that I saw following it, that seemed to imply that if you weren’t 100% behind the American government, you were unpatriotic. It just didn’t make sense–our country is built on civil discourse. On seeing injustices and standing up to them, of challenging our government and reminding our elected officials that they answer to the people, not the other way around. Of course we can stand up! The very idea of standing up (or sitting, or kneeling) is, I think, one of the most American–most Patriotic–things you can do. I’ve heard, all too often from far too many people, the idea that you can’t criticize the President. That you don’t have to like him, but you have to respect him–despite the fact that our country is based on fighting for the freedom to disagree with the government.

I spent a lot of my early adulthood wanting to ex-pat, because I very cynically associated America with processed food, war profiteering, and placing corporations over people, and nothing else. And in today’s climate of separating families at the border, mass shootings, and the continued fight for equality that women, minorities, and the lgbt+ community face on a daily basis, identity politics have clouded what it means to be a patriot.

Merriam-Webster defines Patriotism as: “love for or devotion to one’s country.” Not to one’s government.

When I go to the mountains, I feel love for my country.

When I stand on the edge of the ocean, letting my toes sink into the sand and the water splash up to my knees, I feel love for my country.

When I look at pictures of vacations we have taken–to the red rocks of Sedona, the rocky beaches of Maine, the open plains of Texas, I feel love for my country.

Other places have these things, to be sure–but they are other places. We have an incredible landscape right here, that existed long before people did, long before our government did.

You may be wondering–why am I talking about politics here? I’m a business owner, and this page is about my business. But–the older I get, the more I am increasingly confused by how environmentalism can be such a polarizing political view. How public lands should be funded, sure–but¬†having those public lands–having places where we can walk, hike, run, camp, hunt, swim, meditate, climb, fish, bike, whatever? Our very existence as human beings craves connection to nature, and this is coming out more and more as that nature is taken away from us. We are discovering how vitally important it is for children to have outdoor spaces to play in, and looking for ways to bring nature back into urban areas. We have museums dedicated to getting kids and adults alike interested in our natural world–but then as soon as politics enter the conversation, it becomes bi-partisan.

I like to think the environment could be a unifier. That we can all find a way to step back, take our political party out of the equation, and examine our own relationship with nature. Not everyone wants the immersion the way I do, but even the most indoor-dwelling people I know still feel revitalized eating that first meal of the spring outside, and see the benefits of taking their kids to the park and letting them run around for awhile. For as many memes on websites like tumblr as there might be about hating bugs, hating hot weather, hating the brightness of the sun–there are just as many incredible photographs of sunsets, clear blue lakes, mountain peaks that stretch into a sky of endless stars. Whether the people posting ever choose to go there or not, those photographs will disappear if we don’t fight to protect our natural spaces.

I love the geography of my country. I do not always love my government, but I will always love the beauty found within the United States. There are so many places I haven’t seen yet, so many places I want to see, and I consider myself fortunate to have all of these incredible natural wonders in place where I don’t even need a passport to go to.

I know that Independence Day is about celebrating the birth of American Democracy. I also know that we cannot celebrate the birth of this country without also acknowledging the price the Native stewards of our land paid, and are still paying. We are built on blood and tears, and have already stripped away so much of our natural space and killed or isolated the people who know the stories of our mountains, trees, rivers.

But it’s not too late to save what we still have, or to reclaim what has been lost. For our mental health. For our children. For future generations of Americans who should have the same outdoor opportunities that we have, if not more.

So on a day dedicated to the love of our country, I choose to celebrate the land.

 

A couple weeks ago, a very close friend of mine got some bad news. I had already been debating on taking the kids camping for the night, so when she told me, it cemented my decision: I invited her over, and then whisked her off to the mountains for some nature-therapy in one of my favorite campgrounds.

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Loft Mountain is located around milepost 80 off Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, and is a campground that I believe just about any type of camper can enjoy. There are a wide variety of sites, ranging from walk-in, car camping, and RVs, there are some that are reservable (loops F & G) and most that are first-come-first-served, sites that are hidden behind thick blackberry bushes, sites that are wheelchair accessible, and sites that look out onto a gorgeous view of the sun setting over the mountains. The bathrooms have water and electricity and are kept very clean, and the camp store sells everything from beer, to tent stakes, to SNP souvenirs–and has showers. Your fellow campers are anyone from family reunions and scout troops, to AT thru-hikers stopping for the night.

I’ve been camping here for most of my adult life. It’s one of the first places I brought Billy when we were dating, and we’ve been bringing both kids here since they were babies, and my only bad experiences here were have been due to bad weather. The rangers are always nice, and while other campers can be a little loud at times, they are very friendly. There are always families with kids of varying ages, and this past time was especially neat, as a family had heard Kairi talking while out on a walk, so we ended up hanging out with them while our kids played together.

The AT hugs the west side of the campground and crosses behind the camp store, so it is not uncommon to see thru-hikers while here during the summer. This time the site we picked was right at the top of the spur that leads from the AT to the campground, and a group of trail angels were in the sites across from us. They told me their son had hiked the AT in 2010 and they set up camp during the time he would be passing through to give him a place to stay and a hot meal, and offered some trail magic to all thru-hikers that passed them. Then a few years later their son set off to hike the PCT, and while they could not travel out to him, they set up at Loft Mountain again–knowing that people were offering him kindness out west, they wanted to mirror that by offering kindness to hikers where they¬†could go. They had signs at the Blackrock Hut a few miles away, and again at the spur to the campground, letting hikers know they could come by for a place to sleep, and free dinner and/or breakfast. Both nights they hosted several hikers, and had music and conversation all afternoon–it was an incredible insight into the communitas that happens on the trail, and really me nostalgic for my time on the Camino de Santiago.

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One of the must-dos at Loft Mountain is to watch the sun set over the mountains to the west. If you are lucky enough to find them available, you have a great view directly from sites 20A and 20B, but as those are almost always occupied, by taking the spur down to the AT and then turning left, after a short walk is a small outcrop of rocks. Come here at sunset and you’ll find many other campers joining you for the show. Our first night we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen, and while the second night we didn’t have the same vibrant colors, it was still beautiful to watch.

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The day we left Kairi wanted to go on another hike, so we actually did part of the Frazier Discovery Trail this time. I’ve never done this as we usually drive to one of the hikes off Skyline Drive, but the part that we did on this trip was a very easy trail that follows the AT part of the way, and then turns off towards the campground amphitheater. In all the years of camping here, it was the first time I made it to this section of the campground, and just about kicked myself, because it has an incredible east-facing view. Now I know–come here at sunrise next time! (I loved this view so much that I actually took clients there yesterday and they agreed that it was spectacular!)

I should note the wildlife element of this campground. Deer and bears are very prevalent here, especially in the summer, and the campground now requires campers sign an agreement that improper food storage will result in an $80 fine. I’m glad they are doing this, as bears in Shenandoah are getting to be less and less afraid of humans. Bugs are also terrible in the summer, and as mentioned before, lyme has been found in ticks in SNP, so good bug spray is essential.

Overall family friendly rating: 5/5. This is a great campground, and it’s a great campground for just about any type of camper. If you have kids that get nervous easily, grab an open site near a bathroom. If you have kids that you’re worried will disrupt other campers, pick a site you have to walk to, or one of the ones on loop G. If you’re in an RV, you’ll have a lot more privacy and woodsy-ness than many campgrounds that cater specifically to RVs. There are plenty of nearby trails to fill the hours in the day, some without even having to get in the car–and all of the loops are paved, so even the most inexperienced of cyclists can enjoy taking their training wheels for an after-dinner spin.

If you’re planning a trip to Shenandoah with kids, I highly recommend spending at least one night here–although I’d guess you’re going to want to spend more!

I’ve been tagged in enough posts requesting tips on the Grand Canyon, that I have no excuse to delay writing this anymore, even though I don’t know that I have a lot of tips to really offer.

I’m not sure we did the Grand Canyon “right,” if there really is a right way to go somewhere so impressive.¬† We not a family of early risers–Billy and Kairi in particular. Because we were staying in Sedona, two hours away from the Grand Canyon, I had wanted to be on the road absolutely no later than 8am, earlier if possible. My goal for our trip was to hike down to the three-mile rest stop on the Bright Angel trail, and I knew we would need to get as early a start as possible to complete all 6 miles. Instead, we didn’t manage to leave until well after 9, and by the time we got there, parking was not easy to come by. We finally found a spot near one of the lodges, walked to the rim trail, and started our descent into the canyon just before 1pm (at which point we had already decided we would only go to the 1.5mile rest stop).

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The only picture of me on the trail! Taken by Billy. More exhausted than annoyed, despite how I look!

The trail itself was…underwhelming. I hate to say that about a place that inspires so much awe in everyone who sees it, but as far as¬†hiking goes, in retrospect I would have planned the day differently.

The biggest drawback for me is just how popular the trail is. When I hike, I do it for the immersion in nature. The constant stream of people going both up and down the Bright Angel trail made it hard to feel that at all. Anytime we wanted to stop and just stare into the canyon, we had to scoot out of the way of all the people still moving, and it’s hard to just breathe in the majesty with other conversations in the background. We also let Kairi walk during our descent. It was was not a problem for her at all, but meant a lot of encouraging her to watch where she was going, be careful of other people, let’s let these people pass, etc, etc.. I didn’t feel like we gave her a chance to really enjoy herself.

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Free-range toddler. He insisted on wearing the “pack-pack,” and was so happy to be able to walk.

We had lunch on an outcrop just past the privies at the 1.5 mile stop, and this was the closest to feeling¬†in the canyon I got. Because we were a few yards off trail we had a slight sense of privacy, and had the quiet necessary to just look at the red cliffs, and take in how big the whole place was. Billy and I took turns standing as far out as we could and feeling our own smallness, looking down at Indian Gardens, and the drop beyond to the river we couldn’t see, but knew was there.

Surprisingly, we made better time on the way back up than we did going down. Kairi was already tired, so I took over wearing Sebastian and the backpack, and Billy wore Kairi in the Beco toddler carrier I bought specifically for this trip. Moving at an adult pace the whole time, we made it out in around an hour. The hardest part going back up is definitely the series of switchbacks that last for about half a mile after the rest stop, and once we got past those I think we were so surprised at the pace we had maintained that we just kept it up. There are two natural tunnels in this stretch of trail, one about a mile down and one about a tenth of a mile down, and when we got back to the tenth of a mile tunnel we actually let both kids down to walk the remainer by themselves–I only had a¬†slight heart attack watching Sebastian move around next to such a sheer drop.

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The tunnel about 1/10th of a mile from the trailhead. Getting a shot without other people in it was not easy, even later in the day!

It was after 4 by the time we got up to the top, and this is when kid-meltdowns started to happen. I walked to the car and back to take the backpack and get my tripod, and when I got back, we were all starving, and Sebsatian wanted to run everywhere after being in a carrier for three hours. I wanted to get a picture of us overlooking the rim, but Kairi broke one of the legs of my tripod trying to help me, and I realized¬†after we found a good spot, that I had not taken the clip for my Capture Clip Pro (something else I bought specifically for this trip and then¬†left in my car in D.C.) off the base of my camera, so couldn’t attach it to the tripod anyway. Sebastian was screaming unless I was holding him, and thankfully a very kind woman whose husband was an amateur photographer offered to take a picture for us.

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Not the picture I would have taken, but I’m so grateful to have it.

From here we decided to get dinner. We had an hour’s wait for a table and couldn’t leave the building or our buzzer would stop working, so we missed the entirety of the golden hour/sunset waiting to eat, and it was completely dark once we were done with our very mediocre meal. However–there are very few sidewalk lights (none in some places), and we were only two days out from the new moon, so we did get to see the stars over the Grand Canyon, and that was a truly incredible sight. Sedona is an International Dark Sky Community, so we saw incredible stars the whole time we were in Arizona, but standing on the edge looking out, there was no horizon. It was endlessly black above and below, with more stars than I’ve seen in my entire life. If you don’t have opinions about light pollution already, you will once you see just how many stars our streetlights are concealing.

Overall–I can’t say I loved our trip. But I can say that I am very glad we went, and I learned several things for next time, and that I’m happy to pass on to anyone looking to go here with kids:

  • Get there early. Yes, we all know this, but don’t make our mistake and underestimate how long it will take to get everyone ready and find parking. There is too much here to see and do, and half a day just isn’t enough time.
  • Make time for the Rim Trail. I was so certain that I would regret leaving without having hiked below the rim, but I did it at the expense of really getting to see just how big the GC actually is. We really only looked out from the area around the Bright Angel Trailhead, and we just missed so much by not walking along more of the rim.
  • Be prepared for a¬†lot of people. Even as we were almost back at the trailhead, there were still several people going down into the canyon. I don’t know if the South Kaibab trail is the same–it is a more difficult trail which may discourage a lot of the traffic, and allegedly the South Rim is far more populated than the North Rim, if your trip allows you to visit that side.
  • Allow yourself two days if you want to hike below the rim. As adults traveling without kids it would be possible to do a hike and then spend some time on the Rim Trail and exploring the GC Village, but with kids, especially young kids, the hike itself was very taxing. Even though Sebastian didn’t walk most of it, that just meant he was a bit manic by the time he was able to run around. Kairi has incredible stamina for her age and did a good job of holding herself together even as she was tired and hungry, but she was clearly overstimulated, and quickly got bored with our desire to just stop and watch the sunset when all she wanted to do was get dinner. The hike was not as difficult as I expected it to be, but it’s still a different hiking experience that what we are used to, and that’s a lot of sensory input for kids to take in.

The next time we come here, I want to plan a Rim to Rim hike. I would love to see the North Rim, and to give ourselves more time to explore the village on the South Rim, and more time to walk along the rim itself and take in the scope. Our trip felt rushed, and left me feeling like I had missed an experience—one I am eager to go back and regain.

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I was a boy scout in high school. Sort of. I was a girl scout for a long time, and then in high school had a few friends in Venture Crew, which is a co-ed branch of BSA with a focus on outdoor adventure. Once a month we would go on a new type of adventure–backpacking, caving, repelling–and on one of those trips we went to False Cape State Park, all the way at the southern stretch of the Virginia coastline.

You can’t get to False Cape by vehicle. It’s on the other side of the Bay Bay National Wildlife Refuge, so the only ways in are to walk, bike, or take one of their electric shuttles which only does tours, but does not transport campers. When I went in high school we backpacked in. Two things about that trip have stuck with me: that it was a long, hot walk in direct sunlight for the entire 6 miles…and that it was worth every single step once we got to our oceanside campsite. On that trip we set up camp directly on the beach, and go to watch the sun rise over the ocean from inside our tents. It was pure magic, and I’ve wanted to go back ever since.

I don’t know why it took so long. I guess because it’s a three hour drive, on top of the 6+ mile walk in, and it’s been a slow process for us collecting backpacking gear. Last week was Billy’s birthday, and when talking about where we wanted to go, I decided we were doing False Cape. None of the oceanside sites at the 6 mile point were available, so I booked one of the ones 9 miles from the parking area, and we decided we would find a way to bike in.

And that’s exactly what we did. We borrowed two bike trailers from friends, packed the kids into one, our gear into the other, and at 6:30pm on Thursday evening, we finally started pedaling away from the Back Bay Visitor Center with no idea how long it was going to take two relatively inexperienced cyclists to make it while towing up to 100 pounds each.

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Cell phone picture! Note to self-make sure camera is accessible at all times.

The ride in was amazing. The weather could not have been more perfect–that late in the day we rode through the golden hour (and I cursed myself for deciding I didn’t want to worry about my camera while cycling because THE LIGHT YOU GUYS. THE LIGHT.), with low humidity and warm-but-not-hot temperatures. We watched the sun set over the bay. We saw THE BIGGEST CRAWDAD I’ve ever seen. It was so peaceful, it’s almost my favorite part of the trip.

Before when I came, I remembered the campsites being very close to the ocean–as in–just on the other side of a dune. The oceanside sites at False Cape actually have two sites–one on the island side of the dunes, and a sister location if you want to pitch your tent on the sand. We had planned on that, but our sections of sites this time was actually about 1/10th of a mile from the shore, through loose, deep, sand, and we didn’t want to deal with getting the bikes through that, so we went ahead and set up camp at the picnic table site–which was really just as well, since there was a privy right there, and we didn’t have to worry about the wind blowing away anything that wasn’t staked down.

The site itself is one of the prettiest campsites I’ve ever stayed in. It was so shady that even as the sun got high (and hot) in the sky, we were never uncomfortable. We were so close to the ocean we could easily walk back and forth as much as we pleased, and we spent a lot of our time just relaxing on the beach. We did take a short bike/hike on Friday–I wanted to cross the VA/NC border, but we didn’t learn until the next day when talking to a ranger that if you want to do that on wheels, you need to wait until low tide and ride along the coast, since the inner trail is on loose sand. We made it until that sand started, and then parked the bikes and walked to an old cemetery (we seem to find cemeteries on hikes frequently). Again, I didn’t have my camera, since I had thought we’d be spending most of our time under high noon light. One day I’ll learn.

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So pretty, and so private

Things of note for camping here:

  • There is no potable water except at the visitor’s center. We got water on the way in, and then Billy biked out and back to fill up all of our canteens on Friday. Make sure to bring empty water containers and have a way to transport them to and from your campsite.
  • Campfires are not allowed in the park. You’ll need to have a backpacking stove for cooking/heating water, and if you come in cooler months will not be able to make a fire for heat.
  • Bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs. So many bugs. Everything I read prior to our trip warned about the bugs, so heed those warnings and then add a few more. Billy and I each found 5-6 ticks a piece on us. Fortunately we got to most of them before they burrowed, but still. Eek. In addition to mosquitos, biting flies, sand fleas, gnats, and any other type of nuisance you can think of. I make bug spray because I just cannot bring myself to use DEET, and we went through the entire bottle over the course of three days. We also love Murphy’s Citronella Sticks, although the ones I ordered did not arrive in time for us to take with us–I think they would have been a great help, and highly recommend bringing, if not those, something similar. Friday evening Billy and I actually dressed a little more than was comfortable for the heat just so more of our skin was protected from bugs.
  • There are no trash facilities in the park. Anything you pack in, you pack out. This shouldn’t be difficult, but is something to prepare for.
  • We cheated a little on the 9 miles. The Back Bay Visitor Center is actually 1.5 miles from Little Island City Park, where overnight campers are expected to leave their cars with their reservation number in their windshield. However, during daylight hours the visitor’s center is accessible by vehicle. So we drove in, unloaded the car, and I drove back and parked, then rode in that mile and a half unencumbered. We did the same thing on the way out. Not having to tow the trailers on a paved road with vehicle traffic, and cutting off that extra mile and a half was totally worth it.
  • I asked the rangers if they ever allowed campers to use the shuttle in the case of persons with disabilities, and they said they have done it before, you just have to speak to the park manager to make special arrangements. So if not everyone in your family is able to make the 6-9 mile trek in, you have options to still enjoy this incredible park!

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Overall Family Friendly Rating: 4.5/5. This might seem like a really¬† high rating for a park that requires such a long hike/ride in, but hear me out. There’s an ocean. There are miles of open sand, where you might have a few other people at most, even at full occupation. The privies are extremely clean, the sites are beautiful and sandy, so even when not on the beach the kids have something to do. There are trails everywhere. I’m only even taking off half a point because it’s not something you can drive to which involves a little more planning for comfort, but as long as you have the means to get there, that actually makes it¬†more family friendly to me. Fewer people around, no cars to worry about, SO much open space for kids to play in. So often in the more maintained campgrounds, I feel like kids get bored quickly–neighboring campsites are so close it’s hard for them to freely explore, and constant traffic presents a hazard. Our kids spent as much time playing in the sand on the path by our campsite as they did playing in the sand on the beach, and we could keep an eye on them from a distance rather than feeling the need to keep them close. If you have the means of getting here–either via bike, or backpacks to hike your kids in–I¬†highly recommend bringing little ones to False Cape.

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We’ve been back from our trip to northern Arizona for exactly one month now, so I guess I should stop procrastinating and work on my write up of it. Although it’s hard to write about it.

One of the biggest lessons I took away from college was based on C.S. Lewis’ essay “Myth Became Fact,” and it was the idea that you cannot simultaneously describe and experience something. While in Sedona, we were only experiencing it. It reminded me a lot of how I felt after walking the Camino de Santiago–a feeling of absolute presence with time and place. Even in the camps and hikes we do at home, so often I am thinking of how it feels, giving names to my emotions, writing mental poetry about my surroundings. But Sedona was just so–I’ll say it–epic, that all any of us could do was stare. Enjoy. And experience.

You’ve probably heard about the “vortex sites” in Sedona. I hiked to a couple of these, and what I left this trip with, was the feeling that all of Sedona is a hub of mystical energy, not just a few specific locations. It’s indescribable, but it’s palpable. There was a peace over the entire family the whole time we were there. The kids listened better, and it was easier to just be. Even our last day there, we weren’t worried about what we were coming home to, as so often happens on vacation. We were just soaking in as much of the Sedona atmosphere as we could.

And the views. Oh, the views. I commented to Billy at one point while we were driving somewhere, that every time I looked at the towering red rocks, it’s like I had forgotten how amazing they were. I love love love the Blue Ridge Mountains. I can and have spent hours just caught up in the majesty of their rolling peaks and purple glow. And Billy and I both love the ocean. But there’s an overwhelming beauty to the red rocks of Sedona. Is it because it’s just such different terrain than we are used to? I can only say maybe. It seems like everyone I’ve spoken to who has been to Sedona–whether they are coming from the east coast, the PNW, or even further south in the desert of Phoenix–agrees that Sedona has a magic all its own.

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Bell Rock Pathway, overlooking the Chapel on the Hill towards downtown Sedona.

As far as going with kids–if you are an adventurous family at all, Sedona is a perfect place to go with kids. There are so many trails you couldn’t even scratch the surface (so to speak–har har) in one trip, and of so many varying lengths it’s easy to find one for any age without having to travel far from wherever you are staying–although I have to recommend staying close to Oak Creek if possible. We rented a house through vrbo.com, and were overlooking the creek, and had our own private trail down to it that we took advantage of almost daily. Unfortunately in mid-April the water was still REALLY cold so we didn’t do a lot of creek splashing, but there was a huge flat rock that made a great picnic spot, and the kids loved it. There are a lot of amazing camping opportunities that afford creek access as well. We did a lot of cooking at the house we were renting, but there are a variety of restaurants scattered through the entire town with some excellent food.

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Kairi playing on the rocks at our private access to Oak Creek.

Sedona is an artist’s haven, and that can make some of the shopping/sight-seeing a little challenging with little ones, as so many of the shops have wares that are easily broken or damaged, so we did not get a chance to look at as much of the art as I would have liked, but I was mostly interested in the outdoor experiences, so that wasn’t a huge drawback for me. (And we ended up coming home with a beautiful mosaic by artist Lenore Hemingway as a gift from my mom regardless–thanks mom!)

More than the views, the hiking, and the art however, our trip sparked a wanderlust in all of us. A reminder of how big the world is, and how much it has to offer. An experience for our kids to see the diversity of our planet’s natural beauty, and, at least in Kairi, a traveling spirit to see more. Virginia is beautiful, but it’s one small place in a much larger world.

So go to Sedona. Take your kids. Breathe it in. You’ll thank yourself, and your whole family will fall in love.

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Our actual view from the trail leading from our rental house to Oak Creek.

 

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Billy and I realized on our trip this weekend that we have gone camping over Easter weekend almost every year we’ve been together. Probably with both of us working in retail for so long we always had Easter off, so it made it easy to take a couple extra days. This year we didn’t even really plan it, but that week when Kairi and I were talking about where we would go on our family day, I mentioned camping and she immediately said “yes, yes, yes!”

We’ve walked through the canoe-in campground at Powhatan State Park a few times on hikes, and knew it was a short walk from the parking lot if you weren’t arriving via canoe, and since this park is a lot closer than the campgrounds we usually go to (and only about 20 minutes from Billy’s work location), we decided it would be a great time to try it out–and to try out backpacking in, to get a feel for how underprepared we actually are for shifting from car camping where weight isn’t an issue, to backpacking where it is.

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Billy says he’s going to need this picture after he does his first thru-hike to show his roots.

I drove up first with the kids and we walked in (it’s about 1/4 mile from the parking lot to the tent sites), and chose a site where Kairi immediately identified vines that make perfect swings, and that backed up to nothing but forest. There was one other site occupied when we arrived and we couldn’t even see the person camping there, and while we ended up with two other neighbors, they were also far enough away that we could only see one of them, and I didn’t feel bad about the amount of noise my kids were making–especially as the night went on, and we had exhaustion and injuries to deal with.

The park has multiple trails and a playground, so I was not worried about how to occupy the kids before Billy got there–which wouldn’t be until the kids’ normal bedtime at the earliest. Just staying at the campsite would normally have resulted in…creative ways to relieve boredom, so I figured we would hike to the playground, and by the time we got back it would be time to get a fire started for dinner.

I had very, very little to worry about. We probably spent 20 minutes just throwing stones into a creek we crossed to get from the car to the campsite, and after trying to keep Sebastian from heading to the river by himself while I got the tent set up, we walked to the canoe ramp, and I quickly gave up the fight about letting them get their feet wet. Kairi built sandcastles on the riverbank (and we had a conversation about erosion, so I got to include a science/conservation lesson during her play!), they used the canoe ramp as a slide, and all of us enjoyed the much-needed warmth of the sun on our bare skin. After a lot of convincing I finally got them to leave so we could get our fire started for dinner, and back at camp they were content to play on the “swings,” collect firewood, and give me several more grey hairs as they both attempted to “help” with the campfire.

Billy got there right as the last light was leaving the sky, and we had an easy dinner of baked potatoes, corn on the cob, and bagged salad by lantern light, and I had both kids asking to put their PJs on and get ready for bed, which is pretty much unheard of. We slept comfortably (we took advantage of the close walk to bring the extra weight of our double sleeping bag), and woke up to weather that didn’t immediately make us want to burrow back into the warmth of our bedding.

After breakfast–and a campsite egg hunt–they wanted to show Billy the river and their “slide,” and we went for a nice hike and enjoyed all the signs of spring everywhere. And in spite of an injury she suffered right before bed that almost led to a post-sundown evacuation, Kairi spent the whole walk back to the car whimpering that we had to leave, and begging to stay another night and making us promise that next time we would camp for at least two nights.

Overall family-friendly rating: 4/5. I really want to give this a 5/5 rating because it was so perfect for us, but it is a primitive campsite, which means no running water, which can be a problem if you have a toddler who likes to either dump out bottles of water, or fill them with rocks just to hear the splash. There is water at the other campground in the park (where we have never stayed), and of course there’s the river if you have proper purification methods. There is a compost toilet but no electricity or running water there,¬†so that may be spooky for kids who have not used one before. I think this is one of my new favorite campgrounds, however.

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The path right outside our campsite. GORGEOUS. 

The privacy is incredible–it’s a small loop, so even at full occupancy there won’t be many neighbors, and short of going into the backcountry, it’s hard to find camping where the sites aren’t right on top of each other. Since it’s walk/canoe-in, there were no vehicles driving past (and therefore no need to worry about the kids running into the road). The biggest hazard for kids I would say is the proximity to the river–but our site was on the back loop, so that was easy to avoid. This is also a really good training campground if you’re interested in going into the backcountry with kids, since it’s a good middle-ground between car-camping and backpacking.

One of the rangers told us the next morning there had been black bear activity recently–we didn’t experience that, but as always, proper food storage should be observed at all times, and as the temperatures rise, snakes, bees, and other wildlife will undoubtedly be present–but that is true of anywhere, not just this park.

The biggest family-friendly aspect here was how much there was for the kids to play on. Kairi was very excited to find all the things a playground would have, and she had no trouble at all turning the entire landscape into a world of imagination. Plus the proximity to hiking meant once we got out of the car, we didn’t have to get back in it until it was time to leave, and that is always a win for me!

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The Priest has been on my hiking bucket list for about 8 years now. Before we were married, Billy and I hiked Crabtree Falls, and when we got to the top we saw the trail sign for The Priest, and debated on continuing on, since I vaguely remembered hearing about the views from hikers I knew before college. We decided not to, since we weren’t sure we would have been able to complete it before dark, and we hadn’t brought the food and water to add an extra 5 or so miles to our hike.

But it’s been on the list.

When I was first selected as a trailblazer for the 10K Women Trail Project, I immediately thought of The Priest as a place I would like to lead a hike. I don’t know why this one was still so high there. Maybe some part of me just remembered hearing how intimidating it was. Maybe it was the proximity to another trail I was familiar with. Maybe it was, especially after having children, the idea of doing a trail that would take the better part of the day and not just be a casual hike layered into a day already filled with other activities.

I decided in January, The Priest was going to be my March hike. I didn’t want to do it in January since I felt the views would be better in the spring. No weekend seemed to work in February, we’re going to be out of town in April, and I was just too impatient to wait for May, so March seemed perfect. I didn’t know if anyone would be willing to commit to that kind of mileage with me, but I was going to give it a shot anyway, even if I did it by myself.

So, I met up, 40 minutes after I said I would be there, with fellow trailblazer Stefanie, one of her friends I’ve hiked with before, and another one of the Richmond HIB moms, who is quickly becoming someone I feel like I must have been sisters to in another life.

Ahead of the hike, I asked a few other HIB moms in my local branch if they felt we should bring our kids, or do it as women-only. The consensus was that our kids would probably slow us down past the point of being able to complete the hike in a day, so I posted it as women-only, with the exception of nursing babies in carriers. Of course, a few days after that a friend-of-a-friend I invited said she had done it with all FOUR of her kids, so I was second-guessing myself…but as this blog largely reviews trails from a kid-friendly standpoint, I am so glad we left the littles at home.

Reviews will say the trail is not so much steep as it is just unrelenting. This is very, very true. But for the parent of small children–unless you routinely get out with your kids on long trails, it’s easy to forget just how much time it takes to go short distances when you have toddlers and preschoolers setting the pace. Even doing the last three Hike It Baby 30 challenges where I am constantly logging both my time and my miles, I completely overestimate how far I can go in a certain amount of time. My thought going into this hike was, “I’m used to following a preschooler, and having 50lbs worth of toddler, carrier, and gear on my back! This trail will fly by with only me to worry about!”

What I didn’t really think about, was the false perception of time-to-miles. Moving at an adult pace certainly gave all of us the impression that we were covering a lot more distance than we actually were. I don’t think I really felt overtaxed physically on this hike, but I definitely did mentally. Without my kids there, I thought for sure I was moving much faster than I was, when in reality, we were all moving at the pace of a group where 3/4 of us were used to traveling with children 2 and under, and our brains’ idea of “adult pace” didn’t entirely match up with our lungs’ and legs’. Being in shape for a mom of two, whose only real exercise is frequent toddler-paced hikes, does not mean being in shape for the average adult hiker, unburdened except for their own gear.

That said–it was an incredible hike. The first mile or so follows a stream that was extremely active this time of year, so we had the beautiful sound of running water to bring us fully into the forest. Once we left the stream, it wasn’t long before we entered what we called a rhododendron tunnel. It was, of course, far too early for them to be in bloom, but being able to see¬†green, after so many months of the brown of Virginia winter, was rather magical.

Halfway to the summit is the first viewpoint, and that by itself is pretty amazing. Another group of hikers came up not long after we reached this point, and one of the guys who had hiked The Priest before joked, “Don’t get too comfortable, this is only the Choir Boy!”

Of course–he also told us we had less than a mile still to go, but at least his sense of humor was well in tact.

The next mile or so was more switchbacks, but we started to see more and more snow on the north side of the mountain, and in the last mile the elevation increased, along with the rocks, and snow that covered half our trekking poles in places. The snow made it difficult, combined with the mental fatigue of thinking we were closer to the summit than we actually were, and the physical fatigue of being super hungry by this point. Jordi had her four month old son in a carrier (because she is the ultimate adventure mama badass!), and he kept wanting to nurse so she was really burning through calories!

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Jordi on the way back down.

We finally reached a point where the trail seemed to level out, and not long after that saw the spur off to the right…to some of the most gorgeous panoramic views I’ve seen on a hike. I love the Blue Ridge Mountains. I really and truly do. But so many of the views look onto the valleys, and onto farms, roads, and other signs of civilization. It’s one of the reasons I like Blackrock so much, now that I’m thinking about it–the view are of nature. And that’s the case on The Priest, only you’re looking at so many other peaks, and the view is so expansive, it just fills you up with how incredible the world is. Oftentimes on a summit, it makes the world feel small. But this made the world feel¬†huge. To look out and see¬†so much, and know that it was still only a small glimpse of just how much is out there.

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This is just a small fraction of GWNF, and a smaller fraction of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

We took a pretty lengthy lunch, mostly out of reluctance to leave the world we had climbed up to see, but time was getting late, and all of us had long drives home.

This hike is an out-and-back unless you combine it with Crabtree Falls, so we just retraced our steps back down (not an easy feat until we got low enough to be out of the snow), and we were all thoroughly exhausted once we reached our cars.

A bonus to this hike? It’s not far from the Blue Mountain Barrel House, which boasts some of the best craft beer in Virginia, along with a great view of the sun setting over the mountains. Sadly I had to get home since I’d promised my kids I would be home by bedtime and was already running late, but I wish I could have stayed to really enjoy the Barrel House the way it is meant to be enjoyed.

Overall Family Friendly Rating:¬†1.5/5. I’m giving an extra half a star just because there aren’t any real hazards on this hike, it’s just long, and from a small child’s perspective, a little boring. I didn’t find it boring at all, but because of the length and incline there isn’t a lot of time to allow for playing in the stream or climbing on rocks, and I know my kids would be whining about whether we were almost done before we got a mile in. The viewpoint is a little dangerous because of the drops, but not as much as I would say Humpback Rocks is, and there is a lot of flat land for them to run around and explore, without getting too close to the dropoffs. I’m glad I didn’t take them on this hike, but when they are older I would like to combine this with Crabtree Falls for an all-day hike with both a waterfall¬†and a view.

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My happy place.

One of the ways I consider myself to be most fortunate, is in the amazing women I have in my life. And though I’m a little late in posting this (okay, severely–but I can pretend I saved it in honor of International Women’s Day last week!), I want to draw some attention to one of these women–Courtney Bowles, of Courtney Bowles Photography.

I met Courtney through my husband’s job about eight years ago. He’s been slinging coffee at Starbucks almost as long as we’ve been together, and he got to know her when she was a frequent customer at his old store. I was incredibly sad when he first got to know Courtney–not because of anything she did, but because we got to know her shortly before we got married–but after we had signed a contract with another wedding photographer. The more I saw of her work, the more I wished so badly that we could have hired her instead, and to this day, that is my one regret about our wedding.

Courtney is an amazing artist. If you are active at all in the mom!tog communities on instagram I’m sure you’ve seen her work, but if not, check out her website and especially her instagram. I tell her often that she is a wizard, because the art she creates is nothing short of magic.

While the timing did not work out for her to photograph our wedding, we were lucky enough several years later, to have her do a couple of sessions of Kairi during her first year, along with a newborn and nursing session with Sebastian. I have recommended her to several friends, and will continue to do so, because I am just so in love with her work.

 

Recently however, I got to experience something even better than having her photograph me and my family–but having her¬†teach me.

Courtney has always been quick to offer feedback or give advice when it comes to my journey into professional photography. Whether responding with a quick critique if I ask, or keeping me abreast of a new theme in an instagram hub that is relevant to my work, she has never made me feel like anything less than an equal–even though I still view her with a modicum of hero-worship, despite knowing her before she was “instagram-famous.”

Last month though, I got the chance to actually work with her, as she agreed to let me shadow a wedding she was photographing, ahead of a wedding that I have booked later this year.

From the beginning, I never felt like I was there as anything other than another professional. Courtney brought me in with her as if I were a second-shooter, not as her student, and her confidence in me was contagious. The wedding party accepted me, and she made¬†me confident, in spite of the fact that I was so nervous the morning of that I was certain I was going to make myself sick. She filled me in on the details of the wedding beforehand, along with her expectations of me, so I never felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, and over the course of the day, I learned, in a way that seemed to be as effortless for her as her photography. She included me in her thought-process when it came to certain key images, she offered insight into tricks of working in poorly-lit churches, and she set an example of when a photographer needs to take charge, and when they need to blend into the background. And she did it all while being as kind and authentic as a professional, as she is as a friend.

When the wedding was over, I really felt like I had¬†learned.¬†I had the same giddy exhaustion that comes from my own shoots, while my head was swirling with the insider’s view to an event I was nervous about going in.

 

She’s a great teacher. For as much as she’s an amazing artist, she is equally amazing–and generous–at sharing how she achieves that art. She is quick to respond, to answer questions, and she doesn’t treat her knowledge or experience as a secret to be earned, but as a gift to be shared. She’s constructive but not critical, and an amazing partner.

I look forward to learning more from her as time goes on, whether it is in working beside her on-location again, or attending a workshop she may host (especially in editing–nobody knows her way around photoshop like this lady).

Want to learn from Courtney? Here are a few ways you can!

She is a presenter at the Insta-Inspire Retreat happening in northern Utah in April.

Find one of her online tutorials and places like Clickin Moms, and Dear Photographer.

Send her a message! You can find her on facebook and instagram.

This trail is an old favorite of mine. I first hiked it, if not as a teenager, then certainly early into my college years. Back then the internet was still pretty useless for trail guides, so if you didn’t have someone you could ask for recommendations, or have places you discovered on your own, it was harder to plan day trips that required a 1-2 hour drive. I can’t remember if this trail was recommended by the now-closed Rockfish Gap Visitor’s Center, or if I knew someone who had hiked it before, but it’s one that has stuck with me ever since.

For one, it’s not a long trail. It’s about .8 mile to the viewpoint, and then you can either go back the way you went up, or connect to the AT and turn it into a 3 mile hike. It’s a fairly steep climb to the top–an 800′ elevation gain–so in spite of the short distance, it still feels worth the drive to get there, and doesn’t take too long to complete, so it’s very doable even if you are like us, and usually get a late start out of the house.

The draw to this hike though, are the views. I have never done this hike when it was not either cloudy or hazy, but even with that it’s still absolutely gorgeous looking out across the valleys and mountains to the west. The rock outcrop is also just *fun.* Parts of it are easy to get to, but there are a couple of areas that add an extra challenge climbing up, and of course the payoff of getting an awesome picture of yourself, and not being next to other people (that is probably the biggest downside to this hike–the crowds).

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Sebastian is not sure why the rest of us think this climb is steep…

The parking area is off the Blue Ridge Parkway, on the left side around milepost 6 if you are heading south. (To the right, there is a visitor’s center with an exhibit showcasing early American life that is open in the summer.*) The trailhead is at the back of the parking lot, and the climb starts immediately. It’s a wide and well maintained trail, with benches every hundred yards or so if you need to sit and take a breather. About halfway to the top you can see the bald you’re climbing to, which did a lot to help motivate Kairi–she was starting to complain about her legs being tired until I pointed out that she could see our destination, and from there she kept trying to move us along faster.

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Beginning the final climb

Right at¬†the base of the rocks, the trail narrows, and the incline increases as you wind around the mountain. There are wooden steps built into the trail for the first part of the climb, and then rocks that make a good natural staircase for most of the rest of the way up–although this stretch of the trail can still have ice and snow well into spring, so be cautious. Even if the weather has been mild, the run-off from melting snow leads to mud and wet rocks, and running water in places. Continue to follow the blue-blazes as you curve around to the left, and then the trail will level out at an intersection. To the left is the viewpoint. To the right, is the spur leading back to the AT. As mentioned before, there are several places to climb onto the rocks, some easier to access than others, and all of them with a severe drop if you lose your footing. Nonetheless, it’s a great lunch spot, especially as you can look down and see the BRP where you started the climb, and feel good about how much elevation you gained in such a short amount of time.

 

After spending as much time at the top as you like, you can either go back down the way you came for the short version of the trail (pay attention to where the old return trip is roped off–this is an out-and-back), or connect with the AT and continue heading south.

Overall family friendly rating: 3/5. As much as I love this trail, it is steep, especially for very young kids, and because it’s so popular it is often very crowded, particularly in nicer weather. And while the views from the top are amazing, the rocks can be (and have been) fatal, which is a bit nerve-wracking and requires a lot more close supervision than a lot of other trails out there.

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My proud, fearless girl.

I’m planning on taking the kids to the Glass Hollow Overlook, which is a spur off the AT/Dobie Mountain hike soon, which starts in the same parking lot. From what I remember, it is a lot easier for little ones than Humpback, and I am planning on taking, if not both kids, at least Kairi on a backpacking trip there this summer.

*The visitor’s center is worth a stroll through if you are there while it is open, and have the time. In the past, I have parked here since there are restrooms, and walked through the exhibits on my way to the Humpback Rock trailhead. This adds around half a mile each direction to your hike, and it’s always neat seeing the early American homestead. One time we got lucky enough to catch some live music! I’d like to take the kids to this when it is open and see what they think, and if I do I will do a follow up blog post about their reactions.¬†