22 July 2007

Family Camping

I had a unique experience last night. For whatever reason, my son loves to sleep in a tent or some kind of crude shelter. At home he would use sofa seats and cushions to build his own "club." He would barely have enough room in the club to sit upright and any movements would put him outside the club, but he enjoyed playing club very much. Finally, last night his wish of sleeping in a tent was realized.

My family joined a few other families in the Family Camping program offer by the NYC Urban Park Rangers. Everything was free, all it took was a phone call to the Rangers' phone system. The site was the Alley Pond Adventure Park in Queens, New York.

The evening started with a BBQ dinner (hot dogs, burgers, and soda/water.) Each family was assigned a tent. I thought the tent would require driving short metal stakes into the grass and making fancy knots with the ropes. Fortunately, it was much easier than that. Two flexible rods served as the spine for the tent. Fit the rods' ends to pre-set holes attached to each of the four corners and the tension in the rods had the tent free-standing in no time. After all the tents were setup, we were treated to a campfire on the grill. (Park regulation prohibited making fire on the ground.) We were provided graham crackers, marshmallows, and slabs of chocolates to make our own s'mores. Making the perfectly toasted marshmallow had to be an art achieved with practice, as most of the marshmallow either caught fire or became blackened. At around ten we headed out on the hike. It was indeed a special opportunity as the park was closed. It was probably not safe to wander alone at night in the forest. Harms can come either naturally or from criminal elements. J had always been afraid of the dark, so he had his flashlight on all the time during the hike. We didn't see any night creatures because of the flashlights in the group. The ground wasn't always even, so it was better to miss the chance to see nocturnal creatures instead of tripping over some root. At the end of the hike, the Rangers wanted to give us a chance to gaze at the night sky through a movable telescope, but it was a new scope and they didn't know how to assemble it. Instead, we went to sleep a little earlier. For our family of three, we only had two sleeping bags, so I slept on a piece of foam cushion. Thanks to the years of living in Viet Nam and the months of living in the refugee camp in Indonesia, sleeping in a tent on the ground wasn't that bad for me. I had cramps in the feet some hour in the night, but that could have come from having my son pinning the feet with his body. According to my wife, most of the time J rolled onto her side of the tent, maybe because of the slope in the campground. Throughout the night, Rangers park employees in pair took turn staying up to be on guard while we enjoyed our sleep. What service!

The next morning I got up around 6:30 because I thought that was when we had to get up. It turned out 7:30 would have been OK. Supposedly, we had to be out of there at 8. Breakfast of yogurt and OJ was served, but we missed it when we came back from brushing our teeth. Again, I didn't mind the odor in the park's public restroom, but the others in my camping party did and brushed outside the bathroom.

The experience is probably not much of a big deal for someone who camped out for real in the wild. Throughout the night, I could here airplanes flying overhead and cars zooming on the nearby Grand Central Parkway. For me, however, it was a great experience. I did go camping with a Vietnamese youth group before, but I think I slept in the car. To have employees of the City cook for us, lend us tent, provide materials for s'mores, lead us on hike, and so on, it made me feel better paying my taxes. Had we camped on Friday night, in the morning (Saturday), we could even join a demonstration of wall and rope climbing, although I doubt I am in good shape to do either.

The only minor quibble I have with the camping program was the lack of info on the web about it. The Department of Parks only said that it was held in Zone 1 of the park and provided a general map of the place. I had the wrong idea that the Adventure Park was near the Alley Pond Environmental Center, but in fact the two are separated by three exits on the Cross Island Expressway. The entrance to the park is right underneath the Grand Central Parkway and looks more like an entrance ramp to the Parkway. Most people may thought so and keep going past it. When we visited the Rangers in their office to say farewell and thank-you, we got some brochures and flyers about the program. Those literatures have the proper driving directions etc., but the web site seriously need to provide better info.

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