McKinney Falls State Park, Last Month

Last month, we explored a state park we hadn’t been to yet, as part of my ambitious camping plan I planned out last fall.  The older boys opted to spend the weekend at Grandma’s house.  Somehow this was preferable to spending the weekend in close quarters with us, which might be a sign that we have been camping too much as a family lately.  It was nice to not have to worry about two additional sets of needs, though, as we had the dogs with us and a two year old is enough to worry about.

I do think we will need to come back sometime with the older ones, though.  There were rocks to jump off of and swimming holes and all kinds of fun for able bodied strong swimmers.  It was not the greatest place to camp with a two year old, though.  He enjoyed the water, but we were stressing about his safety around it.

Scout not wanting to leave the tent

The rocky areas were hard for me to walk in, given my ankle injury from years back.  I think Breeze liked it, but Scout was hating every minute.  She loves the water, but him not so much (one is a retriever and one is a herder – makes sense, right?) Scout is just too old and feeble now to go camping, so this will probably go down as his last big hurrah.

It was Easter weekend, which I don’t think I realized when I booked it, and then I felt bad about depriving Sebastian of Easter egg hunting experiences, so we left the park on Saturday morning and drove fifteen minutes away to a rec center in south Austin to participate in an Easter festival.  What we learned this day: he doesn’t like cotton candy, he is very interested in hula hoops and ping pong games, Easter egg hunts aren’t really that much fun anymore because of the chaos that ensues, and he is scared of generally all characters dressed in full suit costumes (no Easter Bunny pictures for this guy).  On one of the evenings we were there, we left the park again to go eat some Mexican food and then watch planes arrive and take off from the Austin airport at the family viewing area.  Good times.

On the in-betweens, when Sebastian wasn’t napping, we went for short hikes to explore the park.  We would have taken longer ones, but poor Scout just couldn’t hang.  We saw a big group heading out to do a Yoga Hike, which kind of sounded fun to me, but maybe later on in my life (probably something I should have done earlier in my life).  We saw flowers and water and rock formations, and did not really find any birds or geocaches this time around.  Perhaps we are changing our focus.  Overall, it was a pretty park and a good time to visit, but probably won’t be one we spend lots of time at, although I do want to let the older boys see what it like to jump off the rock formations into the water like we saw others doing.  Perhaps we will do this on a day trip or a stop on the way somewhere else.

Here are some scenes from the park:

Martin Creek Lake State Park

A spectral light shines through the mist at the end of the road.  It’s New Year’s weekend, and the campground is practically abandoned.  Dark shutters close off the ends of screened shelters sitting quiet in the night.  One could almost imagine spooky shadows rising out of them.  The spirit of the early settlers that passed through and lived in the area, in a settlement called Harmony Hill, seemed to be present in the dark and misty night.

martin-creek-power-plantA power plant hums in the distance, one of the few and constant sounds.  The plant lights shine up in the sky, looking like a city sitting on a hill overlooking the lake.  The constant noise interferes with the serenity of nature’s voices and one could lament the presence of the plant, but if it didn’t exist, neither would this park.  The land was donated to Texas State Parks by the plant in the late seventies to offset the environmental changes caused by it, to give nature a place to grow, to allow for a refuge for wildlife and a place for native plants to thrive.

bridgepowerplantThe discharge from the plant keeps the water in the lake warm, even during the winter, so this park is a favorite among anglers and casual fishermen.  The man and his son camping in the cottage next to us the first night appeared to be taking advantage of this, judging by their boat on a trailer behind their truck.  We saw quite a few boat trailers in our weekend here.

nutellapie2-copyDuring our weekend here, we worked at perfecting our technique at making meals and treats with our new fire irons: a double pie iron and a hamburger iron.  We have a long way to go before we are experts, but we learned a bit through trial and error.  The highlights were cherry pies made by my teenager on the last night, and some nutella/marshmellow puff pastry delights.  We mostly tried making different versions of calzones, some weak attempts at breakfast sandwiches (shredded hash browns as a base did not work well), hamburgers, and multiple types of desserts involving pie crusts, puff pastry, and buttered bread as bases.


We also did quite a bit of hiking.  Our first full day, we drove to Caddo Lake State Park (less than an hour away) and hiked about two or three miles along the Caddo Forest Trail (and various trail spurs).  We found some geocaches and this cool old shelter built by the CCC in the 1930s.  We stopped to check out the cypress trees along the bank, then walked back along the trail to our truck, driving back to the bank to eat our picnic lunch on a table under these trees, draped with silver Spanish moss.


In the afternoon, a few of us took a nap, and then we got up to play with our fire irons again.  The guys built a heck of a fire.  In the evening, the toddler went to sleep, and Jason and I traded off sleeping with him while the other (mostly Jason) entertained the teenager.  We had this idea that we were going to go to the Stargazing event there to ring in the New Year, but when it was time to go, we could not find it.  Aj and I drove all around the park, looking at the boat dock areas and any and all other areas we could see to try to find the campfire and ranger, but all we found were a few other families doing the same thing we were doing.  So we said Happy New Year at the cabin door, and went to sleep.


On the first, we joined quite a good sized group for the park’s First Day Hike, a slow ranger-led hike around the island.  We learned a bit about the park.  Afterwards, we were going to go to try to the black eyed peas and cornbread that the Dutch Oven cookers were giving a demo on, but we decided to head to town randomly to get snacks, and ended up at Dairy Queen.  I am not sure how that happened, except that we had gotten very hungry unexpectedly.

On the way back, we explored this Harmony Hill Cemetery just outside the park, where the early settlers are buried.  I found a geocache behind the cemetery fence, and we all marveled over the age of the graves and the stories, history that we read about on the headstones.


Then we took our own First Day Hike on the Harmony Hill Trail.  The day before, my oldest son carried the little one on his back wearing the Osprey, and this day, after letting the toddler “lead” us a bit, we let the ten year old carry him in the Osprey.


Those two have the rough-and-tumble kind of friendship, and we cracked up at the fact that as soon as Sebastian realized who was carrying him, he started head-butting his brother.  For quite a while, it went like this: Sebastian head-butt Kaleb, then cried “ow”, followed by Kaleb saying “ow!”, then another head-butt and the chorus of “ow!” starting over again, like a couple of stooges over there.

pinesEventually, Kaleb started whining (as is par for the course with him), and we came to a fork in the road.  We decided that Jason would take the little ones back, and the teenager and I would hike longer.  I was on a mission to get geocaches, of course, and we still had steam in the tank.  After this, we walked a bit and came to this arch of pines that was quite peaceful.  We had a great talk and found a cute little cache, then found our way back down the utility road to headquarters before meeting Jason along the road in the truck, coming to pick us up.

seedpodsAfter this, everyone wanted to take a nap except the toddler (who probably needed it the most), so I spent a couple of hours exploring the park with him, some parts with the stroller and some without.  He found sticks, leaves, seed pods, and little board bridges.  I found some birds (nineteen species), some beautiful little places, and peace.  We found our favorite campsites for future visits and sat for a while in the amphitheater, watching and listening to nature.


Later, it was more campfires and fire iron experiments, and early to bed. Before going to bed, though, we took the kids on a night hike.  We were looking for a “night cache”, which usually involves a starting set of coordinates, and then directions on how to follow a series of fire tacks.  We walked down the deserted park road in the mist.  The toddler fell asleep in the stroller along the way, and then had to be carried through the woods (we only brought the umbrella stroller) while the older kids had a good time leading the way, finding the fire tacks with their flashlights.  They got stuck at the end, missing the last set of red fire tacks that denoted the end of the trail, and then wouldn’t have found the cache without Jason’s nudge in the right direction.  It was a fun adventure.

In the morning, we planned to hike the other side of the park.  It was overcast and grey outside as I started breakfast over the camp stove.  As I cooked, though, the skies darkened, and a storm came in suddenly.   We had just enough time to grab all our items, including the breakfast that was just barely done, and seek refuge inside our “cottage” (a mini-cabin equipped with two sets of bunk beds, heat and a/c).  Each evening, I had played a card game with the older boys, and Kaleb wanted us to play those games again while we waited for the rain to stop, but the adults in the group wanted to get all the gear packed up (if nothing else, to keep the toddler from tripping on and/or getting into everything).


During this time, I went to shower, taking the risks of walking through the rain to get there.  As I undressed, I realized a huge stink-bug had attached to my pants.  I shook him off and kept a wary eye on him during subsequent activity.  As I was getting dressed again, he appeared to be coming right at me with agitation.  I moved down to another part of the bench, only to have him make headway towards me again.  I told my teenager about it when I got back, and he said, “why didn’t you just step on it and kill it?”  I expressed my chagrin about this, telling him that this was the stinkbug’s home and I was the interloper, and why should I kill it just for ending up in the wrong place?  He told me I had a messed up perspective, but I am not sure I am the one.


It was still raining, so we had to make a choice.  We didn’t have to leave for another few hours, and the ten year old was still insisting on a card game, but the teenager was telling us that if he had to spend any more time cooped up with us, one of us was going down.  The toddler was restless, as he was out of things to get into, and wanted to play in the rain and mud.  We wanted to go hiking and I also wanted to visit a friend who lived nearby, but we decided that the best thing to do was to hurry the gear out to the truck and get home as soon as possible.

edge-of-lakeSo away we left.  We all kind of laughed on the way out about how spooky the campground was, especially since we had eventually been the only ones staying on the Broken Bowl side we were on (a handful of campers on the Bee Tree loop/other side).  There was a metal drain cover near the bathrooms that was marked “Confined Space Entry”, and even though we realized it was an entrance for the septic system, we joked about what might be down in the Confined Space, and how the whole trip started to sort of feel like an Evil Dead movie plot.  I told the older boys we should each write our own story about it with fantasy elements, working in the various aspects, but they weren’t so interested in actually doing this when we got back home.

Still, I hope that the real trip becomes one of those family memories that they can hang on to later in life, a story they can tell about a time we spent together.

South Shore Park, Bastrop

I’ve realized that I have gotten to a certain age in my life where all my idols are Master Naturalists.  This is why I felt lucky that we were in the presence of a couple of them on a nature hike last Saturday in South Shore Park.  We were actually at the park for a geocaching camp-out, but we were enticed by the sign at the park headquarters advertising the hike starting at 10 am at the Swift Trailhead.  We found another geocaching family there, as well as a girl scout leader who had a handful of girls with her.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-7The dozen or so of us adventurers set down the path with Louise (I think?) and another Naturalist, perhaps one in training.  We stopped every few feet for our guide to point out plants, to investigate scat, to identify butterflies and so on over the course of a couple of hours and a couple of miles.  I learned so much during the walk, but mostly I learned, or was reminded of, what it felt to be completely absorbed in a place and moment.  During this hike, I felt so entirely happy, so sure that this was EXACTLY what I wanted to be doing at this time.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-4One of the aspects of the hike that made me the happiest was seeing my middle son get so excited by nature.  He usually whines about having to go on hikes with us, and acts bored or disinterested in learning about what I can point out around him.  I am not sure if it was because there was a boy his age in the group, a pack of girls, or if it was something in the way our guide was speaking to the group, but he got hooked.  He was particularly excited about identifying mushrooms.  Louise handed each of the kids a different pocket guide. He had the mushroom one, the girls had birds, butterflies and flowers, and they were all using the pictures to identify their particular specialty.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-8I really enjoy these kind of guided hikes because they combine education, outdoors, and relationships with other people.  I love mental stimulation, and I love the feel of the forest around me.  I love seeing not just my kids but other kids get excited about nature.  Also, we were geocaching.  We found a couple along the trail, and some of the cute little critter waypoints for a night hike that was set up for the geocaching event.  We also saw some cool nature scenes, like this lichen on a log:

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-9Along the walk, I learned more about the Master Naturalist program, because I think if those kind of people appeal to me, perhaps I could join their ranks one day.  What I learned about it is that it requires 40 hours of classroom instruction on your specific geographic area, where you will learn all about the flora, fauna, natural history, geology etc.  After that, you have to commit to 8 hours of additional training in the field and then 40 hours a year of volunteer hours educating the public in various capacities and programs of your choice.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-17I think I will do that someday, but I will have to wait until my children are older or grown.  That probably explains why most Master Naturalists that I have met are either retired, or close to it.  They are probably more likely to be grandparents than parents.  I do worry that time is short, and it is not a guarantee that I will make it to retirement age or even to an age where I might have leisure time that does not involve children.  That is what I get for stretching my reproductive years over such a long span.  I have one getting close to leaving the nest and one who is just settling into it.

At one point, Jason went ahead of us on the trail, because Sebastian was being very antsy in the backpack with all the starting and stopping.  He was looking at his phone and not at the trail, and just barely caught this particular little elusive devil of a snake out of the corner of his eye.  He barely had time to get a picture of it before it disappeared into the brush:


I really enjoyed the other mothers who were on the trail.  The girl scout leader was extremely knowledgeable, and the geocaching mom had some interesting life experiences to tell.  Eventually I started talking to this geocaching mom, who was from Round Rock, and she and I made a plan for me to come speak to her homeschool core class on career explorations about the kind of work that I do.  I have been wanting to do outreach talks, and this might be the start, or perhaps one of a few I do next year.  It happened to be that she and her son were staying in the cabin right next to us.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-13I did enjoy the camp-out as well.  It seems like this is the first year that my middle son has actually had fun and made new friends at one of these geocaching event weekends, and maybe it is because the vision of the Lone Star Roundup has finally become manifest.  We have been attending this event each year since it started in 2011 as a fall alternative to the Texas Challenge that is held in the spring, to offer a chance for Texas cachers to get together just for fellowship and perhaps without some of the regional animosity that has developed over the years due to the intensity of the Challenge.  It was a fun park to host it at, too.  The butterfly garden in front of Osprey Hall is just amazing.  We just love Bastrop, and I do like this little park. All in all, it was a good experience.


Buescher State Park: Patterns of Place and People

20160102_103639It was the first Saturday morning of the year, and I was sitting on a small mound of dirt, just to the right of a tree root.  I was watching the water slowly lap at the edge of the lake, and contemplating what it really meant to know a place.  I wondered if the park rangers or perhaps regulars to the campgrounds get to know the patterns of place so well that they can recognize subtle changes.  We explorers thrill on the novelty of finding new places, buzzing about like bees, taking the best parts of places and spreading it around to our friends.  There are those who get to know a place intimately, though, and through repetitive experiences, like long term live in relationships, they get to know the nuances of a place, which may in some degrees be sweeter and more meaningful than only catching the highlights.

Beautiful patterns of wood and sky
Beautiful patterns of wood and sky

This morning, I had gotten a little taste of the patterns of this place just sitting and watching for an hour or two before anyone else woke up.  I arose when I first started hearing the soft little whistles of the cardinals.  The cardinals are the ones who usually first greet the day in the state parks in our area of the world, the first ones most campers hear.

On the way to the restrooms, I noticed a flock of Cedar Waxwings, my first of the season, taking over an entire tree.  I heard some loud wuk calls that I later determined to be coming from about four or five Pileated Woodpeckers who flew from tree to tree along this edge of the lake, then sometimes crossing the lake and flying from tree to tree over there.  Oddly, the bird checklist for this area lists this species as “uncommon”, with an asterik noting “nesting”, but I wonder if the recent fire in the area has impacted their range.  They prefer dead, dying, and downed trees, and there are plenty more in this park now than previously.  The damage from Hidden Pines fire of a couple of months ago has closed most of the trails in this park, and they are not expected to reopen for another several months.

20160102_095056I made a morning coffee and sat at the picnic bench with my binoculars. Crows competed with the woodpeckers in a cry-off contest, making so much noise that I wondered how the others were sleeping through it.  Then the warblers showed up, with their little tweets and feeding frenzy:  Yellow Rumped, Pine, what I think was a Northern Parula although the list doesn’t show them as winter birds here.  A couple of different woodpeckers showed up:  the Red Bellied and Ladder Backed.  Then after that, nonbreeding plumage American Goldfinches came, feasting on little thistles, and then the area was completely taken over by the Cedar Waxwings.  Once the waxwings left, chickadees and kinglets came in. It was like as if somewhere out of sight an usher pointed to each group like tables at a banquet, gesturing that it was their turn to step up to the buffet.  I wondered how they established which groups came at each time:  if it related to light, timing, temperature, etc.  The next morning, I expected to see the same pattern, but didn’t.  I didn’t even see the same kinds of birds the next morning, seeing instead hawks, herons, sparrows, a Northern Flicker, Eastern Pheobes, and Tufted Titmouse.

This time to contemplate and record observations would probably not have been possible if I had my baby with me.  Jason ended up having to stay back with the baby and the dogs for this camping trip due to one of the dogs having gotten injured at the last minute before leaving Friday morning, too late to back out of the reservation.  It would have been pretty cold to have been camping with a baby in these screened shelters we reserved, with little insulation from the heat.  These are pictures of the one we stayed in:

20160103_095624 20160103_095606 20160103_095522

Next time we come to this park to camp as a family, especially in winter, I think we will reserve either one of the the premium shelters or one of the mini-cabins. The mini-cabins are heated and have bunk beds, as well as little porches that look out over the lake.  They are $75 a night, compared to $45 for the premium and $25 for the regular screened shelters.  Below is a picture of premium shelter #1, which would be the best one to rent:

20160103_102004Despite most of the trails in this park being closed, we still found plenty to do, even though we didn’t do it all.  Someday I want to come back here and go canoeing in the lake.  We found some geocaches along the Winding Woodland Trail in the park until we reached the closed section.  The girls hiked in Bastrop SP, and the first day of the New Year, so did my oldest son and I.  The boys tried their hand at fishing and just ended up cold and frustrated with it, but I think they had fun anyways.  We had two good fires both nights, the second night being the most surprising since it rained pretty good for about two hours before we got our fire going.  My son impressed me with his fire skills, as well as his storytelling abilities.  I am so proud of the young man he has turned into, and I love it that we had this experience where I got to see this side of him.  All in all, we had a great camping trip, despite the weather.

We’ll be back sometime soon, Buescher, we’re not through with you yet.

The Mystical Fire