In 2004, a group of parents of infants met at an Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) class held at Mayflower United Church of Christ in south Minneapolis.
“You’re at the most vulnerable moment,” said parent Jeff Johnson, of Minneapolis, recalling those early days of little sleep and big worries. But the “horrible experience” he thought those stressful months would be turned into something else entirely.
“We just met this really great group of people,” Johnson said.
Other parents also credit the ECFE class with bringing them together for support and friendship. Soon, cups of coffee and play dates among the new friends and their babies turned into plans for a group camping trip.
Fifteen years, nearly 40 kids and adults, and 14 parks later, they’re still camping every summer. Even the now-teenagers are eager to come along. “No one necessarily expected the trips to continue year after year,” said parent Kristine Spanier of Minneapolis, who was on that first trip.
“But every year, we said, ‘This was great. Let’s do it again next year.’ ”
“These kids have had lifetime friendships and lifetime relationships with all of the campers and some of the parents,” Johnson added. “So it’s been a really crazy, crazy ride.”
Cautious at first
The group stayed close to home that first summer, camping at William O’Brien State Park in Marine on Saint Croix. They wanted to be near coffee, pizza and the option to run home if need be. No one did.
“Sure, I thought it was a little crazy, because our firstborns were infants,” Spanier said. “But, we like camping. And they did, too.”
Still, they camped out for just one night. Their success emboldened them. One night turned to two, then three.
The group expanded, too, to 10 families. As those families had their second or third child, it wasn’t unusual to have as many as 40 adults and children gathered around the campfire.
Parent Lara Etnier of Minneapolis and her family joined the group in 2007. Her second born, Tryggve, was just six weeks old when her family first attended, but she wanted Bergen, her oldest, to have access to a group of children his age.
“I spent quite a few hours in 2007 nursing my little one in the car, [because] it’s hard to nurse in a tent,” Etnier said. “But I’d go sit in the car with my Boppy pillow and look out and see the fireflies.
“It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting outside in the middle of this amazing nature scene. And I’ll never forget that.”
Fifteen-year-old Elliott Hagen said that, although her life changes every year, she knows she’ll have the comforting consistency of this annual trip.
“It’s something that I can count on going to every year and it’s really nice to connect with people every year at the same time,” Hagen said.
“We all get along really well and it’s a really good community because it’s separate from school. So, there’s not like pressures with school and stuff … so you can relax and still hang out with people who are around your age.”
Away from their phones
Each year, one parent is responsible for selecting a different campground in the Minnesota State Parks system. Over the years, they have visited sites as close as Baker Park, which is just a half-hour away from downtown Minneapolis, to sites as far as Bear Head Lake State Park in Ely, a four-hour drive. The group gives the parks system a lot of credit for the continued success of their trips.
“It’s great, because the state parks have programming,” Etnier said. “So we learned about bats, we learned about raptors, and we do a community hike.”
That means the teenagers don’t have their heads buried in their phones, she added.
“Being in nature plants seeds in the kids for a lifetime of understanding and growth to appreciate the environment that we’re so divorced from in this technological age,” Etnier said.
One exception: If stormy weather is on the horizon, all the dads are busy watching the radar on their phones, Etnier said.
The free programming that has kept their children active over the years, and the low cost of renting campground spaces, were a big part of keeping trips going, said Etnier.
Over the years, parents have devised routines and rituals. After dinner, for example, some parents are assigned clean up; others are responsible for sleeping bag story time with flashlights.
The activities have grown and changed over the years as the group ages. The teens hold their own bonfire and often hike, canoe and swim, thanks largely to Johnson.
“I’m like the water guy,” Johnson said. “Some years, I bring up to six boats. I’ve brought canoes and kayaks and paddle boards and all the safety equipment and the stuff that you need to get all the kids out in the water,” Johnson said.
Johnson also always has ice-cold gin and tonics ready for the adults when they arrive at the campsite.
An adults-only gathering around the campfire occurs after the younger kids have gone to bed.
These yearly opportunities to check in with one another aren’t unlike their early days in ECFE classes.
“At first, it was like all the things that you need when your kid is a little kid,” Etnier said. “Now it’s like, ‘So, what are you guys doing about college visits?’ ”
During last year’s trip, someone suggested that parents enroll their teens in driver’s education before activities took up too much of their time during the school year, said Spanier. This year, her oldest daughter, Josephine, was struggling to get her first job.
“The parents and the kids kind of gave her advice on that, and she came back re-energized to start the job search up again,” Spanier said.
“And she just got hired yesterday. I definitely attribute it to the support of the group.”
Advice for other families
For families who hope to form their own village, as the families fondly call themselves, Johnson suggests getting a group of children together who are close in age, which allows them to go through similar stages together.
He also suggested that parents who embark on this journey make sure that they can handle some initial discomfort, and vary the skills among the group. Find a mix of creativity, kitchen expertise and outdoors experience.
“Have one family just pick a location. They’re the ones who are in charge of reserving sites for that year,” Johnson said.
“I don’t think anybody really cares. Wherever we go, fun seems to happen.”
Etnier added that, for her, the most important piece “is to commit to it once and then remember, it’s about your family and the kids.
“This is originally for the kids. But the benefit is, it helped me be a better parent, because I had this group of people that was having the same sorts of challenges I was having, and we had great ideas,” Etnier said.
Without that Early Childhood Family Education class all those years ago, Spanier doesn’t think the group would have met.
“Our careers would have, or have, sent us in all different directions, so there’s no other way that we would have all met each other and become friends,” Spanier said.
“The kids have kept us together, and I’m certain that we will all know and support each other, and be there for each other for probably the rest of our lives.”
Johnson hopes that the magic of their late June weekend, in one of the state’s great parks, will continue for years to come.
Next year, they’ll be heading to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park in Onamia, Minn.
“It really was kind of a star-crossed group of people,” Johnson said. “Everybody in that group really showed up with good, pure intentions. And we all keep coming back.
“In the college years, when these kids might flake out and have their own lives, I hope that we as parents keep going, even if they don’t show up.
“And, hopefully,” Johnson said, “they’ll show up with our grandkids.”