Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Family camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum

It's been a hot summer in Calgary and the Canadian Rockies, which means there wasn't much time to blog and a whole lot of time to go outside and have an adventure.

Back in the last week of July/first week of August, I took Michael and Mack on our annual Adventure Vacation. Past adventures have included heli-hiking out of Cline River, the Columbia Icefields, whitewater rafting on the Kicking Horse, and soaking in the natural hot springs at Lussier River. This year we camped at Redstreak in Kootenay National Park (more on this in a future blog), went white water rafting on Toby Creek (they said it was better than the upper portion of the Kicking Horse) and visited Boo the grizzly at Kicking Horse Resort.

The boys loved camping and rafting, but the highlight was the finish: Badlands Family Science Camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. I'm not the most social person, and the thought of sharing a teepee with another family and spending time with other parents didn't thrill me. However, as soon as I mentioned it the kids were hooked. So we went, and we all had a blast.
A twenty minute walk from the museum, the camp is set in a bowl formed by hoodoos and consists of teepees, a fire pit and outhouses. Each day we would walk to the museum, where we had a classroom to leave our stuff, and set off on new adventures--both mental and physical. Sifting through matrix (i.e. dirt) collected by real paleontologists. Making plaster casts of fossils. Touring the fossil preparation room and the collections library, where shelf after shelf held new and wondrous finds. We touched real dinosaur bones (not the plaster casts they put on display), fitted the kids with casts of mosasaur skulls, and even saw a skull from a new species of ceratopsian that hadn't even been named yet. In the field, a 15-minute hike brought us to an eroding hillside where the three of us spent an hour uncovering a hadrosaur vertebrae, teeth, assorted fragments of bone and some skin that a garter snake shed.

All of this was fun and educational. Yet the kids seemed to most enjoy their free time back at camp, climbing the hoodoos, getting dirty and just being kids. It was my favorite part of the camp, too. Some of the kids, who were much smarter than I was at 5, 8 and 11 (and probably smarter than I am now), thrived in the class and soaked up each new fact like sponges, but Mack and Michael soaked up the opportunity to have unstructured, unfettered adventures in the badlands. They found fossilized wood and dinosaur bones, tested the pointiness of cacti, and imagined a world where kids and dinos roamed the earth together. For me, it was an opportunity to relive the freedom of camping at Dinosaur Provincial Park when I was a kid. At the age of 6, I would spend hours roaming the badlands, climbing the hoodoos and descending into gulleys where I found fossilized teeth and new found independence.

I spent some time climbing around with Michael and Mack, but for the most part I sat back in camp and watched from afar. I also watched some of the other parents hovering over their kids. Don't do that, you might get a scrape. Don't go there, you don't know what's over that berm. Don't leave my sight. While they were proud--and rightly so--of how much their kids knew in the classroom, they squandered the opportunity to let their kids apply that knowledge in the real world. And to acquire new, tactile, hands-on knowledge. The type you can only learn by scraping your knees, exploring what's over the next hill and being free from the worrying eyes of parents.

My fondest memory won't be of fossils or hoodoos, though. It will be of 7-year-old Michael and 12-year-old Mack staying up until midnight, the last kids to go to bed by a couple of hours, looking in awe at a sky with more stars than they'd ever seen along with their first shooting star. It was the type of moment that every kid should be able to share with their parents, and every parent should be able to share with their kids.

Interested in other family camps? Read this post:
Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp on California's Catalina Island: Reality is the Best Theme Park
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