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Adventure comes to a park near you

For one thing, they can see stars.

Urban families who travel to Stub Stewart State Park in western Washington County as part of the “Let’s Go Camping” program notice the difference in the night sky when they’re far away from city lights.

“We hike up to the hilltop area in the middle of the night. It’s phenomenal,” said Tammy Baumann, valley region visitor experience coordinator for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

And there are other marvels beginning campers encounter through the program — sleeping pads, for example.

“Just that sleeping pad is a huge ‘aha’,” said Baumann, who teaches people how to inflate an air mattress as part of her setup instruction. A sleeping pad can completely change a novice’s view of camping, she said. “They think of camping and they think of sleeping on the ground.”

This weekend, from July 31 to Aug. 2, a “Let’s Go Camping” event is being offered again at Stub Stewart State Park north of Banks. So far, 11 people (three families) have signed up and there are still 24 spots left. Another one, targeted toward Latinos, will be held Aug. 21 to 23.

For $30 per family (financial aid available if necessary), the event provides tents, sleeping bags and other gear, as well as volunteer help with building campfires, preparing meals and more. Activities for children and families are included.

The program targets non-campers or former campers who are in new situations — becoming new parents, for example — that seem like barriers to camping.

Campfire cooking a marvel

When they first arrive, Baumann said, participants tend to focus on the basics: shelter and food. “I need to feel comfortable setting up my tent and I need to know I’m not going to starve.”

Some families buy their first tent for the event. Many overpack with “tons and tons of clothing and personal gear,” she said.

And campfire cooking amazes them, said Baumann, who likes to cook breakfast burritos. She drops a bag of pre-cooked ingredients into a pot of water, then sits by the fire to wait while enjoying a cup of coffee. Or she sticks pre-cut chicken pieces on a skewer and roasts them over the fire.

Another ‘aha’ for new campers is her organized outdoor kitchen, with little stations for handwashing and dishwashing.

Child care is another. Sometimes volunteers bring their own children along so they can model how to set boundaries around the camp or the fire ring and generally “how to monitor your kids without tethering them to you,” Baumann said.

At Stub Stewart, many children like to play with the hand pumps for water, she said. And with other children there, they have ready partners for Frisbee, bubble play or other games.

Even if participants decide they don’t like camping, they might discover another outdoor activity they enjoy, such as kayaking or disc golf or hiking, Baumann said.

Tricia French’s children, for example, loved the bike trails at Stub Stewart, where they also discovered disc golf.

New to banana boats

French traveled there from Vancouver, Wash., for last year’s “Let’s Go Camping” event, which drew 35 participants — 16 adults and 18 youth from seven families.

After discovering the program online, French brought her husband and five children, ranging from newborn to 12 years old. Unlike the other families, the Frenches had camped before but French liked the way this event was organized and offered classes. She hoped to pick up cooking skills that could improve her usual camp menu of simple things such as hot dogs and bananas.

Meanwhile, French was able to share her own minimal expertise with her fellow campers. When she was making pancakes, for example, “one couple was like, ‘Wow, can I try it?’ I don’t know they even cared about eating pancakes,” she said. It was just the novelty of cooking pancakes outdoors while camping.

French did gain confidence to do more complicated meals — something she’ll try out when her family camps at Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge next month.

She also encountered banana boats for the first time — split bananas sprinkled with chocolate chips or other treats such as marshmallows, caramels or nuts, then wrapped in foil and placed near the campfire to melt.

Baumann said many of the new campers have never heard of s’mores — the gooey campfire delight made of a chocolate square and a toasted marshmallow between two graham cracker halves.

“It’s always this eye-popping amazement, like we’ve introduced them to this new food group,” Baumann said.

At last year’s event, the leaders promised to make a birthday s’more for a boy celebrating his 14th birthday, she said. “He turns and says, ‘What’s a s’more?’”

It turned out to be love at first bite. “The look on his face,” Baumann remembers. “He had 14 of them to celebrate his 14th birthday.”

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