On our way to Cincy and Mammoth Cave!

It's 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 29. The camper is mostly packed (still need cooler items and toiletries) and as soon as we pick up my son from his summer band practice, we're off on our vacation.

We're going to Cincinnati for two nights and then Mammoth Cave for three nights after that.

In Cincinnati, we're staying at Miami Whitewater County Park, and the staff there said we're one one of only five people camping Tuesday and Wednesday nights. That makes me feel better because some reviewers said that campground can get rowdy.

Once we set up the camper this afternoon, we're going to take in the Cincinnati Zoo this evening. On Wednesday, we'll be going to the Cincinnati Reds vs. Philadelphia Phillies afternoon game. Nothing planned for Wednesday night except rest and relaxation!

Thursday we'll pack up the camper and head to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. On the way, we're going to take a side trip to the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum in Downtown Louisville. The lady at the museum said we should be able to negotiate the city streets with our camper; we'll see.

After the museum, it's onto Bee Spring, Kentucky and our campground, Nolin Lake State Park. What this park has going for it is it's off the beaten path of Mammoth Cave's tourist traps, plus only 23 total campsites. Nothing planned until Friday afternoon, when it's our first cave tour. The second cave tour is Saturday morning. Both are 2-2.5 hour and 2-2.5 miles long. We were careful to pick tours that went to different sites inside the cave.

Following all that, it'll be a 7-8 hour drive back home on Sunday.


Camping at Seven Lakes State Park

In what has become an annual trip once school lets out for the summer, this past weekend we camped with several dozen relatives at Seven Lakes State Park in Holly, Michigan.

In a nutshell, we had the good, the bad and the downright rude.

The good: Great times and great food — the recipe for Bacon Explosion! is below — with about a couple dozen family members.

The bad: Friday night we were treated to a spectacular thunder and lightning storm, and the park wasn't equal to the high standards set by other state parks.

The downright rude: Our camping neighbors, whom we dubbed Elvis and Ozzy, were the rudest we have ever come across. You can read about Elvis and Ozzy in Technicolor detail at the companion blog.

The Bad
Seven Lakes State Park is an enormous park, with the campground occupying just a small portion of it. The campground, which has just 73 sites, and the small swim/fish lake next to it are both located at the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley. The sites are relatively level — we used one set of risers — but the real problem was our electrical hookup. Our box was more than 65 feet away from our pad (despite the online information saying it was 44 feet). In fact, we needed an additional two 25-foot extension cords to make the connection.

We also have complaints regarding the park's trails. Twice we got lost while hiking due to unmarked trails, but the major problem was when my wife and youngest son went on the bike trails. Nowhere did it say, either in the park literature or on trail markers, that the bike trails were for advanced users due to the steep hills and sand.

The facilities were pretty much standard for a Michigan State Park: mostly clean bathroom/showers; dump station; recycling and trash; canoe and paddle boat rental; etc. The sandy beach and smooth-bottom lake were a hit with the kids.

Watching the Friday night storm barrel down on us was both impressive and scary at the same time. I don't mind saying that I couldn't help but think of the recent Arkansas tragedy as I watched this storm come at us. The dark clouds were rolling as if they were boiling, and the lightning flashes lit up the sky with impressive results. For the most part, it was calm right up until fierce winds battered the trees and RVs for 15-20 minutes. After that, it was a steady rain through the night. The next morning, the only damage was a large tree that had come down on the other side of the lake.

The Good
The best part of the trip was being with family, who came from all over Indiana and Michigan. It's always good to catch up with aunts, uncles and cousins, and between the six sites we had 20 people and five dogs staying in one fifth-wheel, three travel trailers, one hybrid (ours), and one tent.

Bacon Explosion!

Of course, having so many people together means large amounts of good food. And this is where we talk about my cousin Matt's recipe for "Bacon Explosion."

Step 1. Weave an entire package of bacon into a blanket.
Step 2. Put a pound of ground sausage into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag and roll it flat. Cut the edges of the baggie so the sausage layer can be put on top of the bacon layer.
Step 3. This is where you can get creative. Matt put a layer of raspberry chipotle barbecue sauce on top of the sausage layer, then assorted spices. My other cousin, Jill, put on a layer of regular barbecue sauce, plus spices.
Step 4. Put a layer of hash brown potatoes on one half of the sauce/spice layer.
Step 5. Put a layer of cheddar cheese on the hash brown potatoes.
Step 6. Sprinkle cooked bacon pieces along the cheese.
Step 7. Carefully roll the whole thing into a log.
Step 5. Rub olive oil on the top and sides.
Step 6. Rub brown sugar on the top and side.
Step 7. Carefully set into a smoker grill and cook at a low temperature for 3 hours.
Step 8. Slice and enjoy!

Obviously, this is a cardiologist's nightmare. But it tasted great and I can imagine this will be a fixture at future gatherings.

Next trip: Cincinnati and Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.

Camping at the Dublin Irish Festival

Known as one of the biggest and best Irish festivals in the country, the Dublin Irish Festival (Aug. 6 - 8) provides an authentic Irish experience without traveling to the Emerald Isle. More than 60 musical acts from the United States and Ireland liven up seven stages and feature bands performing different styles of Irish music. Discover Ireland's traditional instruments while learning to play the fiddle or tin whistle. Other highlights include Celtic sports, hands-on workshops, an area to research your genealogy and a 10th-century authentic Irish village.

The nearest RV campground that I could find was Pastime Park in Plainwell, just a few miles to the west of Dublin. The only review on RVParkReviews.com gave it an 8 out of 10, and said it was a "very nice park with large trees & close to Columbus, OH with two Amish Restaurants." Another review on a different website says the park "is on the north edge of town and I'm not good at guessing acreage but, it's large with many trees, a walking path,campsites with electric available, showers,dumping station,playground for kids and softball diamond. This park makes you feel safe, comfortable and right at home if you're country folk!"

Another nearby campground is Alum Creek State Park in Delaware, about 16 miles north of Dublin.

The Ohio DNR describes this state park as such: "Alum Creek's 3,387-acre reservoir and 4,630-acres of gently rolling span of fields and woodlands provides a hub of recreational activity just minutes from Ohio's capital city. Quiet coves nestled among shale cliffs await the solitary fisherman in the park's northern reaches while sunseekers mingle with thousands on Ohio's largest inland beach."

Alum Creek's 297 family campsites offer both wooded and sunny areas, some of which overlook the lake. This well-designed campground has a beach and a boat ramp for exclusive use of the overnight guests, and features plenty of hiking trails. Each site has an electrical hookup, and heated shower facilities are located throughout the facility.

Thoughts on the Arkansas camping tragedy

UPDATE: Maumee Bay State Park was not evacuated. I heard the story wrong. My relatives did indeed leave the park, but it was their own choice.

It is interesting to note how severe weather has affected us all in recent weeks.

In Arkansas, a flash flood sent an eight-foot wall of water crashing through a campground in the middle of the night. Tragically, people died. My prayers go out to all involved in the Arkansas camping tragedy.

More people might have died had campers not come to each other's rescue, as there were reports of people trying to warn others by knocking on RV doors and windows. I can't imagine waking up to someone banging on my camper, then realizing there was a very real threat to the safety of my family.

Several states away, in northwest Ohio, tornadoes tore through a small town, killing several and destroying the local high school. In nearby Maumee Bay State Park, however, park officials evacuated the campground due to the forecast of severe weather. My relatives were among those who were sent home. The tornado steered clear of the campground, but what if it didn't and the campground was still full?

I am not casting blame; accidents happen and sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. But I also think officials at Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio deserve credit.

Almost time to camp

Our first camping trip of the season is nearly upon us!

June 18-20 we will be heading to Seven Lakes State Park in Holly, Michigan. This is our annual end of the school year weekend getaway with two dozen or so grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. Fifth-wheels, travel trailers, hybrids and tents will be our homes for the three days.

Usually by now my Aunt Diane (a.k.a. Julie McCoy from the Love Boat) has already organized a menu for the trip. It was tacos for a couple of years, and last year we used two Perfect Campfire Grills to cook 59 chicken breasts. Love those grills and good to support a local company.

We'll let you know what the menu is/was this year.

We always choose a different state park and this is our first time at Seven Lakes. The Michigan DNR description says this: "An endless variety of topography and ecosystems form the area called Seven Lakes. Its land was a combination of farmland, rolling hills and forests. About 230 acres of water with several miles of shoreline await the park user. The dam, formed one large lake from seven small lakes."

We'll take pictures and post our review for all to see.

At the end of this month is our big camping trip: a few days in Cincinnati, Ohio and then Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We're planning on seeing the Cincinnati Zoo and also an afternoon game of the Reds vs. Phillies (we're big baseball fans). We still haven't decided what Mammoth Cave tours we'll take. Need to decide soon; any suggestions?

That's all for now. Talk again soon.

All About Hiking

One of the activities we enjoy while camping is hiking. When we scout the Internet for a potential campground, we nearly always make sure it has some hiking trails either in the park or nearby. One of our most favorite places for hiking was the Hocking Hills region in southeast Ohio.

In addition to being fun and easy on the wallet, what's nice about hiking is almost everybody can do it. Whether it’s simply using community park trails, meandering foothills or exploring rugged backcountry, there is a trail or program available for your own unique needs. Hiking requires little equipment and can be as physically demanding as you choose to make it. 

Implement the following tips for an effective, enjoyable, and safe trek through nature. 

Getting Started

If you have never hiked before, or if you are out of shape, you will want to start out slowly to get your body in condition for hiking.  As with any new activity, it’s important to check with your physician first and discuss your goals.

Before trekking, begin a consistent fitness routine to ensure that your body is ready for such a strenuous activity.  Start by walking around your neighborhood, and then increase the distance every time you go out to build your stamina.  Carry a small pack to help your back and shoulders get used to carrying one when you are out on the trail.  Also consider using cardio-based equipment, such as stair-steppers, elliptical trainers, and rowing or climbing machines, to strengthen leg muscles.  Incorporate weight training to improve core body and abdominal strength.

How to Dress

While your basic walking shoe may work for those neighborhood walks, unpaved trails require a sturdier shoe, with good arch support and a heavy sole.  A good pair of hiking boots will help with stability and shock absorption and a boot that has waterproof/breathable Gore-Tex membranes help to keep feet dry.  As with any boot, a break-in period is strongly recommended.

Good socks are also key.  Choose wool or synthetic over cotton because when cotton gets wet, it stays wet. A mid-weight hiking sock with good cushioning supports the arch.  Wear a thin cycling or nylon sock under a hiking sock as a first layer to help prevent blisters, and consider bringing along a second pair to change into halfway through the hike.

Be prepared for anything, including temperature variations, insects, sun, and rain, by dressing in lightweight layers.  The first layer of shirts and pants, next to the skin, should be synthetic to keep moisture from the body.  Look for high-tech materials like COOLMAX, microfiber, spandex, LYCRA, UltraWick, and GORE-TEX.  The second layer for insulation should relate to the outdoor temperature.  If the weather is very cold, then a heavier fleece or liner makes sense. The third layer is should be a weather-resistant shell which acts as a windbreaker or rain shield. 

In addition to sunglasses, hats with brims protect the face from sun, keep you cool, and also help shield the eyes.  Wear sunscreen on bright and cloudy days.

What Type of Pack on Your Back?

Day packs, as their name suggests, are designed to be used on reasonably short hikes.  They are normally anywhere from about 10 to 30 liters in volume and come in various styles.  They will all have shoulder straps and some will have a chest strap and/or a belt strap.

Internal frames have a metal frame integrated into the pack.  Because the pack stays close on your back, the load moves with you and helps with balance and agility on uneven terrain.  Some drawbacks of internal frame packs are that they are harder to pack, keep the back warmer in summer hiking, and do not generally offer the wide range of pocket options.  But they are lightweight, which appeals to the recreational backpacker.

External frames have a high weight-carrying capacity. 

Because of the rigid frame, the external frame distributes the weight better than an internal frame.  An external frame may be more difficult for individuals who have balance issues.  An external frame also does not touch the back. If a person has a hard time keeping cool, than an external frame pack is a good choice.

Keeping Your Body Fueled

Even hikes of short duration will make you hungry and thirsty, so when packing food and water, take into account the humidity, temperature, and distance you will be traveling.  Pack food that is easy to eat and packs well such as oranges, apples, trail mix, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sports bars, etc.  Take one more meal and more water than you think you will need for extra energy and hydration.  Carry a water filter or water purifying tablets to ensure a supply of clean water.  Outdoor retailers also sell large capacity water packs that can be easily strapped over your shoulder.

Checking Out the Trails

Check out what resources your library offers, such as maps and guidebooks, visit sporting goods stores, and check online to see what hiking trails and nearby attractions and amenities are available.  Look at your route options, which will include the terrain; trail conditions; length of the route; attractions and activities; distance from home; location of established camp sites; the weather; and restrictions, rules, and permits needed to hike at that site.

When choosing a hiking trail, take into account your capabilities.  Hiking trails have designations of easy, moderate, and difficult.  Easy trails are generally short and relatively level. They should be accessible to nearly everyone.  Moderate trails require some degree of physical conditioning.  You should exercise regularly, and be used to the high altitude of the park before attempting one.  Difficult trails are steep and/or long and require good physical conditioning and, in higher elevations, acclimation to the high altitude in the park. 

The National Parks’ Web site (www.nps.gov) offers trail maps online, and you can determine what is most appropriate for you. 

Don’t forget to check the weather forecast before you leave.

Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.  This holds true even if you have a partner or are on a group hike.  Take your cell phone, a flashlight, lighter, a lightweight aluminum blanket, and maps.  Know what to do if you twist an ankle, get an uncomfortable blister, or are stung by an insect.  Have a wilderness first aid kit available and know how to use it. 

Preparation is key to a successful and enjoyable hike.  Build up your skills and have appropriate outdoor equipment. The better prepared you are, the more effective and fun your trek will be.

The previous information is courtesy of TOPS Club Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the original, nonprofit weight-loss support and wellness education organization, was established more than 62 years ago to champion weight-loss support and success.  Founded and headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, TOPS promotes successful, affordable weight management with a philosophy that combines healthy eating, regular exercise, wellness information, and support from others at weekly chapter meetings. TOPS has about 170,000 members in nearly 10,000 chapters throughout the United States and Canada.

Visitors are welcome to attend their first TOPS meeting free of charge. To find a local chapter, view www.tops.org or call (800) 932-8677.

Taylor's Beach Campground ready for Michigan Balloonfest campers

The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest is June 25-27 in Howell, and Taylor's Beach Campground is ready for RVers wanting to attend this 26-year family-friendly tradition.

This is the 26th year of the Balloonfest, which is hosted by the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce and held at the Howell High School campus and in downtown Howell. The three-day event features the state championship of hot-air ballooning, as well as family entertainment and activities. New to the event this year are the Detroit Pistons, a basketball tournament and the Landing Zone, a creative and entertaining area for kids of all ages to play, shop, eat and explore art.

Other highlights include: balloon launches and fly-ins, Renewal by Andersen Skydivers, Beatles tribute band – The BackBeats, carnival, arts festival, MediLodge Fireworks on Friday night and a Saturday night balloon glow.

And for RVers, Taylor's Beach Campground is comfortably equipped for campers looking to enjoy their stay as they attend the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest.

Taylor’s Beach Campground offers affordable family camping with seasonal, overnight, weekly and monthly campsite rentals; planned activities and amenities to make your stay comfortable. Campers can visit their website to download coupons for huge savings at Taylors Beach Campground, making an already affordable vacation even less expensive.

Camping remains an affordable way for families to vacation, with modern campgrounds such as Taylor's Beach proving to be popular destination spots for families on a budget. Taylor's Beach provides everything you could possibly imagine — sandy beaches, paddle and fishing boat rentals, game rooms, playgrounds, basketball and volleyball courts, planned activities, shuffleboard, themed weekends and more.

“Camping has become more than pitching a tent in an isolated wooded area,” said Alan Taylor, owner of Taylors Beach Campground. “You get modern amenities, plus activities to keep kids from getting bored, for a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Our camping starts as low as $24 a night—you can’t even stay at the simplest hotel for that price.”

Taylor’s Beach Campground, is located at 6197 N. Burkhart Road in Howell. For more information, cal 517-546-2679 or visit their website.

For more information on the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest, call the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce at 517-546-3920 or visit the event website.  

Get Outdoors and other things to do in Illinois

Highlighting Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) programs and events for the month of June

Get Outdoors: June is “Leave No Child Inside Month” in Illinois and the IDNR encourages youth and families to get outdoors. Illinois state parks and educational programs offer exciting and unique opportunities that will connect people with nature and the outdoors. For information on youth and family activities, check this link on the IDNR website: www.dnr.state.il.us/LNCI.

Free Fishing Days: The 2010 Illinois Free Fishing Days are scheduled for June 11-14. During Illinois Free Fishing Days, anyone may fish without the need to have a sport fishing license, inland trout stamp or salmon stamp.

Two Rivers Family Fishing Fair:
Families are invited to the 19th annual Two Rivers Family Fishing Fair on Sat., June 12 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton. Fishing poles, bait and supplies are provided during the free event, with information stations, educational activities, music and entertainment. The event is hosted by the IDNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For more information, phone 618-786-3323, ext. 1.

Super Saturday: The June 12 Super Saturday at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield will be “Outside at the Museum” from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. In celebration of “Leave No Child Inside Month,” the event will feature outside activities. Children will use chalk to create a massive work of art on the museum’s sidewalk, search for wildlife on the museum’s grounds and learn an easy way to tell which way the wind blows. Children can also have their picture drawn by a local caricature artist. The program is designed especially for children 4-8 years old and is free and open to the public. The museum is located at 502 S. Spring St. (the corner of Spring and Edwards Streets) in Springfield. For more information, phone 217-782-6044.

OutdoorIllinois: Illinois’ first nesting colony of white pelicans is celebrated on the cover and in a feature story in the June 2010 issue of OutdoorIllinois magazine, the official publication of the IDNR. Also in the issue are a series of stories supporting June as “Leave No Child Inside Month”: identifying water critters during a stream hike, the Fishin’ Buddies, Inc. Youth Conservation Conference, inner-city programs at Eden Place Nature Center and celebration of Illinois’ agricultural heritage through the Illinois State Museum’s Audio-Video Barn Web site (http://avbarn.museum.state.il.us). Readers anxious for the summer picnic and camping season will savor four delectable, award-wining Dutch oven recipes.
For a summary of feature magazine articles listen in on monthly podcasts at www.dnr.state.il.us/OI. OutdoorIllinois is a great tool for learning about Illinois' natural, cultural and recreational resources and a bargain at only $15 for a one-year, 12-issue magazine subscription that includes an information-packed annual calendar in the December issue. Visit www.dnr.state.il.us/OI or call 1-800-720-3249 to subscribe. VISA and MasterCard are accepted. For information on advertising in OutdoorIllinois, call 217-/785-8610 or e-mail michelle.silver@illinois.gov.

Give Us Your Best Shot: The 11th annual OutdoorIllinois photo contest is now open for entries. All winning images will be published in the February 2011 issue of OutdoorIllinois - the sixth annual photographic issue. The photo contest is open to all Illinois residents, and entries are due by 5 p.m. Aug. 6. Among the items the “Best of Show” winner will receive are a weekday, one-night lodging and breakfast for two package for Rend Lake Resort and Lodge and two tickets to the 2011 Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame banquet, where the recipient will be honored and the winning photograph displayed. First-, second- and third-place winners will receive three-year, two-year and one-year subscriptions, respectively, to OutdoorIllinois and the opportunity to have their winning photos published in the February 2011 issue. Contest guidelines are also available at www.dnr.state.il.us/photos or call 217-785-0975.