Ape Cave: The Next Level

Our family has been to Ape Cave several times, and it’s always been a neat experience. The lower cave is a pretty easy hike down to the dead end and back up again, with lots of time to savor the intense quiet and darkness. We headed up again recently, on a gorgeous fall day, to experience the mountain and the cave again.

This time, Dave suggested, we should do the upper cave, which is longer and more challenging. He has a friend who used to do it with his own kids, and Dave was confident that the boys were big and capable enough to handle the challenge. I was sure they were. Privately I was less excited about the prospect of doing a harder path with Mica, but I’d brought a backpack to carry her in, so when the boys seemed game for a more challenging climb, I went along with it.

We geared up in the parking lot and made our way down into the cave in the early afternoon. As usual, the transition from daylight and forest to a black underground filled with the sound of dripping water was eerie. But we all had lights, and we turned away from our usual path, heading instead toward the upper cave and adventure.

To say that the upper cave is more challenging than the lower cave is a bit of an understatement. There were occasional smooth sections, where even Mica could walk (carefully), but much of the route was over great piles of boulders, jagged chunks of basalt fallen in from the ceiling. Usually there was plenty of room, and it was just a matter of clambering over stones, but occasionally the tunnel would narrow and we’d need to slide through a smaller gap. (I think I noticed these especially, as I had Mica on my back. She got a couple accidental taps to her head.) And three times we ran up against a true wall, a six-foot vertical ascension which required teamwork to get the family over. People experienced in bouldering probably wouldn’t have been daunted; only Dave seemed to fall into that category for us.

There were neat stone formations and a “window” midway that opened into the daylight; we saw a mouse at one point; and both boys, despite scraping their knees, proved themselves very good climbers. Nevertheless I can’t help but think of the experience with a touch of anxiety. Also I had sore muscles for three days afterwards.

But we made it, and even have a triumphal picture at the exit to prove it. We came out in the evening, and had to hustle to hike back to the parking lot before it became truly dark. The real question is, will we ever do that again? For me, it’s out of the question until Mica is old enough to carry her own weight. Then we can talk about it.



We were out of the house before 6:00am, thinking that if we waited too late in the morning we’d find ourselves making a tortuously slow drive down into the path of totality. With all the dire traffic predictions I’d been hearing, I’d worried a little that Dave would lose interest in seeing the eclipse, but I shouldn’t have been concerned. After all, he was the one who’d told me to put it on my list as an activity, almost five years before.

Even that early there were a lot of cars on the road, but we still cruised along pretty well, and were in Salem getting ourselves breakfast before 7:00. None of the kids had gone back to sleep in the car, not even Mica, so we were all a bit strange and under-slept. For me that added to the sense of adventure. Dave looked up a nearby Salem park, and we got there early enough to get a parking space.

It was not a large or fancy park, seeming to exist mainly to provide two soccer fields and two baseball diamonds. On this particular morning it was dotted with the tents of people who’d dodged the traffic issue altogether. One man was cooking breakfast with the help of a camp stove and a well-stocked tailgating setup; the air smelled like sausages. We parked next to two guys fiddling with telescopes and cameras on tripods. Camp chairs were everywhere.

There was no play area, but there were sticks, some low, shrubby trees, and a pile of river rocks used for landscaping, so the kids occupied themselves pretty well. We whiled away the hours until the eclipse by talking, reading, taking children to the bathroom, and debating whether it was ok for the boys to try to break some of the rocks in order to make arrowheads. (Hint: Making arrowheads is harder than it may seem.)

During the last hour we began to check on the sun occasionally through our eclipse glasses, watching the crescent of darkness slide slowly over its face. We’d stapled a pair of glasses into a cloth mask for Mica, so we could tie it around her head, which helped me worry less about her accidentally staring at the sun. The world grew dimmer and cooler, as though heavy smoke were obscuring the sun, although it was a clear day. The shadows of the trees became composed of crescents, as though painted by an impressionist.

And then, in the last minute, the world visibly dimmed around us, until the sun was a black hole in the sky, ringed by fire. I had seen pictures of eclipses, so in a way it wasn’t a surprise. But it was beautiful and unearthly, the world suddenly twilit, with Venus presiding over the sky overhead.

Within two minutes the sun was back. Tree shadows were again made of crescents, oriented in the opposite direction from before. The boys went back to banging on rocks.

I know that the world didn’t pause during those two minutes of totality. I remember talking to Mica, who seemed unimpressed by events, and looking around at the sunset encircling the horizon, and noticing the lights of a drone over the field. But already in my memory, when I think of that black circle in the sky, it seems as though the world was holding its breath.

Other Than Swimming

Swimming is not the only thing that happens at the lake, although some of us (Ryan and me) think it’s the best part.

This year there was a lot of rock-hunting, with piles of neat rocks pulled from the bottom of the lake and brought up to the cabin. (Sadly, there was also a winnowing-down of the rock collection before we left, which was a bit traumatic for at least one of the rock-hunters.) In that vein, we bought a book on rocks and paid a visit to a rock and crystal shop in Coeur d’Alene, looked at all kinds of near stones, and came away with a few as souvenirs. My dad also bought a bag of small crystals that we planted on the floor of the lake as treasure for the boys to hunt. They were pretty excited to start finding quartz and amythest crystals, and eventually I was forced to admit that they weren’t naturally occurring.

There was some relaxing, especially on the adult side. (In fact I noticed that adults without small children did an awful lot of reading and napping. Dave and I are looking forward to trying that sometime.) Uncle Peter’s attempts to relax were sometimes interrupted by the smallest member of the party, who clearly found him the most fascinating person there. Sometimes we would see Mica trailing after him as he moved about the cabin. Sometimes she would even appropriate his lap. It’s hard to say no to a little red-headed three-year-old.

Perhaps best of all, there were puppies. This is the second time we’ve gotten to hang out with a batch of labradoodle puppies at the lake, and it was just as awesome as it sounds. Having four warm, soft, wiggly little bodies hanging around, tearing up leaves, checking out the lake, and licking at little hands (especially after meals) escalated this vacation from wonderful to absolute paradise.

And inevitably after all that activity, there was a lot of good sleep.


If I could, I would swim every day. I can’t remember a time I didn’t love swimming, and my memories of swimming in a lake are so potent that even today, the mere scent of lake water makes me happy.

With luck my kids are building the same association.

I was hopeful that with a couple terms of swim lessons behind them, the kids would be more adventurous in the water than they had been. It didn’t work quite that way with Mica. She’s never been particularly worried about the water, but this time around she was very selective about immersing herself. As the vacation went on, though, and especially as adults played with her in the water, she started swimming more even in deep water.

I’m happy to say that the plan worked better for both of the boys. By the time we left they were spending hours in the water; Ryan in particular was hard to pry out of it. Just at the end of our trip the kids made friends with a pair of boys down the beach, whose family had a lot of water toys. The addition of new friends and toys made them much more adventurous, and soon they were running and jumping and paddling in ways that I would never have expected last year.

And Ryan for one made the next leap, too. He took off his life jacket and discovered that he could dog paddle without any flotation — an independent swimmer at last!

Camping With Llamas

My friend Joyce has a llama farm. She breeds pack llamas, trains them to pack, and takes them out on camping trips — and she invited my family to go out with her sometime.

Last weekend that opportunity arose, and the kids and I headed out for a weekend adventure at the coast.

It looked like the perfect weekend to go, because temperatures were supposed to reach 100 degrees at home, but would hover around a gentle 80 on the coast. Joyce and her housemate Don go out to a place called Bayocean Spit every year, so they know the area and have the actual mechanics of the camping down to a science. This was great for us, because I am a total novice. Even better, Joyce said she would manage the food for the group, and just ask people to chip in for their share. This meant that for the first time, we stayed in a tent without needing to subsist on hot dogs and nutella. (The kids still ate a lot of nutella.)

The llamas are not simply invited along on this adventure for companionship — they are pack animals, and carried all our stuff. In one case I know that one of them was carrying eighty pounds, so they are no lightweights. This meant that we could have luxuries like a table, propane stoves to cook on, and avocados to eat without needing to carry it all on our backs.

This is not to say that the weekend was completely without difficulties. Ryan had a little trouble with the length of our walk in; clearly we need to do more hiking as a family. (Mica had no trouble because she could ride on me.) And once we arrived at the campsite, I quickly discovered that I’d made a beginner’s mistake: I hadn’t adequately checked my tent. I had the poles, the stakes, and the rain fly, but no actual tent.

This looked bad. We were camping on the bay side of the spit, without the wind off the ocean. This meant that there were a fair number of mosquitoes around, and the prospect of sleeping tent-less did not excite me. But as it turned out, this was the best mistake I made all weekend. One of Don and Joyce’s friends, Kate, had come with us (with two llamas of her own), and had met some of her family who came by canoe. They had a campsite by the water, much less buggy and with a campfire, that they shared with us. So we went to sleep that first night listening to the waves and watching the stars come out above us.

The next day we packed up just a couple of llamas with supplies for lunch and headed off to the ocean on the other side of the spit. The walk was beautiful even before we saw a harbor seal watching us from the water, and at the end was paradise. Truly, there is nothing at all like the ocean, and this spot included a long sandy beach, dunes, and great piles of driftwood for the kids to play among. Even when Mica took a header into the surf and got soaked, she needed only a minute to be back up and running.

We stayed all day and when we left the kids were still not really ready to go. (Except Mica, who fell asleep in the backpack.) Sometimes I dream of spending the summer hopping from camp to camp, from forest to stream to beach, letting the kids explore each area to the fullest before moving somewhere different. Ryan, who’d been initially struggling with all the walking that this camping trip entailed, started asking me if we could print out pictures from our trip and put them on the wall where he could see them. (Answer: yes!)

But inevitably it was time to go back and think about dinner — and bed. It had been cloudy all day, and the local weather was predicting a chance of rain the next morning, which meant that we had a choice to make: did we squeeze into Don and Joyce’s big tent with them? Sleep in the open again and hope for the best? Try to rig up our rain fly?

I put the question to the kids and, somewhat to my surprise, Nathan opted immediately for trying to make it on our own. So with the loan of some cording from Joyce, we went back to our campsite and rigged up our rain fly as some sort of shelter. There was just enough time to figure that out, eat, and brush teeth before night descended. The three children snuggled down into the double sleeping bag with me right beside them. They were all asleep within ten minutes. I lay awake for a little while savoring the sense of having an adventure with my family.

And we made it through the tiny bit of rain just fine. After breakfast and packing, we hiked back out to the parking lot and headed back to Portland. Days later, I still can’t quite get over how awesome the whole experience was.

Oregon Renaissance Faire

I was so excited to discover, only a couple of weeks ago, that there is a Renaissance Faire close to us. Given how much fun the boys had at the Shrewsbury Renaissance Faire last year, it seemed obvious that we should attend this; and since it was so close, I decided to bring Mica as well. With a bit of planning we managed to get the boys’ best friend from school and his mom to come along with us, which helped to stoke Nathan and Ryan’s enthusiasm.

We skipped the rainy weekend but arrived when the heat was in full force, and spent several hot afternoon hours wandering the faire. The kids found wooden swords almost as soon as we entered, and despite my admonitions to see what else was on offer first, we eventually went back and got them. There is a strict no-sword-fighting rule in the faire (except for designated events, like the tournament), so they were forced to content themselves with running around under the trees, slashing at shadows.

I was interested to see what Mica would make of the faire. She was very interested in the pony ride concept and wanted to go there first; but when she discovered that I was standing in line to let her actually ride one, she ordered me out of the line. She also liked looking at the various displays, and we spent some time trying on lovely circlets, but in the end she too chose a sword as her souvenir. (She might have taken a glass flute instead had I allowed, but there was no way that was happening.)

None of the kids were interested in sitting and watching the various shows, which was a pity since the small bits we caught were very good. Maybe in a few years they’ll be ready for that.

More Beach

There is more to the beach than crabs. When I was a kid there was something to do at the beach regardless of time or tide level, and that has apparently not changed.

There are sticks, for example, which can be weapons, or tools, or… well, to be honest, mostly those two. Maybe mostly weapons. A weathered board laid against a washed-up mass of tree roots makes a springy ramp for walking and jumping. Logs are worn away so that the stumps of their branches stick out extra far, and they turn and shift under your feet. I watch my children play with their balance and reaction times.

And there are endless Things To Find. Bits of shell; interesting rocks; smooth driftwood. Rubbery seaweed with tough, fluid-filled pouches. Thousands of baby snails. Sand fleas. And more and more and more, so much that a two-year-old (or, if I’m feeling like I’m on vacation, I) can poke around in mud and sift through sand for hours.