Saturday, November 5, 2011

Jack & Debbie's Excellent Sly Park Adventure!

Jack and I went to camp this past week. We spent Monday through Friday in the beautiful Sierra foothills at Sly Park Environmental Education & Conference Center with 210 6th graders from two schools: Rocklin Academy and Breen Elementary (also in Rocklin). We came home yesterday afternoon, tired but with some wonderful memories! I'll try to give you just a taste of what we experienced this week.

Day 1: The Adventure Begins
Principal Phil welcomes campers to Sly Park
Soon after arriving on Monday morning, all the kids gathered in the bleachers on the outdoor basketball courts. After welcoming them to Sly Park and explaining some of the rules for the week, the children were sorted into eight cabin groups: Fox, Rattlesnake, Porcupine, Raccoon, Incense Cedar, Black Oak, Douglas Fir and Manzanita. The boys' cabins were all named after animals; the girls' after trees. (I'll let you draw your own conclusions on that.) The adult chaperones had earlier been assigned to cabins, two adults in each cabin. After being dismissed, everyone scattered to settle into our cabins before lunch.

I was in Incense Cedar, along with a mom from the other school whose daughter was attending Sly Park. Melissa and I were responsible for making sure all 25 girls in our cabin got wherever they needed to go safely and relatively on time. We were also in charge of maintaining order in our cabin: making sure everyone took turns in the showers, respected each others' belongings and personal space, got to meals on time, etc.

Monday night was Game Night. Since the weather was still good on Monday, everyone gathered on the outdoor courts again after dinner to play relays and have a tug of war tournament. At this point, Jack had been begging me all day long to take him home. "I hate Sly Park! I want to go home!" The chaos and noise of Game Night was just too much for him. Fortunately, his teacher saw his distress and very kindly pulled him out to sit on a bench off to the side, where it wasn't quite so noisy.

Soon it was time for our late night snack: homemade cookies. Everyone got a nice, big, fresh cookie before heading back to their cabin for the night. Monday night we had snickerdoodles. Sweet dreams, little campers!

9:30 is "Lights Out" every night at Sly Park. The home teachers and Sly Park teachers make the rounds every night to make sure everyone is in bed and quiet. Melissa and I were really happy that our girls were all in bed and quiet when the teachers came around that first night. We were the quietest girls' cabin (Jack's cabin, Rattlesnake, won for the boys) and won the privilege of being the first cabin into breakfast the next morning!

Day 2: Still Whining/Working Me
Tuesday morning we did a short hike down to the canyon to build shelters from natural materials, as if you were lost in the woods and needed to protect yourself from the elements until you were rescued. Jack refused to touch anything or sit down anywhere because, "There could be bugs!" He continued to whine and cry that he wanted to go home.
I'm so miserable and unhappy!
After lunch our group went to Rock Wall Climbing in the gym. Jack did much better than I expected him to. He made it nearly to the top, which is higher than he's ever been before. He's always been afraid of heights.
That's Jack on the left.
Unfortunately, when we said, "Jack, you're doing great! You're almost to the top," he decided he was finished. "I'm done!" he said. "Bring me down!" More tears and whining ensued. At this point, I decided I needed to get away from him for a bit, cause he was really wearing me down. I started to wonder if I was torturing my son by forcing him to endure these activities when he'd rather be at home in his familiar environment (with his video games). I know, I know. He was working me big time, but I hadn't slept well the first night and I was tired, which made everything worse. I was disappointed that he wasn't allowing himself to enjoy his experience with his friends and was worried I might have to take him home.

Since he was already well-supervised, I told his Sly Park teacher, Miss Rebekah, I was going to take a break (with her blessing) and took myself off to the cafeteria for a nice, hot cup of tea. While in the cafe, I ran into Jack's teacher from home and talked to her about my concerns. I told her I might have to switch hiking groups, since my being with Jack was obviously not working out. I called my husband and he also said maybe I needed to separate myself from Jack for his own good--and mine!

After my break, I caught up with our group at the Native American classroom, where Miss Rebekah, taught them about how the Miwok people made fire with sticks. We also saw a teepee built out of cedar bark, which is how the Miwoks made their homes. Jack and his buddy Will got to try to make fire with sticks, but of course Jack was still trying to talk me into going home. On the way back to our cabins, I had a talk with Jack. I told him that unless he stopped with the whining and crying, I was going to have to take myself out of his group, because it made me really sad to have to listen to him being so unhappy all the time. "Do you want me to have to change groups?" I asked him. "No! I want you to be with me!" he said. He agreed to try harder to enjoy himself and stop whining.

After that conversation, we seemed to turn a corner. That night he was looking forward to dinner. He started eating things I'd never seen him eat before, and he was even going back for seconds! After dinner that night, all the campers met in the amphitheater for songs and skits. He went onstage and sang a silly song along with his cabin-mates and seemed to enjoy himself. Later that night we went to the gym for indoor activities. I told him he didn't have to do anything but sit with me, if he was tired or it was too overwhelming. He did sit with me for a bit, but then started running around with a few of his friends from school. He actually seemed to be having fun! Finally!

Day 3: Starting to Enjoy Himself 
The next morning (Wednesday), we did a short hike to the Children's Forest. This time Miss Rebekah had the children blindfold one child, while that child's buddy guided them down the trail. The buddy had to be very careful to keep his or her partner safe, explaining any obstacles in the path while keeping hands on their buddy the entire time. It was a trust-building exercise. Jack and Will were so very sweet together. They've been friends since kindergarten, so they already have a lot of trust between them.

Jack & Will on the Guided/Blindfold Hike
After lunch, our group went on a longer hike to Park Creek. After talking to Miss Rebekah, I decided to bow out of any further long hikes. My knees were starting to give me trouble, and I knew that a long hike up and down hills might result in me having to be rescued by helicopter. I also thought Jack might do better without me, so I sent him off with the other adult group leader and spent the afternoon reading and drinking more hot tea.

About 4:30 I saw the hikers returning. Jack was tired but happy, smeared with red mud (aka Native American face paint). I couldn't believe this was the same boy who would never fingerpaint or allow his face to be painted because he didn't like the way it felt! The same little boy who as a toddler used to go up to strangers in the park and gesture for them to brush the sand off his little hands! The same boy who only the day before refused to touch anything or sit down because he was afraid of bugs! I was thrilled!

My little hiker returns with Native American face paint (mud)
That night after dinner, we had Carnival Night. All the kids got to run around the gym and participate in all kinds of carnival games, including an eating-an-apple-off-a-string competition and face-painting (again, not my kid). I was quite astonished, however, to see Jack actually eating an apple! He never eats fruit at home.

Who are you and what have you done with my son?
After the Carnival, our group went to play Science Jeopardy with Jack's regular Rocklin Academy teacher, Mrs. Chappell. She divided the kids into three groups, and it worked very much like regular Jeopardy, only all the questions were about science. Categories included Water, Animals, Evolution of a Rock, Astronomy, etc. (can't remember them now!). I was amazed at how much these kids knew about science! Had to laugh when the question was "Name two environmental adaptations of a fox," and Jack muttered under his breath, "They slam doors and keep you awake at night!" (Fox was the cabin next door to Jack's. I gather they'd had some trouble settling down the first couple of nights.) What a comedian our boy is!

After we got our cookies that night (a yummy pudding cookie with semi-sweet and white chocolate chips!), we headed down to the giant telescopes that had been set up to look at the stars. The original plan had been to have half of the kids who'd signed up for astronomy night go to telescopes on Wednesday night and the other half on Thursday, but as inclement weather was in the forecast for Thursday, everybody got to go together on Wednesday night. That was 120 or so kids (I may not have remembered the number correctly, but it was a lot!) standing in line to briefly peer through three telescopes. Jack and I went down in the complete darkness to take a quick look at Jupiter and 3 of its 4 moons, the surface of the moon and the galaxy Andromeda, but I had to hurry back to our cabin to be with the girls while my cabin-mate Melissa went to share the experience with her daughter. At least they let the adults take cuts in the line, so it didn't take me long. It was a little odd leaving Jack out there in the dark, but I knew he'd get back to his cabin safely with his buddy Will. He's getting so responsible!

Day 4: It's SNOWING!
Thursday morning was a little colder. We heard there was a storm coming in later. We started to see some high clouds passing over, but the weather held for a few more hours. That morning our group went to Arts & Crafts. Miss Rebekah helped each child silk screen a design onto a shirt they'd brought from home. Jack hadn't shown any interest in picking out a shirt at home, but he seemed happy that I'd brought a plain, white T-shirt for him to silk screen.
Jack & Miss Rebekah silk-screening his shirt
The finished product
 After Arts & Crafts, we moved on to the Planetarium. From the Sly Park web site, "The Starlab planetarium projects the night sky indoors where students learn about constellations, legends from many different cultures, and concepts that help them understand astronomy." From the outside, this $20,000 piece of equipment looks like a big silver blowup bounce house. We crawled through a tunnel to enter the space inside, where Miss Rebekah played reggae music for us while she set everything up. Once inside, we forgot it was still daytime outside as we gazed up at the stars projected on the walls and ceiling. It was fascinating!

That night our campers met in the gym for our songs and skits, since it had started to sprinkle outside. After the meeting, our group left for a night hike through the woods. Miss Rebekah led us through the pitch black and a steady rain, down the same trail we'd traveled the day before on the Blindfold Hike. At first Jack was scared. It was dark. It was wet. There were puddles. We couldn't see very well. But about halfway down the hill, we started to notice some snowflakes mixed with the rain, easy to spot with the flashlights some kids were carrying. He got excited about the snow and forgot to be scared. At the bottom of the hill, we stopped in a  clearing, and Miss Rebekah told us a Native American legend about how a squirrel rescued the sun from the top of a pine tree, got burned in the process and became a bat (short version). At the end of the story, she said, "If you hold out your hand, I'll give each of you a squirrel's eye to eat!" The "squirrel's eye" turned out to be a yummy marshmellow, and all the kids were delighted! On the walk back up, it became even more apparent that it was snowing.

When we got back to the gym, where everyone was reassembling before going for bedtime cookies, there was great excitement over the snow. It was a pretty wet mixture of rain and snow, but some of these kids from the flatlands of the Sacramento Valley have only rarely, if ever, seen snow. Jack had only seen it snow from the inside of the car when we were going to Truckee one time, so everybody was REALLY excited that it was snowing!
Look very closely. Snowflakes!
Everyone was hoping we'd wake up to a couple of inches of snow in the morning (except for the parents who had to drive home in it!). Unfortunately, it was just a brief flurry. Friday morning would dawn cold, but clear.

Day 5: We Say Goodbye to Sly Park
Friday morning, our last morning at Sly Park, we packed up and prepared to leave for home. The girls in our cabin were sad to leave their new friends, but since they all go to school in the same town, they can easily keep in touch when they return home. Some of them will be going to the same middle and high schools.

Jack was just happy to be heading home to our dogs, Cookie and Buddy, and his video games. Just one last hike, one more lunch, a group picture and we were off back down the hill toward home. Heading back up toward the freeway, we did see quite a bit more snow. It had snowed a little heavier up the hill than it did at Sly Park. Our drive home was uneventful. We were back home by 2:15. Everyone was happy to see us, especially Cookie and Buddy, who nearly wiggled themselves to pieces with delight! It was good to be back at home again.

Sly Park was a wonderful adventure. I'm so glad we were able to share it together. I wasn't so sure we'd make it for a while there. The professional, fully credentialed teaching staff was fabulous, especially our wonderful, patient and kind group teacher, Miss Rebekah. Principal Phil was great. The food prepared by the cheerful kitchen staff was delicious (thank you Connie, Carol, Pam, Barbara and Tammi!). I saw Jack eat things I never thought he'd eat (chicken tacos, cheese enchiladas) and was delighted to see him go back for seconds on more than one occasion. I guess the hiking made him hungry, and we all looked forward to our meals with great pleasure. I weighed him this morning after we got home, and my extremely picky, skinny boy actually gained 4 pounds at Sly Park! Awesome!

It was a wonderful adventure and we'll always remember our time at Sly Park. A time we were so blessed to share with each other and all of our friends!

Packing up to leave.

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