A Family Outing: Camping at Shenandoah National Park

The View
A view from one of the many lookouts in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Can you believe it’s 2016 already? I feel like this year has flown by. I probably say that every year, but I think the weirdly warm weather we’re having on the East Coast this year makes it feel even less like it’s winter. If you read my last post about camping with kids, then you know we started camping this year. We’ve gone three times- once with just our little family (me, Hubby and Little J) and twice with my SIL, her husband and kids. One of those two times was to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We went during Labor Day weekend, and unless you have reservations (which go fast, months earlier), I wouldn’t recommend just showing up. That’s what we did, but it was risky. I took Thursday afternoon off from work, and we arrived at the Big Meadows Campground around dusk. We were able to get one of the last 5 spots. The other 4 were gone within 45 mins or so. People get arriving all day Friday and were turned away, because they didn’t have a reservation and there weren’t any first come, first served spots available. So we were lucky.

Tent Stuff
There’s always fun stuff to do around the camp site or nearby. We keep toys and games in the tent too in case of rain!

There are other campgrounds at Shenandoah, and some of them are exclusively first come, first served. Ours was the mostfamily-friendly campground. I say that because it had hot showers, laundry facilities and a camp store down the road with gear and food. Roughing it? Not exactly, but if you have three small kids with and-thistime- two dogs…having some luxuries available seemed like a good idea. We did end up going back and forth to that store at least once a day. We also made a trip down the mountain toWalmart once. That was about a 45 minute or longer drive one way, so I wouldn’t recommend doing that often if you camp at Big Meadows.

The sites themselves seemed nice. They have the typical paved spots with a bit of grass that work for either tents or campers. They also have tent-only sites, and we ended up in one of those spots. Each of the tent-only sites had a metal bear box to put your food inside and out of the reach of animals. To reach the tent-only sites, you have to park your car in a little lot and walk up a short trail to your site. It’s really not far at all -maybe 50 feet- but that makes it inconvenient to keep your cooler and food in your car, hence the bear box.

Outdoorsy Stuff
We had a chance to hike several trails including the famous Appalachian Trail. Bike riding on the path through Big Meadows was a blast too. And, yes, I might be wearing a fanny pack in one of those photos…

We didn’t see any black bears while we were there, but the park rangers and other campers told us about sightings. A park ranger at the visitor center down the road gave a talk about black bears. He said that if you see a black bear, don’t run! That’s the worst thing you can do. Just stand still, and if they get close, then make lots of noise, and it will scare them away. The kids were hopeful the entire weekend that they’d see bears but no such luck. We did see bear scat when we were walking on the Appalachian Trail, and it was interesting to see the berries inside the scat. Apparently the bear had been foraging on plants, which bears like to eat.

We went hiking on quite a few trails and rode our bikes on the paved paths. There was a playground at the nearby lodge that the kids played on a couple of times. There was a restaurant at the lodge at which we ate. I know…definitely not back woods camping. 🙂

There were deer everywhere. They’d even walk by our tents in the middle of the night! We also saw your smaller animals like squirrels, rabbits and lots of birds.

One thing worth noting…Hubby and I have AT&T as a phone carrier, and most places in the park we did NOT get a signal. We did get a signal at the lodge, and there’s also free wi-fi there.

Conclusion- the views at Shenandoah Park were beautiful; we had a great time; and we will definitely be going back!

Note: This is not a sponsored post, and the opinions expressed are my own.

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A Family Outing: The National Aquarium (Baltimore)

Hello, blog! I missed you.

Want to visit the National Aquarium? To start with I want to point out that the National Aquarium is in Baltimore, not DC. I’ve run across quite a few people who were unaware of this. There USED TO BE a national aquarium in DC, but it closed in 2013 for renovations, and many of the exhibits were moved to Baltimore, which isn’t much further away.

Big J, Little J and I visited the aquarium a couple of months ago, but I’m just now getting around to posting about our visit. I’ve been so busy with work. My new job is going very well, but before I was considered a “qualified” instructor who could teach on her own, I had to personalize more than 30 master lesson plans (each lesson plan ranges from 1 lecture to 11 lectures) and pass two performance evaluations. Normally, new instructors will have three performance evaluations, but because of my previous teaching experience and skill, my department head decided I didn’t need the middle one…woohoo! Anyway, I’m now qualified, so I’m not bringing work home at night and on the weekends quite as much. I have time to blog!

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The view of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor from the National Aquarium

So back to the aquarium… We visited a couple of weeks before the infamous Baltimore riots, but from what I understand, things are back to usual in the Inner Harbor, and the aquarium wasn’t damaged.

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Things to know: Tickets to the aquarium aren’t cheap. If you live in the area and plan on going a few times a year, I recommend looking into a membership. Ticket also sell out, and the aquarium has a timed entry system, so I’d buy tickets ahead of time online. Currently, tickets for kids 3-11 are $24.95, and tickets for kids/adults 12-64 are $39.95. Senior tickets are $3 off the regular admission price. As you can see, the aquarium can be a little expensive!

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You also need to factor in parking. There are parking garages and lots all over the Inner Harbor, and the prices vary wildly too. I would expect to pay anywhere from $15-25 in parking for your aquarium visit, but it’s possible you could find a cheaper rate, depending on the season and day of the week. We chose the aquarium’s official parking partner, Lockwood Place, because of its proximity. It’s about half a block away from the aquarium. The parking garage offers a small discount (I believe it was $2 or $3 for us) to aquarium visitors. You need to take your parking ticket with you and get it validated at the aquarium, after you park.

Once you get inside the aquarium, it’s important to note that strollers aren’t allowed. I did see one stroller, but it had a handicap tag fixed to it. The aquarium is designed in a way that people stand on conveyor belts that move you up and in between the tanks. I’ve read elsewhere that the aquarium offers a limited number of baby carriers, but I’ve never needed to take advantage of this. There is a stroller check when you first come in.

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This was actually our second time at the aquarium. The first time we visited, Little J was Baby J…only about two months old. I had a baby carrier with already, so we just checked the stroller downstairs, and I carried him through the exhibits. This time, I just let him walk around, since he’s a “big boy” (almost 3).

There is a small cafe, but we haven’t had issues bringing in a few snacks and water.

About the aquarium: It’s awesome! Okay, I have to admit that Hubby is not impressed, but I really don’t understand why. I love the layout. It’s a tall building, and you just keep going up and up and up, and looking down into the tanks. The view is fantastic. Then when you get to the top, you can take a spiraling ramp all the way down, and the ramp is surrounded by a circular shark tank that is stories high. How is that not cool??

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Little J LOVED it. I thought he would get tired, but he didn’t. I guess it’s really not too much walking for a little guy. Just a couple of weeks after our last visit, a new interactive exhibit was opened, so I’m planning on going back later this year. I think Little J would love to pet a crab!

I think the pictures speak for themselves, but the architecture and set up of this place is amazing. If you’re in the area and have a chance, I recommend visiting the National Aquarium!

Aquarium

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What is your favorite aquarium to visit? Have you been to the National Aquarium?

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Book Review: “Steel Will” by Staff Sgt. (RET) Shilo Harris

Although I’ve taken pretty much a hiatus from reviews this month, when I was asked to review Steel Will, I quickly said “yes” once I realized what the book is about. The men and women of our armed forces are near and dear to my heart. I’m an Afghanistan veteran and former Army-reservist. (My contract just ended last December.) My husband is active-duty Navy, and I’m currently working for the Navy as a civilian.

When I deployed to Kandahar, my job as a photojournalist often took me “outside the wire,” meaning outside the relatively-safe base and into the Afghan communities. Through all the convoys, helo flights, and foot patrols, God kept me safe. There were a couple of times I remember being truly terrified, but for the most part I always had a peace that I wasn’t going to die or be badly hurt. Not everyone is so fortunate. And not all wounds are visible.

Steel Will is the story of Staff Sgt. (Ret.) Shilo Harris. The tagline is “My journey through hell to become the man I was meant to be.”

Harris begins his book by telling about the fateful day in Iraq when his vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device (IED). I didn’t think Harris by any means glorified the gore, but he was descriptive enough that I realized just how horrific his wounds were. I even thought, he shouldn’t be alive.

Chapter two goes back to Harris’ childhood. He describes the events that led up to his enlistment into the Army after 9/11. His father had fought in Vietnam and came back a changed man, for the worse. And back then people didn’t really understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yet. Although Harris grew up surrounded by family strife, drugs, and alcoholism, Harris was blessed to straighten out his life and meet Kathreyn, the woman who became his wife and was responsible for introducing him to the saving grace of Jesus. It’s obvious very quickly that Harris and Katheryn have a loving relationship, and that she’s a strong woman.

Harris’ book tells about many of the men he served with. The stories are both humorous and sad. He also brings to light some of the horrors of war as well as tragic circumstances many Iraqis faced daily.

About halfway through the book, Harris describes in greater detail the day of the ambush, as well as the IED blast itself. More than a third of his body was burned. He lost his ears and several fingers. Harris had a broken back and a fractured collarbone. When his wife Kathreyn arrived at the hospital in Germany, every part of his body except for his toes was bandaged. Kathreyn was told Harris’ chances of survival were 2 percent. Harris and one other Soldier survived the explosion, but three men didn’t make it.

As Harris’ body healed, he struggled with understanding why God had spared him, and not his men. And then he was angry, angry that God had allowed this to happen to him and to his family.

Besides the men Harris served with, he describes the various wounded warriors he met while recovering. It’s incredible what these troops and their families have survived. One phrase stood out to me. Harris writes, “If you ever want to meet a hero, you need to meet my wife.” Their relationship is inspiring. In a day and age where many people focus on what makes themselves happy, Kathreyn exhibited an unusual sacrificial love for her husband.

They did have obstacles to overcome, obviously. And it wasn’t just Shilo’s healing. Kathreyn had to protect and mother Shilo for months on end; she was his nurse for much of the time. So it was difficult for them to adjust their roles back to husband and wife, and lovers.

Over time, Harris became involved in different wounded warrior organizations and programs. He was able to travel around and serve as an encouragement to other warriors, newly wounded. He’s met presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He and his family even participated in ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

I could not put this book down. There were multiple places in the book that had me choked up: the stories of those that didn’t make it, the wounded warriors, the black outs and rages, traumatic brain injuries, the PTSD… These are things that many military families face on a daily basis. I’ve witnessed fellow Soldiers, who I believe suffer from PTSD, self-medicate with alcohol rather than talk about their experiences and feelings to a friend or professional. Harris openly discusses his experiences and journey of healing during a time when many still don’t speak about theirs and don’t ask for help. But they do need help.

The book ends with several pages devoted to the Soldiers who served with Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris and died that day, Feb. 19, 2007, in Iraq. And finally, Harris and his wife have included a comprehensive list of resources to help wounded warriors.

You can find out more info about Shilo Harris at his website www.shiloharris.com, as well as photos, videos, and more resources.

Note: I received a free copy of Steel Will to read and review. The opinions expressed are my own.

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