Saturday, September 21, 2013

Catching Up...Our Annual "Couple Adventure"

It's hard to believe that it's already been a month since I last blogged.  I want/need to catch up, not only on the rest of our summer, but also on the end of our homeschooling year--yes, I still need to wrap up everything we did way back in May and June.  However, for now I'll just talk about our annual "Couple Adventure."

For the past four years, Connor and Mikaela have gone to Camp Chanco, a two week, sleep away camp located in Surry, Virginia.  They absolutely love it and claim they would stay there the entire summer if we let them.

Bob and I absolutely love it as well, because it gives us two, kid-free weeks each summer to reconnect and have some adventures on our own.  This year, our plan was to head to Banff, Canada and mountain bike part of the Great Divide Trail --the 350+ mile section from the trailhead in Banff to Whitefish, Montana.  (I probably should mention that one of my remaining "athletic goals" in life is to mountain bike the entire 2,700 miles of the trail.)

Anyhow, the more we looked into just riding a section of the GDT--one way--the more we realized the logistical challenges would make it almost cost prohibitive.  Fortunately, the decision as to whether we should go or not go was made for us when we received an e-mail from the Adventure Cycling Association in June stating that due to extensive damage from severe flooding, the trail in Canada was closed for the remainder of 2013. Needless to say, it was time to come up with Plan B.

We bandied about all sorts of ideas but ultimately decided that more than any adventure, we needed to head down to Florida to visit  Bob's ailing father (more on that later).  However, we tried to squeeze in a few adventures along the way.  For example, after we dropped the kids off at camp, we drove about 10 miles to the Surry Courthouse and got on a ferry which took us across the James River to Jamestown. The ferry was free and was a great way to begin our vacation--it felt like we were somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, rather than just an hour from Richmond.

The reason we decided to take the ferry was because we I wanted to go mountain biking at Freedom Park in Williamsburg.  For the past year or two, I had heard nothing but great things about the trails at Freedom Park and had been dying to check them out.  Fortunately, Bob, who prefers road biking, was up for the challenge. 

Bob enjoying some sweet single track
I've got to say that Freedom Park definitely lived up to its' hype.  The trails were fast and fun and I can hardly wait to go back with "the Chix." (More on them later as well).

Me enjoying a sweet drop

The following afternoon, we packed up Scarlett (our mini-van) and began the drive south.  The first night, we decided to stop someplace in Georgia to spend the night.  We pulled out our National Geographic Adventure Atlas and found an exit off of I-95 that had cheap hotels and was very close to Crooked River State Park.  We decided we'd stay near a park so we could go for a trail run in the morning and explore someplace new.

Crooked River State Park is located along a tidal river on Georgia's Colonial Coast.  The park is small, but has a four mile nature trail which we ran.  I have to be honest and say that it was the fastest four mile run I've had in a long time--but not because I was lean and fleet on my feet.  Rather, there were so many mosquitoes that unless we kept going at a good clip, we were swarmed by them.  That said, the trail was well maintained and wound it's way along the river and through pine and palmetto forests.  All in all, a great way to start the day.

Crooked River State Park:  This picture came from Google Images--I didn't have my camera with me on the run.
Our next stop was Gainesville, Florida--the home of Bob's alma mater, the University of Florida.  Bob hadn't been back since he graduated and I had never been there, so we decided to stop and tour the campus.  We walked around the school for an hour or two and visited the Mechanical Engineering and Air Force ROTC buildings--both places Bob spent many an hour.  We chatted with some of the current students and ate lunch at Bob's favorite pizza parlor.  All in all, a good visit.

From there, we headed to Bob's parents' house in Tampa.  We spent time with his parents and the rest of his family and helped out as much as we could.  I have to say, it's very difficult living so far away and not being able to do our fair share to help.

We were in Tampa for my birthday and when Bob asked me how I'd like to celebrate, I told him I wanted to go mountain biking at Alafia River State Park located less than an hour away.  Alafia State Park is an IMBA Epic Ride and one of the highest rated places to mountain bike in Florida.

Here is how it's described by SWAMP, a bike club in Florida:

  "The Alafia River State Park trail is one of the most favored off-road biking choices in Florida. Skilled riders are traveling from all over the state to ride this collection of scary drops, off-camber hillside ledges, high speed banked turns and intimidating ridge top trails. This single-track is built on the rugged terrain of what was once a phosphate mining site. Currently there are about 20 miles of trails at Alafia."

Alafia was awesome!  The "roller coastery" trails with banked turns wound through misty forests, complete with Spanish moss draped trees, palmettos and swamp land.  I loved it and can't wait to go back! 

There were some surprisingly steep drops, especially for Florida.  This one is much steeper than it looks in the photo.

I also love wildlife encounters and we had a cool one with this armadillo.  We saw him walking through a grassy area heading directly towards us.  I got off my bike and stood waiting for him.  He came within 2 feet of me and when I snapped his picture, he jumped into the did I as well.  We later learned that armadillos have extremely poor eyesight.

After spending several days in Florida, we headed to Hilton Head, South Carolina.  My sister Jill and her husband Paul have a vacation home there and they generously let us use it whenever we want.  Hilton Head was just what we needed.  I'm normally not a beach person, but I have to say that I really like HH.  There are bike trails everywhere, miles of uncrowded, gorgeous beaches and tons of great restaurants--so what's not to love?!  Seriously, we parked our car at their house and for the next 3 1/2 days, we never got into it.  The first two days we were there, we rode our bikes about 90 miles.  We explored the vast majority of the island and ate at some really great restaurants.


One of the highlights was the fact we could ride our bikes on the beach for miles,

and miles,

and miles.

In fact, the only time we had to get off our bikes was to carry them across a thigh-deep stream that was flowing into ocean.


We also went swimming and fortunately, one of the days had pretty good waves.  Bob and I spent about 2 hours having body surfing contests, getting tossed about and laughing our butts off. 

Our last morning in HH, we decided to get up at zero dark thirty and ride our bikes to the beach and watch the sun rise while doing our own mini-triathlon.  Can I just say that there's nothing like an early morning bike ride and run on a beautiful beach with the man I love, to make me realize just how extraordinarily blessed I am!?

Needless to say, we can hardly wait for next year's adventure.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Deal of the Year: Shenandoah National Park (Cedar Run-White Oak Canyon and Hawksbill Peak)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that we've been taking advantage of Travelzoo, Groupon and Living Social deals this summer as a way of trying new activities and restaurants, while simultaneously saving money doing so.  We scored some fantastic deals--the trip to Mountain Lake Lodge, a family white water rafting outing on the James River and a romantic dinner for two at Pescados.  But the best deal of all, turned out to be a Living Social special for the Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park.  The Living Social deal was $75, which included one night's lodging in a premiere room at Skyland Resort as well as a bottle of wine, two glasses, two tickets for Luray Caverns and the gourmet, breakfast buffet.  (Note:  I priced these items individually--the room rate is $165, admission to Luray Caverns is $24 p/p and the breakfast buffet is $14 p/p.)  In all, we got over $330 worth of services and products, as well as two days of family fun, for $75 (plus the cost of dinner & gas).  Needless to say, this was too good a deal to pass up!

This photo of the Skyland Resort came from

So Bob, the kids and I packed up Scarlett (our red-hot minivan :-)) and headed for the mountains.  We decided to do one of my all-time favorite hikes in Shenandoah National Park, the Cedar Run - White Oak Canyon Loop, before checking into the lodge.  Bob and the kids had never done this hike before and I was excited for them, because I knew they were in for a real treat.  The Cedar Run-White Oak Canyon loop is a very strenuous, 8.5 mile hike, but it is also stunningly beautiful.  There are at least 9 huge waterfalls and dozens of smaller ones along the route.  Check out: for more info. 

We began our hike at the Cedar Run trail head on Skyline Drive and proceeded to descend 2,500 feet along side a gorgeous stream.

Fortunately, due to a very wet summer here in Virginia, the stream was flowing fast.  Along the way, we saw dozens of falls, rapids and swimming holes.  However, it was an unusually cool day--with a high of 65 degrees in July--so it was too brisk to take advantage of the swimming holes.


Connor and Mikaela have climbed Old Rag before, which is a more famous, 8+ mile hike in Shenandoah Nat'l Park, but personally, I think Cedar Run-White Oak Canyon is a more difficult and an even more beautiful hike than Old Rag.  It may not have the views that Old Rag has at the summit, but on the other hand, just about the the entire hike is gorgeous.

This hike doesn't have "summit views" so to speak, but every so often, we'd manage to catch a glimpse of the surrounding mountains.

When we got to the bottom of the mountain, we crossed the stream, hopped onto a one mile connector trail and then began the long trek back up the mountain, this time via White Oak Canyon.

In my opinion, White Oak Canyon is definitely one of the most beautiful trails in the Park.  It's full of big rock walls,

and even bigger water falls.

The coolest thing about our hike wasn't the dozens of waterfalls we saw, but rather, it was the fact that we saw 4 bears!!!  Towards the end of our hike, we came across a sow and two cubs and then about a mile later, we came across a large male bear who was pawing at logs on the ground.  What a fantastic experience for us all!

After our hike, we checked into the lodge.  Ironically, since they didn't have our wine ready when we arrived, the manager gave us 2 more free tickets to Luray Caverns (which saved us $48!).   (Umm, I think we could have waited an hour to get our "fine" white table wine, but thank you very much!)

We ate a hearty dinner at the lodge and then went to our room.  The Skyland Lodge isn't the Ritz, but the rooms were very clean and comfortable (w/nice linens) and they all had gorgeous views.

The next morning we awoke and took advantage of the gourmet breakfast buffet.  I must have eaten at least $10 worth of fresh blackberries myself (yummers!).  After that, it was time to hit the trail again--this time we climbed to the summit of Hawksbill Peak, the highest point in Shenandoah NP.

Compared to the previous day's hike, this 4 mile loop hike was literally (and figuratively) a "walk in the park."

We climbed the mountain and stopped along the way to take in the views.

At one stop along the way, Connor took out his poetry journal and began to write.  Most of you who know Connor would be shocked to discover that he loves to write poems...but he does.  This past year in our homeschool co-op, Connor had two amazing teachers--Jeanne and Tara, who ignited in him a passion for all things written.  (I can't thank them enough)

When we got to the summit, both Connor and Mikaela made themselves comfortable, whipped out books from their backpacks (I didn't even know they were carrying) and spent an hour or so enjoying the view and reading.  Bob also got very comfortable and took a nap and I just sat there, with a big grin on my face, taking it all in.

Next up was a 45 minute drive to visit the Luray Caverns. 

Luray Caverns is one of the largest commercial caves in the world and despite the fact the cave gets tens of thousands of visitors annually, it is simply stunning. The cavern tour consists of a 1.25 mile hike on an underground trail which winds its way through a "forest" of stalactites and stalagmites. 

My photos don't even begin to show how beautiful and spectacular it was.  Many of the cave's features began forming more than 4 million years ago and some of them were 10 stories tall!  All four of us really enjoyed seeing the caverns and we couldn't help but imagine what it must have been like to have been the person who discovered them. 

After our visit to Luray Caverns, it was time to head home.  We were tired, but extraordinarily content and amazed at just what a great deal we lucked into! It was even a better deal because we didn't have to pay for it.  My parents bought it for themselves, but ran out of time to use it before it was going to expire, so they gave it to us.  Thanks Mom and Dad for a wonderful mini-vacation.  We enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rockets and Robots

Earlier this summer, Mikaela attended GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science), which was a one week camp held at the Governor's Academy for Engineering Studies in the neighboring county.  

She really enjoyed it and got to do everything from learn how to program robots, to measure the strength of chicken bones, to tour VCU's School of Engineering.  By the week's end, not only was she considering becoming an engineer, she was also very motivated to get more involved in robotics.

Connor on the other hand, has long been interested in robotics and one of his very favorite hobbies from day one has been "building things."

Bob saw these interests as the perfect opportunity to share his knowledge and experience with his kids as well as allow them to spend time together doing something they all enjoy.   I probably should mention that Bob is a mechanical engineer who teaches high school physics and runs the Engineering Specialty Center.  He has also been coaching high school FIRST robotics teams for the past 7 or 8 years. 

Bob came up with the idea of putting together "Rockets and Robots", a terrific, week-long camp that was held at our house.  Each day, Connor, Mikaela and five of their friends spent 7-8 hours with Bob, learning about physics, engineering and robotics.  They did lots of experiments, built rockets and robots, learned how to use CAD software and even took a field trip to a retired engineer's house.

On the first day of camp, Bob taught them all of Newton's Laws via hands on experiments.  For example, his first experiment involved having each participant lie on a bed of nails.  Bob then placed a cinder block on each of their chests and swung at it with a sledge hammer in order to break it.  Needless to say, the kids were pretty unsure about the whole idea, so Connor volunteered to go first.

Kerby was up next, but was clearly not convinced that Newton's First Law really worked.

They also did a number of other experiments, all of which were pretty darn fun!

During the course of the week, the kids each built a small rocket.  The Team America Rocketry Challenge's competition rockets are much larger and go hundreds of feet in the air as well as carry a payload.  However, the Estes kit rockets were a great intro and the kids really enjoyed launching them.

This picture below totally cracks me up.  We launched the rockets in our pasture and it's obvious that both Fannie Mae (my pet donkey) and Zeke (our dog), weren't too crazy with the blast off.



Bob also had the kids download a computer program called RockSim, which is a CAD program they are using to design their competition rockets.  


The last couple of days of camp were devoted to learning about the VEX robots and this year's challenge.  They broke down the robot into various components.  For example, the kids learned about different types of lift mechanisms and then spent several hours designing and building them.

 Connor and Kerby were tasked to design a chassis capable of going over "speed bump" type obstacles.

Connor loved it and long after camp was over, he was still building experimental lift mechanisms and testing out chassis designs.


Bob also built in time in the schedule for the kids to have time to hang out/goof around during lunch and go swimming at the end of each day.

The camp was a blast and the kids really had a lot of fun.  In fact, so much so they subsequently gained one new team mate.  The eight of them are going to spend Tuesday afternoons with Bob during this upcoming school year.  He's generously volunteered to coach homeschool VEX and Rocketry competition teams.  They're excited...and so am I--it's something very cool and educational for them to do that entails no work from me.  Yay! :-)

Here are some links with information about each of these programs: - VEX Info Game Site - This year's VEX challenge - Rocket Contest Info