Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Our happy place

We are back from our second annual week at Camp Mather, a San Francisco-owned and run family camp in the Sierra. The camp is situated at a dusty crossroad with routes to Hetch Hetchy reservoir and through Stanislaus Forest at a bit above 4000 feet. Visitors can stay in one of 116 cabins or 20 tent sites shaded by a thin forest of ponderosa pine, cedar, and black oak. The grounds, which formerly housed workers who built Hetch Hetchy, have shared bathhouses, a dining hall (all meals are included in the fee), a small lake, pool, and general store. Ping pong tables are sprinkled throughout, as are boulders which provide endless entertainment for smaller kids. The camp runs activities such as crafts, talent shows, and family movies, so it's possible to stay busy at the camp if you like. For folks who want to roam about, it's a short drive to Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and there are several trailheads in a 10 mile radius, starting points for hikes in the woods or romps in the branches of the Tuolumne River.

Our Camp Mather vacation planning started way back in the early months of this year, as we opted into the annual lottery for San Francisco residents. In spring we learned we did not get a spot, and were very far down the waitlist. But, just like last year, at the beginning of August our number came up and off we went.

We loved this year's cabin, which was a well-shaded single on the lake side. Last year's cabin (aka the split hot box) received sun throughout the day, so it was super hot at night. It also shared a wall with another cabin, and the noise was very bad at night (we never met the other family but their kids went to “bed” quite late).

Our days were pretty lazy, and started with a cozy family snuggle. We rode our bikes to breakfast at the dining hall, then hung around our cabin (stomp rocketing was a hit) until the pool opened, which as the week progressed became more and more Jack's focus. One morning was reserved for our annual Hetch Hetchy hike. Our goal is to hike a bit further each year; mission accomplished, but we still haven't made it very far. We didn't reach the junction with the trail climbing up to the north; not only was it hot, but smoke from two nearby fires made the heat feel quite oppressive. I do love the view along the reservoir, but this hike is one of my least favorite in the Sierra. I shudder crossing the damn dam (fear of heights) and then again going through the tunnel (to quote Ponyo – “don't like this place”). But a visit to Hetch Hetchy is part of our family tradition now and we all enjoy the drive.

Another morning we drove north to Cherry Lake, with mixed results. It's a gorgeous drive on a road that dips down to cross the Tuolumne before climbing through chaparral and conifers to... well there's a lake here, but how to get to it? We found the boat ramp and a very nice (albeit lonely) campground, but no signed day-use access, no little store, nothing. When we got back to Mather I scanned the map more carefully (which I should have done prior to the trip), noticing too late that the road only runs around the lower part of the lake (actually a reservoir) before heading out on gravel east toward Lake Eleanor; the other end of the road sweeps off to the west to CA108. The later route showed promise for a fun motorcycle ride sometime in the future, but I wouldn't make the trip to Cherry Lake again. Next year we'll zip down to Yosemite Valley instead.

At camp if we weren't splashing in the pool we ignored all the other options – the small old school playground, arts and crafts programs, shirt tie-dieing, volleyball, archery, nature walks and the like. A few times we floated around the lake in our inflatable boat, and Hans and I took turns hanging out with Jack so each of us could have short breaks to read, swim, etc. But really it was all about the pool for Jack.

For the first few days Jack floated around the pool inside a star-shaped inflatable but when it sprang an unfix able leak (and the store was out of new ones) he adapted to the lack of a floaty without fuss or fear. He took the preschool swimming lesson 3 days, and when his teacher suggested he was ready for the beginning class (for 5 year olds), he elected to try it on the last day. The teacher was mediocre and he had a tough time understanding her instruction, but he showed so much determination it was really emotional to watch. Overall the week built a strong base for swim lessons here in SF, so we're on the hunt for a good pool and a patient teacher.

We had a blast with our made-up game, “torpedo snatch” – using the super fun toypedo. Hans and I swept it back and forth just under the surface of the water while Jack tried to intercept it. When he did get it he would giggle madly and attempt to toss it over the ropes into the deeper part of the pool. Then it was our job to dive under and retrieve it. The game was so infectious that by the last day other kids were asking to get in on the fun.

It was an awesome week – from the coyotes singing the camp good morning to the incredible stars at night. We can't wait for next year!

Some tips for Mather beginners:

The cabins are rustic for sure. Just beds, a dresser, closet, and bookshelf (if you're lucky). Picnic table out front. Yes, there is electricity.

Mule rides (and every other pony/mule/horse option) sold out almost immediately; next year we will reserve a spot at the corral upon arrival.

If you are sensitive to altitude changes, take it easy the first day. Last year I took the swim test (a swim out to the lake dock and back and then treading water) the afternoon of our arrival, and was surprised how winded I felt. This year I waited until the second day and had an easier time.

If you have a choice of dates, the camp is hotter and the mosquitoes are more common early in the season. We have found the last few weeks of camp (in August) to be a perfect combination of weather and fewer bugs. It's also easiest to get a reservation when SFUSD schools are in session.

The food is good! If you have a picky eater note that peanut butter and jelly and cereal are available at every meal. Breakfasts alternates between eggs, pancakes, and hot cereals, with fruit available each morning. Lunches are simple – most campers opt to order a bag lunch at dinner for the next day – choose pbj, turkey, roast beef, or a veggie option. Each lunch comes with fruit, chips, and a cookie. During our week we enjoyed fish, pasta with meat sauce, tacos, eggplant parm, turkey dinner, bbq chicken, and bbq tri-tip for dinner. Desserts were tasty too, and included orange cake, pies, ice cream, and chocolate cake. Alcohol is permitted in the camp, and many parents tote a bottle of wine or beers for dinner. A week without cooking is a huge vacation for me – no shopping, preparing, or cleaning... I loved it.

Watch out for bears. We actually saw a young bear in camp during the afternoon one day – an uncommon occurrence. Bears do make appearances at night, so keep the area around your cabin secure, with all food inside. Squirrels also will try to invade your cabin/picnic table. Keep the door closed when you're not within the immediate area.

Cabins lock from the inside, and if you bring a padlock you can lock your cabin when you're away. However, safety is not much of an issue in the camp. Hans came up with this brilliant idea -- we wrote our lock combination on our camp wristbands with a sharpie. Camp staff advises that inflatables left at the lake be locked at night – must be a safety issue? A thin bicycle-type cable lock works well for this.

Bring more towels than you think you might need, or a clothesline to dry them.

There are washers and dryers if you need them.

There is one bathtub in the whole camp – in the women's side of bathhouse A.

Everyone rides bikes everywhere. Make sure your kids have helmets and wear them every time they ride their bikes. There are not a lot of rules at Camp Mather, but staff is really serious about the helmet issue.

Cell phone reception is non-existent. I tested out the reception on the way back and found no coverage at all until we reached Priest; even then reception was spotty until the bottom of the grade. I heard Evergreen Lodge (just a mile from camp) has wi-fi if you're desperate for email.

From the Mather website: “call Camp Mather directly, 209-379-2284, Thursday nights to see if there are any last minute vacancies for the following week. Mather Manager, Claudia Reinhart, offers available reservations from last minute cancellations on a first come first served basis at camp.”

Christmas lights are traditional – we used one set to decorate the outside of the cabin and one set inside as a nightlight.

More tips here.

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