Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024
Two girls on the shore, looking out at the lake

Today’s post comes to us from Paula Schuck (@inkscrblr), the writer behind Thrifty Mommas Tips and our next #OPescape content creator who will be traveling through Ontario’s provincial parks in our wrapped RV.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast about the brain and the impact of nature on health, and learned that time spent in a natural environment affects immune function, weight and blood pressure, as well as attention deficit disorder .

The impact of even a three-day break outdoors enjoying nature lasts for months and leaves you in better mental and physical health.

After hearing that, I was more eager than ever to head out on our first RV trip (in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Ontario Parks). I needed to see for myself if it was true. Would the experience change us?

Better physical and mental health is a constant goal in our family.

We are active and athletic, but we also always strive to improve. As parents, we try to model healthy habits, foster a love of learning and a passion for travel. So when we agreed to travel to five of Ontario’s provincial parks in the north, we were looking forward to challenging hikes, leisurely canoe rides, and new experiences (including attending a party to celebrate Killarney’s Dark Sky Preserve status! ).

Dad and two sisters in front of the mobile home

We didn’t know exactly what awaited us, but we were willing to find out. I hoped everyone would enjoy time outdoors together, learn some new things, and feel restored and grounded. This is my take on how healthy parks helped us build a healthy family.

Harmony

When we pulled out of the RV rental parking lot, we were all extremely excited and positive. But when you travel with kids, as every family knows, there can be a zillion little triggers that send them into a round of fighting.

Two teenage girls smiling at the camera

My teens, however, settled in instantly and fell asleep in their seats in the RV, waking up when they were hungry or when we declared we were near each park. Teenagers are comical in that sense.

Silence.

That was my first indication that this RV trip would be good for us. That first day there was no fight in the back seat. At each park, every time we checked in and discovered our campsite, a great new adventure began. And the two boys were eager to help so we could all start exploring.

Teamwork

Do you have any idea how often you work as a team at home without me nagging you? If you guessed almost never, you’d be right. But in the provincial parks the girls wanted to help.

They would scout the site to make sure there were no hidden rocks or branches that could damage the camper, and offered to help set up the beds, raise the extra living space, lift firewood, and tend the campfires.

Explore together

Our first park was quiet and calm, and we started our day exploring Grundy Lake Provincial Park with no particular plan or agenda before hiking the Swan Lake trail.

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Two girls on the shore, looking at the lake.

Hiking would be a common theme for us in each of the parks we visited. We enjoyed following each other through dense tree-lined trails and over steep rocks, looking for signs of wildlife and climbing natural ladders and footprints formed by tree roots and rock ledges.

All the roads and trails in the park were easy to follow and well marked.

When the environment makes the classroom the best it can be

My youngest daughter has been a tornado since she was two years old. She never stops. Sitting at a desk is not the ideal way to learn it. Outside, she took every opportunity to walk and get physical exercise.

Girl looking at a viewpoint

Both of our girls have attention deficit disorder. One is on the hyperactive end of that spectrum and the other is the polar opposite. Both thrive through hands-on STEM activities and the open environment, the endless trails, beaches and waterways of Ontario’s provincial parks are the best possible option for all that energy and creativity.

Ontario Parks’ First Dark Sky Reserve

Boardwalk with astronomical instrumentsOn the first day of autumn we attended the Dark Sky Party in Killarney. This was a highlight of our trip and a great way to learn about astronomy. Killarney Provincial Park is a STEM lover’s dream, with hands-on astronomy lessons and two research telescopes that anyone who camps there can sign.

Dark Sky Preserves in Canada must meet certain criteria set by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. To become a dark sky reserve, the lighting needs to be adjusted to shine downwards, or it can be retrofitted or removed, and a night sky educational program must also be offered.

In Ontario, Killarney Provincial Park is the first of all provincial parks to achieve Dark Sky Reserve status just this year.

Under a starry autumn sky, with Mars and Saturn shining brightly above us, we listened to a presentation on light pollution. Despite the cold, rainy weather pattern that was moving through the area, we gathered, listened, and learned.

Dark skies impact health

So what does all this have to do with health? Let me explain.

Basically, light shining upward is wasted energy and should in fact be pointed towards the streets and paths we walk on.

night sky with stars

When the light shines outward and upward, it confuses migrating birds and interferes with insects that use their own light shows to attract mates. Excessive artificial lighting at night wreaks havoc on turtles when they lay eggs and when their babies hatch, trying to find their way back to the water.

Other questions that made us think:

  • Why do gigantic office skyscrapers stay illuminated all night in major North American cities?
  • How sad is it that some city children, even if they look at the sky, cannot see the Milky Way or discern the constellations?
  • Did you know that light also interferes with human sleep patterns?

Dark skies give animals and birds a chance to thrive and do what they are supposed to do at night. Dark skies are important for our health and also for animal health.

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equinox festival

The night we were in Killarney, all the campsites were occupied, so clearly the campers were thirsty for knowledge. For the fall equinox we were here with 200 other campers for a party with locals, campers, and astronomers from all over. The equinox is the time of year when day and night balance each other. The days after are shorter as we prepare for winter.

Stars in the night sky

After a short walk along a path lined with planet models, we arrive at an open observation field where the two observatories with powerful telescopes are located.

Sometimes you need to look up

The night sky was full of stars and it was easy to see Mars glowing bright red and Saturn was also visible for a short time. Dozens of amateur astronomers also brought their telescopes to share the sky with everyone.

We each took turns looking through the telescopes at Saturn and the moon. I think I screamed, “OMG, I can see the craters on the moon!”

Milky Way in a dark sky

If you ask my youngest daughter what her favorite part of this whole trip was, she would say it was the Dark Sky Party in Killarney. Staying up late together, learning, and gazing at the stars is a memory he loves. Her talk on light pollution was also inspiring to her. I suspect she might choose to explore that further in a school project this year.

Learning together

Camping in the fall meant the weather was changeable and rain chased us down the road the morning after the Dark Sky Party. But we were still all in high spirits, and by the time we found Chutes Provincial Park we headed straight to Chutes Falls because the salmon were reportedly spawning and had been seen jumping. We didn’t see any there, but we spent an hour or two watching them and discovering what this little park had to offer.

falls

Later the next day at Sauble Falls Provincial Park the salmon were jumping and I saw a lone salmon struggling up the falls. What a crazy feat of nature. Imagine swimming upstream over waterfalls, fighting against the current.

Life feels like that some days, but not when you’re camping. In Sauble, we hiked, canoeed, and fished and enjoyed our last day and night in the RV. It’s also worth mentioning that my youngest daughter finds fishing hypnotic in a way I don’t fully understand, but for her it’s almost like meditation.

Camping

I didn’t turn on my computer even once during our trip. My teens would occasionally try to find Wi-Fi when we stopped at a coffee shop or restaurant on the way to a new park, but Snapchat and Instagram didn’t dominate their time. They were helpful, engaged and positive as they learned and explored.

falls in early autumn

Parents of most teenagers know that there are very few times when they want to be around you. The older they get, the more it feels like you’re racing the clock to create family experiences that last a lifetime. This RV trip was the perfect way to spend time as a family.

Each of the parks we visited was quiet, calm and peaceful in September. Its many winding trails, windswept trees, blue lakes, waterfalls and endless rivers smoothed out all the rough edges of us as a family and that is definitely the best kind of medicine.

Paula Schuck is a travel and health writer from London, Ontario, who can often be found skiing or ziplining with her teenage daughters, Payton and Ainsley, and her husband Jim.