A group of campers huddle under a tent at Cougar Rock campground. Others sit at a weathered picnic table, grabbing playing cards and Monopoly money as rain begins to fall.
After a long day of hiking at Mount Rainier National Park, the last thing this group wants to deal with is bad weather.
Especially because, for most of these campers, it’s the first time they have ever set foot in a campground.
“It’s the 20th day of this program,” said Kevin Bacher, youth and outreach director at Mount Rainier National Park, “and the only one that hasn’t been beautiful.”
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The 22 people at Cougar Rock were taking part in Camping Adventures with My Parents, an all-inclusive camping experience for families with little or no experience outdoors.
The park provides food, transportation and equipment, so the only item campers need to provide is a sense of adventure.
Federal Way residents Scott and Sheila DeBoer heard about the program through a 4-H e-mail list. The family’s previous camping experience was limited to pitching a tent in their backyard.
But on the morning of Aug. 6, the pair packed up their kids – Allison, 11; Ryan, 9; and Emily 7 – and headed to the mountain.
“We wanted to give our kids the opportunity to camp out in nature,” Scott DeBoer said.
“There’s nothing like (sitting around) a campfire,” said Sheila DeBoer, who had not been camping since she was a child.
The program, in its second year at Mount Rainier, was developed at Sequoia National Park in 2008 by park staff looking to make national parks more accessible to people.
The program was designed to reach out to families with social and economic barriers that have prevented them from using park resources in the past.
“There are a lot of people in the Tacoma and Seattle area who have never been to (Mount Rainier),” said Randy King, deputy superintendent for the park.
The program debuted at Mount Rainier last summer and brought 125 people, from 35 Seattle-based families, to the park over three weekends.
It was funded by grants from the McKibben-Merner Family Foundation of Seattle, the National Park Foundation and Washington’s National Park Fund.
With additional funding this year from Discover Your Northwest and Recreational Equipment Inc., this year’s program was expanded to five weekends and opened up to families from Pierce and Thurston counties.
Owen and Bettie Chambers of Tacoma signed up in the spring, after reading about it in the newspaper. They brought two of their daughters, Yona, 16, and Oasha, 8.
Like the DeBoers, Owen Chambers saw the program as a great opportunity for his family to learn more about Mount Rainier.
Chambers, a teacher and head basketball coach at Mount Tahoma High School, described himself as a novice camper. The last time he had been camping was when he was around 8 years old.
Over the course of the weekend, the DeBoers and Chambers, along with three other families, took hikes, learned how to set up tents and sang songs around the campfire.
On the second day, the DeBoers and Chambers prepared for their first full day in the park.
Led by Bacher and interns Hilary Gaddis and Russ Aguilar, the campers traversed the fog-covered Nisqually Vista Trail at Paradise, stopping about every 20 yards for a lesson.
“This is a better trail to take on days you cannot see the mountain,” Bacher said at the trail’s head.
Each family was given a digital Flip camera and composition notebook to document their experiences during the weekend.
“I’m looking forward to pretty much everything,” said Emily DeBoers, aiming her camera at the rest of the group.
A highlight of the weekend proved to be Aguilar, a Student Conservation Association intern.
Aguilar, who studies environmental sciences at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., began his internship in June.
“Last night he found a huge beetle, and was showing it to us,” Bettie Chambers said.
It was a Ponders beetle, Aguilar chimed in, explaining that the specimen was the largest species of beetle living in the park.
The novice campers, of all ages, surrounded Aguilar throughout the weekend, listening intently as he answered questions about the surrounding flora and fauna. The topics for this hike: paintbrush flowers, bees and lilies.
“Russ (Aguilar) is like the dictionary for Mount Rainier,” Yona Chambers said.
Following the hike, the group ate lunch at the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center. There, they had the chance to watch a short movie about Mount Rainier’s history, check out the “Mountain Dwellers” exhibit or buy souvenirs at the gift shop.
“I wish they had Mount Rainier ChapStick,” Yona Chambers said. “I would buy that.”
The rest of the afternoon was to be spent at Reflection Lake, but plans changed when no reflection was to be seen. Instead, campers visited Narata Falls and Box Canyon.
That evening campers received a crash course in Camping 101 when the rain began to fall.
“We learned not to camp by the stairs,” Owen Chambers said as he used a stick to re-direct “Chambers Creek,” a spontaneous stream that threatened to swamp the family’s tent.
But the dreary weather didn’t stop the families from roasting hotdogs and s’mores over a campfire.
Bacher said it is really rewarding to see a family transform over the weekend.
“Participants show up looking like deer in headlights,” he said. “And by Sunday, they are having a great time.”
Ultimately, Bacher sees the program to be a ladder of experiences.
“We are opening the door this weekend,” he said. “We are planting seeds.”
Bacher said he and other rangers have a story about who or what inspired him or her to work in the parks. For Bacher, it was a Sunday school teacher in Indiana who incorporated wildlife in her lessons.
He hopes the program provides that spark for some of the children that participate.
“Once you experience the outdoors, it changes you,” said Terry Maves, a volunteer with the program.
Maves said he got hooked on the outdoors as a Boy Scout “a long time ago.”
He decided to volunteer because he thought the program was the perfect way to share his appreciation for the outdoors.
On the final morning, the campers woke, took down camp and loaded the vans with all of their gear and set out for one more hike, on the lower part of the Wonderland Trail.
Before the hike commenced, the group formed a circle. Bacher introduced the Native American concept of the talking stick, and campers shared some of their favorite experiences.
Sheila and Scott DeBoer said they appreciated the knowledge the staff had about the area.
“I didn’t realize how much of an impact we have on the environment,” Scott DeBoer said. “Even going off the path can be really destructive.”
Allison, Emily and Ryan enjoyed roasting s’mores.
“And being outdoors, exploring the trails and seeing different animals,” Allison DeBoer added.