One of the joys of parenting is taking your family on vacations together. Our family’s favorite vacation place in the world is one we visit annually and that is Lake Sequoia near Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. About a month ago in mid-June, our family spent a week here and I thought I’d share that experience in this ‘story worth telling…’
We have been attending YMCA Family Camp at Lake Sequoia since 2004 when my best friend from high school and godfather to my children, Mike Ringer, first invited us to join he and his family here. Mike has been coming to Lake Sequoia since he was a kid as a youth camper. Later in the 80’s, he worked as a camp counselor and life guard. Now with his own kids and family, he’s back again but as a parent and family camper.
This year was particularly special in that we got to celebrate both my wife’s Birthday and Father’s day in the same weekend. It was also the 100th anniversary of when the YMCA first started camping at Lake Sequoia. We’ve matured as a family up here so much especially me as a Dad. I have been so profoundly moved by this experience over the years, I decided to tell the story of why this lake and the surrounding wilderness is such a special place for families like mine. I hope you find this inspired to cherish your own family vacation each year similarly…
There are so many stories to tell about being up at Lake Sequoia all these past years. It will be difficult to narrow this particular blog post and not miss an important aspect of this place. I’m going to share mostly recent experiences that capture the main highlights why this place is so meaningful to my family.
Camp Sequoia sponsors various hikes as one of their daily activities. Over the last several years, this has become for me personally my favorite activity at Lake Sequoia. It is not only very healthy exercise, this wilderness is amongst the most coveted natural wonders in the world. Being located near Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, I’ve been able to hike in some of the most amazing and beautiful locations fortunately all within an hour or two of my home in the Central Valley. The two main hiking enthusiasts who lead these hikes each year, Phil Dixon and Gary Potter, are long time volunteers and stewards of Lake Sequoia and advocates for the camp. Phil leads the more difficult hikes and likes to go ‘off-trail’. Thus, his hikes are more adventuresome and physically taxing. Gary is more a historian and botanist/photographer. His hikes tend to be less arduous but you have more time to learn more details of the places you visit. I like hiking with both these gentlemen for their contrasting styles. This year I went on four hikes and one on my own with Leah. In all, I walked over 20 miles during the week we were up at Lake Sequoia.
Our first hike was with Gary, Leah, and several other campers. This was a pretty easy hike around the lake but one that we walked on a pretty fast pace as we all got caught up in talking to one another during the hike. One of those campers I got to spend a considerable amount of time talking to was a young lady about Gigi’s age named Sarah. The most memorable part of this hike treat was getting to listen to a 14 year old’s view on the world. I’ve known Sarah since we first started coming up to camp when she had just turned four. My how has she grown up to a bright young lady… She told me about her reading the teen version of the “7 Habits of Highly Successful People” written by Stephen Covey’s son apparently. I was so impressed with her understanding of such a mature subject. She shared about the habit, “Seek to Understand then be Understood” using the analog about the difference between being ‘like water’ and ‘like soda’. As we hiked, she explains that some people when you shake them up, remain calm like shaking a bottle of water and opening it. Other people are explosive when you shake them up like a bottle of soda and open it… How true! I told her that “…though I like to think I’m mostly ‘water’, I have to admit I’m ‘soda’ at times.” It made me really inventory my reactions to some things that have happened more recently… Wow, who would thought one my age can learn something so profound from someone so young… By the end of that conversation, we found ourselves back in camp. How time flies!
The most difficut hike I went on this year was Phil Dixon’s hike from Grant Grove to Millwood back to Lake Sequoia. A 6 mile hike that covered about a 2000 ft elevation drop. The trail initially was challenging in that it hadn’t been serviced for years. The Park Service actually discourages hikers from using these trails, but because Phil knew the trail well enough, he navigated us through fallen trees and the shrubs and foliage that overgrown the un-serviced trail over the years. I have to admit it was quite disconcerting to be walking over or under fallen logs and shrubs. These hazards had to be carefully navigated to avoid cuts. I proceeded for a time thinking if we figured out we couldn’t go this way at some point, it would be quite painful to have to return the way we came. Eventually, Phil navigated us through this and back to an old service road used for fire access and we made the rest of the hike without much trouble. Though it may be a nuisance to some (including my wife who now opts out of such hikes) to have to work so hard to go for a walk, I find these hikes exciting as they meet a need for me to live the ‘adventure’ and so I look forward to Phil’s hikes each each year with great excitement and anticipation. In contrast, Leah so dislikes going off trail.. After the last two year’s hikes one, a 6 mile hike turned into an 8 mile one in Redwood Canyon, and another where we slid down some large granite rocks trying to find the trail we went off, she decided to write and sing a humorous song to the tune of Gilligan’s Island about it at campfire (more about that activity later…)
One of the last hikes I went on this year was Gary Potter’s morning hike to Lion Meadow. It’s nearly a 6 mile round trip and a pretty steep climb up roughly 1000 feet to the crest of the mountains that overlook Lake Sequoia. Lion Meadow is located roughly a 1/2 mile west of Grant’s Grove, where you find the largest grove of protected Ancient Redwood trees, some nearly 2000 years old. Not only are they some of the oldest trees in the world, they are also some of the largest both in circumference and height. We are so lucky to be co-located close enough to this grove to be able to walk to them. I could spend the whole day here wandering amongst these great giant trees. An amazing thing about the Giant Redwoods are how much they are part of the greater eco-system. Their roots are so extensive that they require many smaller trees and other plants intertwined root systems to keep them stable. They in turn provide great shade and protection and thus create a micro-climate under them for other wildlife to flourish.
I share here the hiking experience here in pictures to capture the highlights. As they say, this will say a ‘1000 words’…
Most every evening at camp, all the campers gather at the amphiteater around a campfire ring just as dusk is approaching. We open up with the same “Y-M-C-A” camp song (NOT the one by the Village People) that ensures anyone running late knows we are starting this evening’s festivities. As this is the highlight of the day we all can share it at once, our families look forward to this time with great anticipation. The last evening in camp usually brings the most creative skits and songs like the one my wife sung last year. This year did not disappoint. The highlights were one family who sang about Bible Stories, a duet signing “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men, and my own kids and Mike’s family doing the great enlarging machine with Gigi the magician who announced and performed the tricks. We ended the evening with a story from Cheryl about the classic tapestry made up of knots that doesn’t look like much from the underside but from the top was beautiful much like our lives when we run into difficulties turns out ok in the end. It is during these special moments we get to see how much our children have matured and how much parents and especially Dads get to be whimsical and funny.
I share here a ink to a compilation of skits of some of the funny campfire skits our family has been involved in.
Ultimate Frisbee / Disc Golf
Lake Sequoia hosts two activities that use a Frisbee. One I like, and one I love. I like to play Disc Golf. There are nine holes setup on the mountain next to Camp Tulequoia. It is a course with many trees, large granite rocks, and manzanita bush hazards to contend with. Several of the campers like to play and so we go over a couple times during the week to play on the course. What I love to play is Ultimate Frisbee and I have the good fortune to have gotten a group of campers to play with me each year as well. I also have the good fortune to have camp staff who love the game as much as I do and in fact they play a lot in the evenings when they are off-duty. Given the situation, I naturally felt called to organize a camper vs staff game the last few years and for me it has become a highlight of the week for several campers and staff alike. We had our first game on Tuesday was mostly campers (17 of 20) and it was a great time. I’m so delighted that many of the teenagers to adults love this game that I have no trouble getting a large group to play. The 2nd game was on annual camper vs staff game. The campers prevailed 11-8! What a blast! What I value the most in this is the camaraderie we have learned to share between campers and staff players. Though there is a little ‘trash talking’ about having won these past couple years, it was obvious that there is much good will generated between players. I look forward to keeping this tradition going in the years ahead!
This is my two daughters favorite place to hang out, especially Elowyn. Here you can make all sorts of different crafts ranging from clay figures that you can glaze, to leather and other wearable products. Gigi made herself a pair of Mocassins this year for example. I like to solder the glass/rock items “Grandpa” Ross brings up for us to work on each year. I’ve made night-lights and other wall hangings here. Elowyn can always be found here drawing/painting very unique art projects here most days. She is so talented and hopes to come back up and work first as an intern before she turns 18 and later as a summer employee of the camp working in the craft shack, nursery and other areas they need her too. I hope she gets to do this too as she would be awesome at this!
Popsicle Stick Regatta
After Ultimate, we had the Popsicle Stick Regatta, the annual tradition where campers build a boat with a stack of the same number of popsicle sticks, a single rubber band, a paper clip and a piece of notebook paper. Most build a boat with the sticks powered by a sail using the paper. Many will use the paper clip and rubber band to create some kind of propeller system. The two competitions they have are age categories 11 and under, and 12 and over. They have a third category that is for all ages called “anything goes”. That category permits you to use anything you like on your boat so long as you use at least one popsicle stick. My friend Michael made a pontoon boat made up of two plastic Pepsi bottles and a rubber band driven propeller system using fishing hooks glued to the bottles to tie the parts together. He got really into it this year and it paid off as he wins the race in the anything goes category! I’ve built a boat each year but despite my Navy background tend to over-engineer it and usually my boats sink before they make it to the finish line. In the end, the simplest boats tend to win.
One place Leah and I both like to relax at is the Waterfront. This is the where kids of all ages can swim, boat/fish, or just sit and enjoy the view of the lake. Leah and I like to do the latter mostly. Depending on how warm it is, you have choices to sit under one of the many lakeside trees that keep things shady and cool or out in the sun closer to the water or on the boardwalk. This year was particularly cool, so many including us could be found sunbathing on the boardwalk while watching our kids play in the nearby swimming area and diving platform. Also available to use on the lake are rowboats, kayaks and canoes for fishing and exploring the other parts of the lake. The lake is stocked each spring with trout from a nearby fish hatchery which makes for a special treat for those who choose to catch their meals. Once each day, they have a lake swim where those who want to can swim from our diving platform to Indian Rock. I’ve only done it once several years ago and decided I don’t swim enough to do that again, although I do get asked to row a boat alongside othe swimmers who do so they can ‘spot’ for one another in case of emergency.
Dining Hall Activities
The Dining Hall is the equivalent to one’s Family Kitchen. Every morning, noontime and early evening, families gather to share time and their day’s experiences with one another over a meal. After campfire each night, the last event of the evening is games in the dining hall. There are many different board and card games to choose from. Earlier in the week many of those games are played by families who came up together as this is a chance to hang out together. Much like Ultimate Frisbee breaks down barriers, however, by later in the week many families parents and kids alike are intermingling with one another as new friends are made through other activities. Unique to this year, is the realization that my kids played well beyond Leah or my ability to stay awake so we crashed earlier than them on several evenings and they came to bed much later. I think this is in part how much they’ve grown up that they can outlast us in this way, and in part the fact we’ve grown older and need more rest too. I hope it’s more the former.
Other Adventure Activities
There are a lot of other activities that we don’t always participate but worth mentioning that include ropes courses, wall climbing, and other high adventure sports. I say we don’t participate as there are just too many of them and if we did everyone, we wouldn’t have time for the other ones I’ve mentioned thus far. I think, however, they are quite popular with they younger kids and especially the teens who like to challenge themselves physically at their age.
Quiet Time / Meditation
One thing I like to do while I’m at Lake Sequoia is getting up early morning and spending some alone time with God in prayer and meditation. As this is the most time I take off from work each year, this time is very important to me to reflect on all my blessings and ‘weed out’ the things that might be causing me worry or anxiety at the time. When I get to see the peaceful stillness of the lake, I always find it easier to hear God. This year I reflected on the quote “Press on”… it’s what I wrote on the rock I was given at last year’s Men’s Retreat along with the verse that ispired it (Philippians 3:13-14). The larger verse reads, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” I think at times I get mired in the past as I’ve seen with a recent hurt that surfaces other past hurts. This verse reminds me of what the ‘goal’ truly is, and it definitely is NOT what the world would have me believe it is. My prayer is that I continually remind myself to ‘press on’ toward the prize that God has planned for me in Christ Jesus!
Internet Connection / Cell Phone Access or more the lack of it
One thing I really wrestle with up at Lake Sequoia is how to really disconnect from the outside worlds and hence mostly work related matters or other distractions. Fortunately there is NO cell phone access at least for my carrier AT&T (Verizon Wirelesss apparently does work lakeside). Internet connection was somewhat intermittent, but eventually I figured out how to connect to the somewhat discreetly provided WIFI site they provided by the end of the first weekend so I could monitor work e-mail for any emergencies. It also permitted me to check SF Giants scores which were terrible by the way the week I was at the lake this year… So I went roughly 36 hours being out contact with the outside world which was a good thing mostly. I try to be careful not to fall into the habit of checking e-mail and FB too much. Good to be able to share some of the slice of joy it is to be here, however, with my friends back home and elsewhere. I have to admit I did share my ‘porch’ view of Lake Sequoia the first morning I got internet.
Though all the years I’ve been up here have been cherished, I will admit the the first year we came up wasn’t as wonderful as all the subsequent years. I was in the midst of a career transition having moved back to Fresno the year prior and I wasn’t exactly feeling all that secure in my new position as yet. Further, I was trying very hard (in retrospect too hard) to reconcile the neglect of friends and extended family by inviting up others besides my own family to join us that first year. In all I asked three other families to join us that year and it turned into quite a chore for me to feel I was being a good Dad, brother, brother-in-law, and friend to those we had invited. By the end of that week at camp, I was ready to go home and never come back, but I’m glad I have friends like Mike… He made sure I got through the first tough year up here feeling all eyes were on me as a Dad, a typical first year experience for the NEW father. He had a very healthy outlook on work-life balance and I admired him for what he saw as the true value of being up at the lake. He also had the tenacity to sit at checkout until I put my deposit down for year two. We are now up here for our 11th consecutive year so I guessed that strategy worked.
Each year ends with check out day… the toughtest part of a great week at camp is having to say goodbye to all the old and new friends. It is bittersweet. First, I’m so glad to say I’ve met and gotten to know so many different and unique families who make the week so special, but then I think I will not likely interact much with many of them again for a full year since most live in a different geographic locale from me. Hanging out with my best friend since High School, Mike Ringer and his wife, my kids God parents, and their twin boys, Jak and Jon, and their nephews and nieces who share their cabin are amongst the biggest reasons I come to Camp Sequoia each year. It is special to see how much our children have grown up each year. It’s like capturing a still frame in your mind of what you remember about each child.
Stewards of Lake Sequoia
Before I end this story, I would like to take a moment to thank and honor some very important people I call ‘Stewards of the Lake’ in that they’ve been coming up to Lake Sequoia for decades (50+ years for one of them) and cherish this beautiful creation God has given us as much anyone else. Without these folks I don’t know we would have what we have today to share with our children. Thanks to Russ & Jan Sudyam, Cheryl Sudyam-Taylor, Gary Potter and Phil Dixon for all you do to make each year such a blessing for all of us Family Campers! I also like to thank my best friend, Mike Ringer, his wife Teree, and my wife Leah for making this journey each year about not just us but our families. I look forward to some day us being ‘stewards’ up here too.
It is my desire and prayer that we continue to come up to Lake Sequoia each year even into my kids adult years and if we are fortunate when they too have children. There are a few other families that have come up multi-generationally and I’m hopeful we will join them some day in that legacy.