What’s to Love: I recently attended Opal Creek’s “Insect Workshop” for families with my son, and had such a good time I could hardly wait to type this article. This is one workshop in a series that includes (for 2009): Spring Amphibians, Family Wildflowers and Butterflies, Family Mammals of the Santiam Canyon, and Fall Amphibians. There are many more workshops for adults too! I want to state this clearly and right at the beginning of this article, “I give Opal Creek’s Insect Workshop my absolute highest recommendation for your next family adventure.” Please read on and learn more about our incredible experience.
Yes, Opal Creek is 35,000 acres of ancient forest that is federally protected. The thousand-year-old-trees will literally make you stop in your tracks just staring in awe. Yes, you’ll marvel at the crystal-clear streams and rivers. While staying, you’ll be very comfortable in one of their beautiful cabins, and your belly will be full of lovingly-prepared vegetarian food. All these things and much more await your participation in their next family workshop. However, in my opinion, these wonderful attributes alone do not make Opal Creek one of the most special places in Oregon.
Opal Creek is made special by the resolute and amorous stewardship of the seasonal and (very few) full-time employees, volunteers, workshop participants, nature lovers, and visitors who create such a lively educational environment to showcase a truly pristine showpiece of the Pacific Northwest. Without their commitment to Opal Creek, this ancient forest preserve might be just another clear-cut or “wilderness resort.” It’s so obvious that the employees and volunteers have put so much love into this vital and fragile environment, and they are very good at communicating that love back to the visiting community. It’s an amazing and profound experience to be part of Opal Creek, even if for a weekend visit or day hike.
While I can’t speak about all the instructors at Opal Creek, I do want to mention that Katie Chipko and Kaola Swanson were both outstanding with both kids and adults. It takes a special communicator to be able to relay educational information that satisfies both small children and adults. These two instructors walked that line beautifully. I’ve been in education many years, and I believe they both possess a special quality to convey information. They were very respectful, gentle and loving to all of our children.
The workshop registration is handled through the Portland office. If you want to attend a family workshop, I recommend signing up as early as possible. Please note that your money is going toward supporting an educational facility that is absolutely imperative in maintaining an ancient forest habitat. This is not a trip as much as an investment in the future of our forests. The administrators will send you a pre-workshop packet with everything you’ll need to do before the trip. They are very organized!
Your trip will begin with a 3.1 mile hike into “Jawbone Flats,” which is the epicenter for all activities at Opal Creek. See my tips below for ways to avoid hiking meltdowns. The hike is on a service road – sort of like Leif Erickson road but much less traffic. Because there are kids, they take their time getting you back to Jawbone. I believe it took us nearly 3 hours with a break for lunch on the way and plenty of insect identification on the way. I thought the hike would be challenging for the kids, but they used the time to bond and get used to each other. The boys on our trip all started hiking together, which helped all of them stay motivated. Here is a clip highlighting the walk into Jawbone Flats.
When you arrive, your program will begin with a short orientation, and you’ll head over to select a room inside one of their cabins. Your family will be given an entire room inside a very large cabin. See “Family Tips” below for some hints on how to make this work. The cabins were gorgeous and very roomy. There is so much space, and we did not feel like we were all on top of each other. The cabins have a fully equipped kitchen, dining table, living room, back porch, hot water, electricity (which is all created on-site via hydro and solar power!), and clean drinking water. These cabins are very modern and even folks who have an aversion to wilderness will feel comfortable.
After we got settled in, the instructors gave our group a mini-lecture on the insects of Opal Creek. I know you may be thinking, “…a lecture to children?” Well, I was thinking the same thing, and I was a bit concerned. I honestly thought my son would last about 2 minutes before pulling on my arm to exit. Surprisingly, he sat and listened very intently, and so did all the other kids! I was completely flabbergasted by the sea of calm and quiet children. The instructors asked good questions and kept everyone engaged, even the adults! The key was they kept it clear, concise and quick – they didn’t over do it and knew exactly when to move on.
The workshop was 85% hands-on field work, which was definitely the highlight of our time. My son loved raking his collecting-net (supplied by Opal Creek) through the tall grass and looking for a bug he might have scooped up. They encouraged the kids to be gentle and thoughtful about collecting these insects. I don’t think I saw a single bug get squashed by little fingers the entire workshop. We caught all sorts of interesting bugs that not only lit-up the faces of the youngsters, but also brought out childhood smiles from the parents. It was great to see all the interactions with the kids.
On the 2nd day, the focus shifted to “aquatic macro-invertebrates,” which my 5-year-old son can tell you means, “…large water bugs without a spine.” The kids were all given small green nets in which to catch their bugs. Parents turned over rocks and the kids dunked their nets – let the magic happen! Indeed, it was magical and the kids found all sorts of bugs including some that looked prehistoric! The bugs were carefully transported into a holding tank where the kids would all gather around for a closer look. Each new bug generated all sorts of interest from parents, teachers and kids. Although they’ve probably seen the same bugs a million times, the teachers acted like it was the first time they laid eyes on these little creatures. This type of enthusiasm proved to be contagious for all.
Despite all the supervised action, you will have plenty of free-time, and there certainly isn’t a requirement to attend anything. If your child does not want to participate, it’s not a big deal to take a time-out and do whatever you feel like doing. Whenever the boys on the trip had a break, they’d all gather together on top of a nearby hill and hunt for big sticks and throw them off the top of the hill. Here is part 1 of the insect workshop.
Caveats: There is a $5.00 per day fee to park your car at the trailhead. Make sure you have cash with exact change.
Certainly for some folks, the 3.1 mile hike is just enough of a deterrent to keep them from signing up for the workshop. If you think this might be an issue, see my “Family Tips” section for ways to make this a pleasurable experience.
Be careful of bridges during the hike in and the bridge in Jawbone Flats. None of these bridges have safety fencing/wire/netting between the supports (i.e., the spacing is just too big, and it’s quite possible that a child could fall through this if leaning into it). I don’t want to harp on this too much, because there are many things that can go wrong, if you start to think about being out in the wilderness. However, fixing the bridges to be child-safer would be a good idea. The railings on the bridge in Jawbone actually wiggle when you grab them. This was a bit scary to me, because kids often lean into supports. I just kept a very close eye on my child when he was on the bridges.
You’re a long way from help if an emergency occurs. Therefore, please keep a close eye on your kids to make sure they do not hurt themselves. If they are allergic to bee stings, make sure they have an epi-pen or other necessary supplies.
While the cooks will meet special requests for food, it’s not like you’ll be ordering from a menu. What they prepare is pretty much what you have to eat; unless, you bring your own food from home or request certain foods for dietary sensitivities. Part of the fun is eating with all the other families. The food is vegetarian, which can be an issue for some folks. While we’re not vegetarians, it wasn’t an issue for us because the food was excellent.
While the cabins are quite big, they are certainly not sound proof. Families might bring infants who will cry during the night. It’s quite possible that you will hear this crying and/or any other rustling or bedtime routines. There are no private bathrooms when sharing cabins with other families. It wasn’t an issue for us, but I know some people might be bothered by it.
Website: Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center
Distance from Portland: Google Maps registers this trip 93.8 miles from Portland. Here is the route from the Google site. I recommend following the directions on the Opal Creek website. Google says the trip will be about 2.5 hours, but it’s closer to 2 hours if you don’t stop along the way.
Recommended Ages: A great trip for anyone interested in insects. While teens and older kids might have been a bit bored by themselves, if there are other kids their age, or the older kids have younger siblings, you should be able to bring the whole family for this trip. The key question to consider on this trip is, “Will there be kids the same age as my kids?” Therefore, this is the perfect opportunity to invite family friends along, if you are concerned.
By chance, this trip had at least 5 boys all between the ages of 4 and 6, and they had a great time playing together and hunting for insects.
Parental Stress Factor: Low. The families I observed were very relaxed and gave their kids a lot of freedom to move around the Jawbone Flats’ area at will. This is a very relaxing retreat with no phones, television, no cell phone reception, no computer centers, etc. It’s simply a time to be with your family, and enjoy the company of your fellow workshop participants.
Of course, there were the fleeting moments thinking, “…what if my son comes in here with a big cut or needs emergency help?” However, just realize these folks are prepared for these types of situations and know there is little you can do to control this except for keeping a relaxed but watchful eye on your child.
Physical Difficulty: I would rate the 3.1 mile hike into Jawbone Flats “easy.” However, if you have a child with physical challenges, please discuss this with the administrators when registering. I’m sure that they’ll be able to provide transportation under these types of circumstances. Jawbone Flats is in the middle of the wilderness and isn’t handicapped-accessible for wheelchairs. Hiking around Jawbone Flats is easy; however, if you decide to hit the trails around Jawbone, you’ll quickly be met with more difficult hiking options.
Family Fun Factor: Very High if your family is into nature. This is a chance to really connect with your kids and other parents, because some “modern distractions” are not an option out at Opal Creek. Again, I could really see an entire family being brought down by a teenager who really didn’t want to go on the family trip. However, if there are kids of similar age, your family will have a great time at this beautiful wilderness retreat.
Pet Friendly: Dogs are not allowed for workshop participants or overnight stays in cabins. However, if you are visiting for the day, dogs are allowed as long as they are on leashes.
Weather Considerations: A beautiful place to be during hot sunny weather. There are plenty of places to take a dip and cool off in the summer heat. The workshops are during spring, summer and early fall. They are closed during the 4 months of winter season (November, December, January, and February). Be prepared for all kinds of weather, especially rain. You don’t want a simple rain shower to put a damper on your trip.
Insider Info: If you’re not interested in a family workshop, your family can still visit Jawbone Flats and the Opal Creek Wilderness as day hikers or backpackers. There is also the option of renting a cabin, several cabins, or the entire site for family functions. If it seems like a lot of money, go in with another family, or several families and the costs will be quite reasonable.
If you’re coming with your family for a day trip or to stay, bring your bikes for the 3.1 mile hike! Bikes are allowed on the access road, and it would be a very pleasant ride. There was a family staying in one of the small cabins while we were there, and they all had their bikes. Looked like a great time!
After about 2.5 miles hiking in, start looking on the river-side of the trail for an area our teachers called, “The Butt Slides.” This is the perfect area to cool off and go for a swim in the river. There are smooth rock slides in several areas providing the perfect entry into the refreshing water. Even if your kids don’t want to slide, it’s still a great area for a stop.
The “Opal Pool” is about a 10-15 minute hike from Jawbone Flats, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most beautiful spots in Oregon. I don’t want to say too much about this little gem. I’ll let you discover this one for yourself.
If it’s rainy and/or the kids don’t feel like hiking, there are a bunch of games over at the main lodge. There are also some in Cabins 4 and 5. It’s not a bad idea to bring a game or two from home, if you have room in your bags.
I definitely recommend hiking in with a Bob-type jogging stroller. A normal stroller will never make it, and a Bob will prove invaluable when your child decides s/he does not want to hike another step. Sure, you can bring a child carrier or backpack, but the Bob strollers have another nice feature that you’ll enjoy and that’s cargo space.
If you and/or your children need special food, the staff at Opal Creek will do everything possible to meet your needs. I know they provided gluten-free meals for one of the guests during the workshop. Make sure you report any allergies and/or food concerns to the program registrar well in advance. Here is the final video clip focusing on aquatic bugs.
Family Tips: For most family programs, you’ll be eating your lunch on the hike into Jawbone Flats. So, make sure you pack this food and leave it out for the hike! You don’t want to send it with your other gear in the shuttle, which I’m sure has been done in the past.
The cabins have full kitchens with everything you’ll need for cooking meals. If you’re concerned your child will not eat the food they prepare, bring your own food from home and pack it away in their cabinets and refrigerator. Again, one of the nice features of the workshops is eating with other families.
If your baby is a good sleeper, by all means bring him/her along. There were babies in this workshop, and they did just fine. The cabins are very modern – you may want to bring along a pack-and-play, which can be shuttled. If your baby is not a good sleeper and prone to crying and/or screaming several times per night (like ours!), you might want to postpone baby’s Opal Creek adventure. While the cabins are modern, a crying baby would definitely disturb other families. Please use your own judgment.
Leave electronics at home. They just use electricity that is generated on-site. However, an alarm clock or white-noise generator would probably be fine. You’ll definitely experience a silence that is rare these days in most homes. It’s also pitch black at night, so make sure you bring a flashlight.
You’ll need a sleeping bag or heavy blankets for the beds. There are sheets and pillows, but we brought our own pillows. If you’re not used to sleeping in a bag, just pack a comforter in a trash bag and bring it along.
It’s a good idea to have extra clothes, food and water for the hike in and out. I cannot stress this enough. The hike in will take between 2 and 3 hours, so you’ll want snacks as well as a lunch. On the way out, this takes a bit of planning – you’ll need to remember not to pack everything for the shuttle.
On your departure morning, you’ll have to mark all your bags with masking tape (supplied by Opal Creek) before loading up the shuttle van. You’ll also mark your keys (and car description) and give them to the driver. The driver unloads all your gear right into your car! This is such a nice feature! HOWEVER, before you leave Jawbone Flats, make sure you retrieve your keys from the designated location! If you forget your keys, you’ll have to walk back 3.1 miles to retrieve them.
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