A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast about the brain and nature’s impact on health, and I learned that time spent in natural surroundings impacts immune function, weight, and blood pressure as well as attention deficit disorder.
The impact of even a three day break when spent outdoors enjoying nature lasts months and leaves you in better health mentally and physically.
After learning that, I was more eager than ever to leave on our first ever RV trip (in celebration of Ontario’s Parks 125th anniversary). I needed to see for myself if it was true. Would the experience change us?
We are active and athletic, but we are also always striving to improve. As parents, we try to model healthy habits, nurture a love of learning and a passion for travel. So when we agreed to travel to five of Ontario’s provincial parks up north, we were looking forward to challenging hikes, peaceful canoe rides and new experiences (including attending a party to celebrate Killarney’s Dark Sky Preserve status!).
We didn’t know exactly what was in store for us, but we were willing to find out. I was hopeful everyone would enjoy time outdoors together, learn a few new things, and leave feeling restored and grounded. Here’s my take on how healthy parks helped us build a healthy family.
By the time we left the RV rental lot, we were all extremely excited and positive. But when you travel with kids, as every family knows, there can be a zillion tiny triggers that set them off into a round of fights.
My teens, however, instantly settled in and fell asleep in their seats in the RV, waking up when hungry or when we declared we were close to every park. Teens are comical that way.
That was my first indication this RV trip would be good for us. There was no backseat fighting that first day at all. At each park, every time we checked in and discovered our campsite, it kicked off a big new adventure. And the kids were both eager to help so we could all start exploring.
Do you have any idea how often teamwork happens at home without me nagging? If you guessed almost never, you’d be accurate. But in 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 RV, and they offered to help set up the beds, bump out the additional living space, lift wood, and tend to campfires.
Our first park was quiet and calm, and we started our day exploring Grundy Lake Provincial Park with no particular plan or agenda before taking a hike on the Swan Lake Trail.
Hiking would be a common theme for us at each of the parks we visited. We enjoyed following each other through dense tree-lined paths, and up over craggy rocks, searching for signs of wildlife, and scaling natural stairways and footfalls formed from tree roots and rock ledges.
All of the park’s paths and trails were easy to follow and well marked.
My youngest girl has been a tornado since she was two years old. She never slows down. Sitting at a desk is not her ideal way to learn. Outside, she took every opportunity to hike and get physical.
Our girls both have attention deficit disorder. One is on the hyperactive end of that spectrum and the other is the polar opposite. They both flourish doing hands-on STEM activities and the wide-open environment, endless trails, beaches and waterways at Ontario’s provincial parks are the best possible fit for all of that energy and creativity.
On the first day of fall, we attended Killarney’s Dark Sky Party. 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-grade telescopes that anyone camping there can sign out.
Dark Sky Preserves in Canada must meet certain criteria established by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. To become a dark sky preserve, lighting needs to be adjusted so it shines downward, or it can be retrofitted or eliminated and an educational night sky program must be offered too.
In Ontario, Killarney Provincial Park is the first of all the provincial parks to achieve Dark Sky Preserve Status just this year.
Under a starry autumn sky, with Mars and Saturn shining brightly above us, we listened to a presentation about light pollution. Despite the cold rainy weather pattern that was moving through the area, we huddled together, listened and learned.
So what does any of that have to do with health? Let me explain.
Basically, light that shines upwards is wasted energy and should, in fact, be pointed down towards the streets and paths we walk on.
When light shines out and up, it confuses migratory birds and interferes with bugs that use their own light shows to attract mates. Excess artificial lighting at night wreaks havoc on turtles when laying eggs and when their babies hatch, trying to find their way back to water.
Dark skies give animals and birds the chance to flourish and do what they are supposed to do at night. Dark skies matter for our health and for animal health too.
The night we were at Killarney, every last campsite was taken, so clearly campers were thirsty for knowledge. For the autumn equinox, we were here with about 200 other campers for a party with locals, campers and astronomers from all over. The equinox is the point in the year when night and day are balanced. The days after that are shorter as we prepare for winter.
After a short hike along a path lined with models of the planets, we ended up in a wide-open observation field punctuated by the two observatories holding powerful telescopes.
The night sky was studded with stars and it was easy to see Mars shining bright red and Saturn was visible too for a short time. Dozens of amateur astronomers also brought their telescopes to share the skies with everyone.
We each took turns peering through the telescopes at Saturn and the moon. I think I shrieked: “OH MY GOSH, I can see the craters on the moon!”
If you ask my youngest daughter what her favourite part of this entire trip was, she would tell you it was the Dark Sky Party at Killarney. Staying up late together, learning, and stargazing is a memory she raves about. The light pollution talk was inspiring to her too. I suspect she may choose to explore that further in a school project this year.
Camping in the fall meant that the weather was changeable and the rain chased us down the highway the morning after the Dark Sky Party. But we were still all in great spirits, and the moment we found Chutes Provincial Park we headed straight to Chutes Falls because salmon were reportedly spawning and had been seen jumping. We didn’t see any there, but we spent a good hour or two watching for them and discovering what this tiny park had to offer.
Later the next day, at Sauble Falls Provincial Park, salmon were jumping and I spied a solitary salmon struggling to wind his way up the waterfalls. What a crazy feat of nature. Imagine swimming upstream over waterfalls, fighting the current.
Life feels like that some days, but it doesn’t when you are camping. At Sauble, we hiked, did some canoeing and fishing and enjoyed our last day and night in the RV. It’s worth mentioning too that my youngest finds fishing hypnotic in a way that I don’t completely understand, but it’s almost like meditation for her.
I didn’t turn my computer on once during our trip. My teens did occasionally try to find wifi when we stopped at a coffee shop or restaurant en route to a new park, but Snapchat and Instagram didn’t rule their time. They were helpful, engaged and positive while learning and exploring.
Parents of most teens know there are precious few times they even want to be around you. The older they get, the more it feels like you are racing time to build family experiences to last a lifetime. This RV trip was the perfect way to slow time down as a family.
Each of the parks we visited was quiet, calm and peaceful in September. Their many winding trails, windswept trees, blue lakes, waterfalls, and endless rivers smoothed all the rough edges of US as a family and that’s definitely the best kind of medicine.
Paula Schuck is a travel and health writer from London, Ontario, who is often found skiing or zip lining with her teen girls, Payton and Ainsley, and her husband Jim.