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Family Vacation at Douthat State Park

We spent the last week at Douthat State Park in western Virginia. My brother’s wife has been vacationing there with her family since she was a toddler. We were invited along this year and happily accepted. The main draws for the park are the lake, which is closed to swimming this time of year, but open to fishing, and the trails. The fishing requires a license, but we were able to take the kids (our older daughter and nephew) to a kids fishing area in the stream below the dam without one. We succeeded in catching nothing, much to the displeasure of my nephew who sat right down in the road and refused to go home because we hadn’t caught a fish. I am not an avid fisherman, but my favorite activity at summer camp was always the fishing class. I love to be outside and have a difficult time sitting and relaxing. The fishing gets me outdoors and requires me to sit and be patient and still--with a bit of muddling with the gear, of course. It’s also a bit like gambling for me… when you drop that line in the water, it could be the big one… you never know. I love the anticipation. Fishing is a great deal more friendly to my pocketbook than gambling, which curiously holds no draw for me. The kids understood none of these meta-reasons for fishing, but I think it was a good introduction, enough for a three year old at least.
 The trails at Douthat are varied and extensive. There are 43 miles of trails in this small park. My first kid- friendly hike was along Flat Run. It’s very close to the road, so you don’t get that wilderness feeling, but it stays true to its name; there is very little elevation change. There is a neat suspension bridge at the intersection with Bushy Hollow trail. The kids loved it & felt they had really been brave to cross it. Our dog, Chip, refused to go over it with me (though he did go over it on a later hike with my parents). I even prodded him up the ladder, but he would have none of it. The hiking at Douthat was a relief for Chip, who has been locked up in our townhome with no yard. He can only be off the leash inside a dog park. I took him off leash, which is against park rules, on this trail even though we were so close to the road. As a puppy we often took him off leash on his walks because we lived in a rural area in Germany. But, he was an energetic puppy and wouldn’t always come back to be leashed, nor would he stick with us on the roads and trails. He has matured quite a bit in the years since and was able to go off leash on all the subsequent hikes. He was also able to swim and chase sticks in the Flat Run stream. He did this often as a puppy as well and still enjoys it. He didn’t care much for the salt or brackish water when we were in Florida, so this was his first real chance to swim since we moved back to the U.S. from Germany.

Snack at Stoney Run Falls
The next day we took the kids on a hike to Stoney Run falls. We did not plan on taking them the entire way to the falls. It’s a four mile round trip hike, a bit too far for a three year old. But, there were numerous stream crossings along the way and no one felt they could take the kids back by themselves because they couldn’t ford the streams with both of them. On the way out, we had numerous hands to help, forming a bucket brigade and passing them from person to person across the stream. However, most of the others went all the way up Stoney Run trail and on to Tuscarora overlook. Getting to the falls required a bit of coaxing, and singing, but the kids were rewarded with a nice view of the small falls. The falls are overgrown with rhododendron, making what we would call a hammock in Florida, and it was quite chilly as we sat and had a snack. Ice had formed all along the falls creating stalagtite-like icicles and other interesting features. On the way back, I had to carry our older daughter on my shoulders a bit of the way, but she was quite a trooper. Our younger daughter had the best seat, in a backpack looking over daddy’s shoulders.

On Saturday we set out on another long hike. The kids started with us from our cabin up the hill to the Mountain Top lodge and on to the Guest Lodge Trail. At the intersection with Ross Camp Trail, the older kids headed down with my sister-in-law, her sister and my mom. Greg, my brother, my Dad and I all continued up Mountainside Trail. Our younger daughter, in the backpack again, and Chip also went along. It was nice going along at an adult pace. We stopped for a snack at the covered benches at the intersection of Beard’s Gap and Mountainside. There is a very unhelpful map at that wayside stop. All of the ink showing the trails has faded and only the names of the trails and important places remains. It’s a good thing we weren’t lost. From there we continued to the overlook, up numerous switchbacks. We spread out along the trail a bit at that point and Chip drove himself nuts trying to herd us all back together. Everyone always says he looks like a border collie, but I never thought so… perhaps he does have some herding dog in him. We joined my brother, Scudder, at the top for some photos and then he headed back down hoping to catch the second half of VCU’s NCAA tournament game. We waited for Dad. Chip again ran down the trail following Scudder, walked along with Dad, who was still making his way up, again for a while, and then came tearing back up the trail to the overlook. Like I said before, he was in heaven. 
Mountain Top Overlook
After Dad caught his breath we headed back down to Beard’s Gap Trail. It was nice to be headed down again. The trail follows a pretty stream for a good bit of the distance and there were more ice formations along it and some of its smaller tributaries. Greg and I had been hiking with Dad, but had to leave him to his own devices. My Dad is an amateur photographer and taking pictures of the ice was too strong a draw, he was sucked in. This is only the 100th or so time we've had to leave him somewhere because he’s taking photos. Beard’s Gap comes out right at the Park Office and the lodge where my sister-in-law’s family was staying is directly adjacent. So, it was easy enough to get back and have a nice meal.

As you might imagine, when you have 25 people vacationing together, the meals are a major production. The Harris family has organized the ordeal so that one family cooks and cleans each night. That way, you do all your work on one day and then it’s over. When I have been on other big family vacations, the same 2 or 3 people are always in the kitchen cooking and/or cleaning. This way, no one gets stuck with the duty over and over again. The downsides are that if you have people with dietary restrictions, everyone has to compensate. My Dad and I can eat no dairy and there were also diabetics and low-carb dieters dining with us. The other downside is simple food preferences. Greg had some problems eating the cheese rich sauce of the crock pot enchiladas the first night and several people thought our black bean soup was too spicy (and too vegetarian). Oh, well, that’s life folks… at least you didn’t have to cook it! The Harris’ also traditionally have dessert every night. This isn’t something I’m used to and I wasn’t too keen on pumping our older daughter full of sugar every night. She was sorely disappointed when we got home and weren’t have cupcakes or ice cream every night. When I think back, though, one of my favorite parts of summer camp was the access to forbidden food. It’s the only time I ever got to have Froot Loops. In the long run, dessert every night for a week isn’t so bad, especially when you’ve been so active.
Douthat is a wonderful place to vacation with a family. The facilities and available activities within this park are extensive. I must point out that almost every facility in use at the park was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Without that Depression era program, I doubt this park would exist, or at least its offerings would be significantly curtailed. The land was donated by a group of Virginia businessmen and 800 CCC men lived and worked on site to build the lodges, cabins, dam, swimming area, trails, restaurant, information center, superintendent’s residence, picnic areas and maintenance building. They also made hinges, hand wrought iron hardware, shutter latches and light fixtures. While we were vacationing I was struck by how much work was done by the CCC men. And, I was struck remembering how many other public facilities I have been to that have plaques and other interpretive signing explaining the CCC history of the park. So many of the places we enjoy going to were made possible only by virtue of this massive public works project. In an era of government bashing and budget and spending contraction, we need to remember that government projects and government created jobs built some incredible public facilities in this country. The CCC generation left a palpable legacy in public parks across this country. It makes me wonder what kind of legacy vitriol and divisiveness will leave.

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