An early morning walk along the pond with friends.

An early morning walk along the pond with friends.

A few weeks ago, I packed the boys and what seemed to be the greater part of our earthly possessions into the Honda minivan and joined the northbound traffic from Massachusetts to Maine on a Sunday in August. The minivan parade slowly thinned as we passed first Kittery, then York, Cape Neddick, Ogunquit and Kennebunkport. By the time we exited and turned our course inland, just north of Portland, the steady stream of minivans had trickled down to a fleeting few, mixed mostly with pick up trucks pulling pop up campers or fifth wheels.

Through the power of peer pressure, the boys both completed the hike to Pulpit Rock from the pond below on their own two feet.

Through the power of peer pressure, the boys both completed the hike to Pulpit Rock from the pond below on their own two feet.

We were headed for a legendary place – one we’d long heard about and often seen photos of, but never once set upon with our own eyes. We were heading north to meet my moms’ group at Papoose Pond Family Campground.

A few years ago, when one of my awesome mom friends invited the whole group to tag along with her on her family vacation to this fabled place, a few brave souls joined her for a week of fun, friends, and family. Last year a few more joined. And this year, we along with 8 other families made the trek 3 hours north to experience it for ourselves.

We are not new to camping but this trip was unique in two ways:

First, it marked the first time I’d brought the boys on anything close to a camping venture without The Captain along to help. 

And second, it marked my first experience with a family campground. 

The boys bike along with friends under many watchful eyes.

The boys bike along with friends under many watchful eyes.

These facts almost canceled each other out. On the one hand, I was the only parent responsible for the packing and patrolling of my little crew, but on the other I had the hands and eyes of many trusted friends to help me out. In many ways it was the perfect experience to ease into solo-parent camping with my boys.

So did we like the family campground experience?

Family campgrounds aren’t for everyone, but I definitely saw the appeal and the purpose they serve. Our group was more or less centrally based along one dirt road leading down to the pond. It was easy enough for the kids to run amuck under loose supervision. There were hours of bike skid outs and wood gathering missions. There were squeals of childhood oblivion as our crew of 19 kids splashed one another in the pond, prodded fires with marshmallow-laden sticks, and ventured onto the beach in the early morning glow, mugs of hot chocolate in hand.

It wasn’t what camping has always meant to me, but it wasn’t a resort vacation either. It was somewhere in between.

Is a family campground right for your next family adventure? Here are some points to think about as you decide.

Our hutnick, with bunkbeds in the enclosed cabin space and eating area outside on the covered porch.

Our hutnick, with bunkbeds in the enclosed cabin space and eating area outside on the covered porch.

Decide how much privacy you really need. Papoose Pond is really well set up to accommodate a wide range of comfort levels. They have plain tented sites, but also have cabins, huts and campers. We stayed in a “hutnick” which had a cabin-like sparse room with bunkbeds inside and an open porch with picnic table, sink, and electric stove outside. It provided us with so much added privacy and convenience and it didn’t break the bank. We had a separate dark place for sleeping, the boys could easily nap as needed, and bonus- there was no need to light a fire every morning just to make my coffee. Many of the tented sites had private vestibules (commonly called ‘the garage’) set up off the tents where people could change clothes, store gear, or just sit in peace. The sites are very, very close together so the only privacy will be the privacy of your accommodations. Choose wisely!

Moving logs was serious business for this crew.

Moving logs was serious business for this crew.

Decide how comfortable you are letting your kids run wild, even out of your sight. The boys spent much of our time at Papoose digging in the dirt and riding their bikes crazily down the slope of a gravel dirt road. Most of this was done in combination with feral shrieks of glee. There were many scraped knees but surprisingly few tears. I was lucky to have the added security of knowing that many other eyes were watching and knew my kids, but even without all the company, it would have been nearly impossible to keep the kids within sight and under my verbal control all day. They immediately made new friends and took off in packs like wolves on a scent. There was a very casual communal supervision over them all which is more than fine by me, but it may not be for everyone and I can imagine that it would not be fun to be the one parent chasing down the pack of kids every five minutes, squawking about staying close to the campsite and not getting dirty. If you have trouble letting go of that control, this may not be for you.

All day every day.

All day every day.

Decide how much peace and quiet you need. Is the answer very little? Then you should be good. Papoose Pond had quiet hours between 10PM and 7AM which we found were generally well respected. We also found that in the middle of the day our site, which was somewhat set back from the beach, stayed relatively quiet since most people were out doing activities. But for the most part, there was a low background noise throughout the day, pierced regularly by screaming kids. I normally enjoy the quiet solitude of camping quite a bit, but when most of the ruckus is being created by your own kids or the rest of the pack who you love like your own, I found it didn’t bother me as much. On the flip side, had I been camping without my crew of close friends, I think I would have found it exceptionally grating. Then again, I’m not sure who goes to family campgrounds looking for peace and quiet. There did seem to be multiple extended families and groups camping together so maybe there is safety in numbers on this. If you are looking to simply get out into the woods and enjoy the birdsongs, this won’t be your jam. That said, we did enjoy a silent night on the beach after putting the kids to bed, watching shooting stars and the amazing Milky Way.

Little Bear takes advantage of the nightly carousel.

Little Bear takes advantage of the nightly carousel.

Decide how involved you want to be. Papoose Pond is made for mingling. Throughout the week there are various tournaments to be entered ranging from tennis and ping pong to volleyball and washer toss. There are also structured events throughout the day – kids’ kickball, sand castle contest, limbo, tie dying, and nightly entertainment including an old carousel which runs for an hour each evening. All of the activities are casual and done out of the way so they don’t intrude on anyone’s scene, but that also means that if you want to participate you’ll need to be proactive in reviewing the schedule when you arrive and seeking them out during the week. We especially enjoyed some of the kids’ sports since they provided an opportunity for the boys to get out some energy without me having to facilitate. And it didn’t hurt that they were given free slushies for their troubles.

Any occasion for s'mores is a hit with these boys.

Any occasion for s’mores is a hit with these boys.

All in all we had an amazing time and would love to go back. Family campgrounds aren’t what I think of when I think of camping but they are an awesome way to ease into the camping experience and they are a wholesome family vacation with something for everyone if you can get by without the peace and privacy of your own home. They make it easy and they make it communal. I don’t foresee The Captain choosing a family campground for his next outdoor adventure, but when the pressure’s all on me to provide the experience, it’s nice to have the friendship and support of a group trip to Papoose Pond.

Morning fishing trip - this lasted surprisingly long considering there were no nibbles.

Morning fishing trip – this lasted surprisingly long considering there were no nibbles.