Mama Madison: Lessons from the summer vacation

They're not always what you'd expect

Last week should have marked our initial transition from summer lollygagging to school year mode. The kids should have registered, gotten their class schedules and found out whom their teachers will be. We should have purchased new shoes and set out on at least our initial quest for the Holy Grail of school supplies, the non-perforated spiral notebook. We should have been getting to sleep a whole lot earlier.

But instead of using "the week before the week before school starts" as prep time for the 2012-2013 academic year, as any sane parent might do, we decided to milk just a little more out of the season by taking our summer vacation as late as possible. And while only time will tell if this proves to be a smart re-entry strategy for 10th, 7th and 5th grade, I can tell you one thing for sure. Vacation serves as an excellent immediate warm-up for school; there really is legitimate learning going on. Especially when a family like mine spends a few days pretending they know what to do in the Great Outdoors.

Now, this is not to say we aren't an adventurous bunch when on "holiday." We've tackled the New York City bus system without a map. We've "hiked" Boston's Freedom Trail many times over without incident or injury. The kids have safely bounded through quickly closing Chicago subway doors in order to make the last express train of the evening. I'm frankly quite proud of their urban "survival skills."

But this year, instead of going the major city route, we decided to join my two sisters, their families, my mom, my sister's German speaking in-laws and two dogs in a central Virginia lake house for a few days. It was hard to say no to the idea of fresh air, going off the grid and canoeing. We were excited to check out a trail that wasn't followed by "mix." And the fact that it was free (my sister's friend very generously lent her house to us) definitely helped seal the deal.

Little did we know it would turn out to be such a learning opportunity.

Lesson number one dealt with math. One should always choose the highest percentage of Deet of available in bug spray when staying in an area called "Lake of the Woods." We also learned that tubing a mile of the Rappahannock River, post-drought, is significantly slower than walking the same distance with your tube placed decoratively around your neck. My daughter did, though, learn that "stuck between a rock and hard place" is more than just an idiom. And that if you are "up a creek without a paddle" you'll need to actually use your hands to guide you though the water.

We now know that if one of the first things you see at a lake house is a coffee table guide to poisonous snakes of the region, it's not a bad idea to look through it. We still don't know if the species spotted about 10 feet away from us by a few locals was a copperhead, cottonmouth or a less deadly "brand." It probably pays to do your research.

I've also learned that packing the car should be done very carefully when fishhooks and four-year-olds are involved. And that insect repellent and five year olds do not mix well. I was given the honor of calling Poison Control after my nephew sprayed Deep Woods Off in his eyes. In case you are wondering, you flush with warm water for 15-20 minutes. We learned it's much easier to do this in the shower than with a head held over the sink.

And we learned, through tourist literature at one of our Virginia outposts, that Richmond, the state's capital, hosts one of the few urban white water rafting adventures in the U.S . We'd love to get our "paddle" on again. But this time perhaps surrounded by the buzz of city life instead of stinging insects.

But the best lesson we learned by far is that we can happily survive just about anything.

Even a week in the woods. With extended family. In a lake house without cable TV.

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