Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Hey Shelby, wanna go on vacation?"

Shelby enjoying Nickerson State Park in Cape Cod, MA

I wish you could see her ears perk up when you say it.  I don't know how, but somehow she has always known what it means.  A car ride!  Walks and hiking!  Snuggling up in the camper!  Maybe even some swimming!  She starts running around the house in a panic, whining and trying to plow past you out the front door so she can be the first one in the car.  It takes her a good half hour once we're on the road to calm down.  She drools, she pants, her breath is awful - the kids start to complain, pretty soon we're all yelling at each other.  Yep, Shelby the camping dog LOVES to camp.

But when it comes to trying to camp with your pet at state parks in Connecticut, you'll find your choices are slim to none.  While pets are allowed in most state parks and forests, they are prohibited from most camping areas.  Of Connecticut's 14 campgrounds, only 4 allow dogs.  (For a complete list of CT State Park camping areas and their rules, use this link  Camping Areas - CT State Parks & Forests ) According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), pets are banned in the other state campgrounds because of their impact on wildlife (dogs may frighten certain animals, such as birds) pet waste, barking late at night and aggressive behavior. DEEP officials have also stated that not all campground visitors may want to camp at sites that allow pets.  Well guess what, DEEP officials?  Not all campground visitors want to camp at sites that DON'T allow pets.  Myself included.

Every Summer my family and I flee to a pet-friendly state to camp.  More often than not, that state is Massachusetts.  Massachusetts state park campgrounds are totally awesome and it's not just because I can bring my dog.  It's actually cheaper for us to camp in Massachusetts as a non-resident than it is for us to camp in Connecticut as residents.  Crazy, right?  Here in Connecticut, I can camp without my dog for around $17.00 a night and pay to board her at the vet while we're gone.  If I want to bring my dog to say, Salt Rock State Campground (1 of the 4 parks that allow pets) and camp without any hook ups whatsoever, the cost is $33.00 a night.  Come again?  Hey CT, you do realize I can hop just over the border to Wells State Park in Sturbridge, MA and pay a mere $14.00 a night, right?  For that $14.00 a night I get no worries, no boarding costs for my pooch and as an added bonus I get a beautiful, well kept park with huge wooded campsites, water access and fantastic hiking trails.  I have to wonder how many other CT residents do exactly the same thing?  While camping in CT probably doesn't generate much revenue for the state, it certainly would help to promote tourism.  But overpriced campsites and pet restrictions are sending those would-be tourists to surrounding states instead.

Shelby taking a swim at Tolland State Forest in Otis, MA

During the 2010 Legislative session, Senate Bill 125 - An Act Concerning Dogs at State Campgrounds, was introduced.  The bill’s amended version would have required the DEEP to adopt regulations allowing dogs at campsites in up to 50% of state parks, limiting the number of dogs allowed at each campsite and specifying rules for controlling or restraining them.  DEEP officials submitted testimony on SB 125 expressing their concerns regarding pets. The bill passed the Senate, but died on the House calendar and after chatting with my State Senator's office, it doesn't appear it will be coming up for a vote again any time soon.  Anyone up for a letter writing campaign?

In comparison to New York and the other New England states, Connecticut’s restrictions on pets at campgrounds sound pretty ridiculous.  All of the concerns raised by the CT DEEP are being successfully addressed by surrounding states.  They all have rules in place regarding proof of vaccinations and the number of dogs allowed on each campsite.  In addition, pets are never to be left unattended and owners must dispose of all pet waste.  Some have certain areas of the campground designated for pets and others, like Vermont, charge a $1.00 per night pet fee which is very reasonable.  And I can attest to the fact that Massachusetts State Park campgrounds are PACKED during the Summer months, and I often have trouble getting reservations.  It doesn't sound like many of the campers there have a problem with pets being allowed.

After learning about CT's pet policy and deciding we weren't going to be leaving the dog behind, we figured if we wanted to camp here we would be limited to private campgrounds.  Most of them do allow pets, however the rules regarding pets at private campgrounds can vary from place to place and can get totally weird.  Take for example Strawberry Park Resort Campground in Preston, CT.  Here are their rules on pets, taken from their website:

PETSThere is no walking or carrying of pets anywhere in the campground at any time.All pets are confined to their owner’s site only. We invite you to use our Pet Park (Strawberry Bark), located across from volleyball and Disc Golf, where you may transport your dog and allow free play with others in a fenced location. Any pet left unattended on site and causing a disturbance will be removed by the dog warden, with any fees being charged to the pet owner. All dogs must be of a friendly disposition, and the following breeds are prohibited: Staffordshire Terrier (Pitbull), Rottweiller, Doberman Pinscher and any specific pet determined by the management to be a hazard or nuisance. Pets may be transported in vehicle to “Strawberry Bark”, our new Pet Park. 

So let me just make sure I have this right - $66.00 a night for a site with no hook-ups, and I can't even take my freakin' dog for a walk???  Thanks but no thanks, Strawberry Park.  That's one huge inconvenience I'm paying for.  Nobody puts Shelby in a corner! 

Strawberry Park is one of the more expensive private campgrounds, so maybe it's not a good example in terms of cost, but in general the camping fees are often up around $50.00 a night depending on where you camp and whether or not you want hook ups.  The expense, combined with the fact that many private campgrounds pack everyone in like sardines, makes them very unappealing to us.  Fortunately we discovered West Thompson Lake Campground in North Grosvenordale, CT (that's up in the Northeast corner of the state, for those of you going "North where??")  It's run by the Army Corps of Engineers, which makes it a federal campground, not a state campground.  Winning!  And not only does Shelby get to come along, but about half of their 30 campsites offer water and electric hook ups for a mere $30 a night.  More winning!  Their website is actually one of my favorites - it's totally interactive with a clickable campground map that allows you to see all the sites and facilities, it's definitely worth checking out: http://www.nae.usace.army.mil/recreati/wtl/wtlcgmap.htm  It's small, quiet, clean as can be, has a rockin' playground for the kids and with the hook ups it's like staying at a 5 star hotel.  Well ok, that's a stretch, but if you camp without hook ups, you know what I mean.  We really enjoy it and it is one of our favorite camping spots.  We'll be camping there in July and I plan to do a more thorough review for you then.

Shelby taking a break after a hike at West Thompson Lake campground
I'm curious to know your thoughts on this topic.  Do you camp in CT with your pet?  Where do you go?  What are the rules like?  What is your opinion about the other states in New England and their rules regarding pets?  Do you have any favorite pet-friendly campgrounds you like to visit?  I am always looking for trip suggestions so feel free to leave a comment below!

Our first trip of the year over Memorial Day weekend will be to Austin Hawes Campground at the American Legion State Forest in Barkhamsted, CT.  They do allow pets, which is great.  This will be our first time visiting the campground so I'll be sure to report back my findings with a full review.  In the meantime I'm really looking forward to our camping trips in MA this year - and so is Shelby.

Friday, April 20, 2012

How It All Started

I have been camping for just about as long as I can remember.  I must have been around 4 or 5 when we first started going (that's me, the fashionista, on the left) which would have made my brother around 2 or 3.  Growing up my family camped in a 1960-something pop-up camper handed down from my grandparents that had 3 slide out beds and nothing more - it was essentially a tent on wheels.  But it kept us from having to sleep on the ground, and that was all we needed (and by "we" I mean my mother.) Almost all of our camping trips were to Salt Rock Campground in Sprague, CT.  Salt Rock was acquired by the CT DEEP in 2001 and they revamped the campground map, eliminating some of the campsites.  It just isn't the same now.  But back then the campground was privately owned and truly was "the bomb".  It had a few perks without going totally overboard - 2 in-ground swimming pools, a hayride on Friday nights, and a general store that sold Slush Puppies and plenty of candy. What more could a kid ask for?  The sites we always camped on (my parents booked the sites a year in advance to be sure we would get them) had a small stream that ran behind them.  This is where we spent most of our time catching fish, frogs, salamanders, getting dirty and just being kids.  Camping when I was little was awesome, and I was thrilled when my husband and I decided to get a camper of our own so we could share some of that awesome with our own kids.

Over the past 2 years myself, my husband, our twin 7 year olds and our faithful dog Shelby have been camping in and around Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  We purchased our Coleman Bayport pop-up on Craigslist back in 2009.  As luck would have it, it was exactly what we were looking for and the sellers lived merely a mile away from us. At the time we didn’t even have a hitch to tow it with, so we were grateful when they offered to deliver it to us free of charge.  

Before we took it out on our first official camping trip, we did a dry run in the backyard - it was great!  The kids and even the dog loved sleeping in it. Our backyard backs up to a State Forest so we really couldn’t have asked for a better “practice campsite” - here's a picture of Shelby enjoying the fire...

With our practice run having been such a huge success, we decided to venture into the great outdoors.  Even though our first official trip out landed us at a private campground with water and electric hookups, we quickly learned that State Parks are where it’s at.  It's the only place that really feels like "camping" to me. We like big, wooded sites with lots of privacy - none of that RV parking lot/packed in like sardines stuff you find at many private campgrounds.  We are willing to sacrifice unnecessary amenities like swimming pools, arcades and electricity for peace, quiet and tranquility - though with twin 7 year olds in tow that’s often hard to come by, even at the nicest of State Park campgrounds.  

Much of our camping time is spent in Massachusetts - here, almost all the State Parks allow pets at the campsites, unlike CT which only allows pets at 4 of its State Parks (that’s right I said 4! Don’t worry - I plan to do a future blog post on this with more details on how much the State of CT sucks in that respect – but I’ll say it again - only FOUR state run campgrounds allow pets…..REALLY CT??)  Also, Massachusetts State Parks are very well kept, scenic and offer lots of recreational possibilities and many waterfront campsites.  And at around $14 a night, how can you go wrong?

As we head into the 2012 Summer camping season, I plan to keep you posted on our whereabouts, our adventures and any other camping/camper/campee topics I can come up with.  Our first trip this year is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, and within the next few weeks we'll be opening up the camper for the first time this season in order to start preparing.   Stay tuned!