How much longer?
It's the familiar lament heard by parents crawling along in traffic on the roads in Yellowstone National Park as vehicles slow to gawk at the wildlife.
But we're not driving. Along with our Austin-Lehman Adventures (www.austinlehman.com) guides, Matty Kirkland and Katie Gugliotta, we're kayaking on Yellowstone Lake to a wilderness camp called 7M7. We paddle five miles from the point where a fishing boat dropped us off and spy osprey and deer along the way, but no other people. We'll spend the next two nights in tents with no showers and no Internet or cell service, and we can't wait, especially since we don't have to set up the tents or cook. Is that a bald eagle flying overhead? Wow!
There are many remote campsites along the huge lake, which stretches 20 miles north to south and 14 miles east to west -- and we are heading as far from the crowds as we can get. Last year, Yellowstone had a record-breaking 3.6 million visitors, making reservations in the park lodges (www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com) sometimes hard to get.
When we visit the last week in July, the park is packed with families -- especially around Old Faithful (just one of the park's 300 geysers). And despite plenty of room to get away from the crowds -- Yellowstone stretches for 3,472 square miles in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the National Park Service says most visitors don't get more than a quarter-mile from the road though only about 3 percent of the vast park can be seen from that vantage point. That was why we opted to let Austin-Lehman lead the way. The company has been guiding families in Yellowstone for 25 years and though they offer trips around the world, Montana and Yellowstone remain their most popular trips. Our family trip included my cousins Jayme and Mike Sitzman from Denver and their kids, Ethan, 9, and Hannah, 6.
When we spied a bear from the road, Matty Kirkland parked and raced up the hill to set up a scope so we could watch from a safe distance while he chowed down on greens in a field of wildflowers. When it was time for the kids to be sworn in as Junior Rangers (www.nps.gov/yell/forkids/beajuniorranger.htLine is overdrawn m), Gugliotta and Kirkland whispered into the ranger's ear to "make a production" of it, thrilling the kids and making everyone around us smile, as they were handed their coveted ranger badges.
Our guides knew exactly where to hunt for frogs and fashioned balloon animals for a scavenger hunt at our campsite; they had magnifying glasses so they could look close up at bugs and flowers and they helped the kids construct a bona fide arch from rock along one trail and snapped pictures all along the way, putting them together on a CD they gave us at the end of the trip to chronicle our adventure.
"With kids, it's always about the journey, not the destination," explained Matty Kirkland, who has been guiding families for Austin-Lehman for 15 years.
Sure it costs more to tour the park this way (typically $400 a person per day, less for the kids), but that includes everything -- accommodations, stellar meals, activities (we ended the trip with a whitewater raft trip down the Yellowstone River) and most important, knowledgeable guides who not only interpret what we are seeing (did you know pine sap makes good chewing gum?) but also entertain the kids with a never-ending supply of jokes, riddles, songs, piggyback rides and snacks.
Of course, there were glitches. The mosquitoes were terrible at our campsite. The crew that set up our camp didn't bring the promised fishing poles for the kids. But because our guides were always ready with a plan B (ready to fly a kite instead of fish) things that might have derailed another trip proved to be just minor annoyances.
Our last morning in Yellowstone, 9-year-old Ethan declared, "It's better than DisneyWorld! I don't want to leave."