LIBERTY, Maine — Lounging in a hammock on July 22, Danielle Ruby watched her 8-month-old daughter, Eloise, as she slept peacefully in her arms. They rocked gently in the warm breeze, sheltered from the sun by the pine trees surrounding their campsite at Lake St. George State Park.
“This is a big deal, getting her to nap in the hammock,” the little girl’s father, Ray Ruby, said as he sat in a fold-out chair nearby.
The young Portland family was on a mission, and relaxing in a hammock on a sunny Saturday was a part of it. The mission also included sleeping in a tent, cooking over a campfire and swimming in the nearby lake.
But that’s not all.
In the first three years of Eloise’s life, the Rubys plan to visit all of Maine’s state parks.
“We know she won’t remember, but that’s OK,” Danielle Ruby said. “The whole point of this is doing it as a family, and there will be memories we have that we can share with her [when she gets older].”
Their list of outdoor destinations comprises 32 state parks, including Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park. And since the birth of Eloise on Dec. 1, they’ve visited six parks on that list, starting with Owls Head Light State Park on a blustery day in February.
At the parks that feature campgrounds, the Rubys will camp. At the park featuring trails, they’ll hike or snowshoe. And at lakeside and oceanside parks, they’ll canoe, swim, fish or skate. Some of these outdoor adventures may be more difficult with a toddler in tow, but they’re up for the challenge.
On their family website, rubysontheroad.com, they’re blogging about each trip. Through written narrative and photographs, they describe each park, as they experience it and offer helpful tips about spending time outdoors with young children.
“It’s a fun way for us to capture our memories and for family and friends to follow along,” Ray Ruby said. “And if anyone else reads it, that’s great.”
The couple came up with the idea before Eloise was born, while discussing their upcoming life as parents, its joys and potential challenges.
“We know a lot of people who have children, and they just stop doing stuff. They’re just at home every weekend,” Danielle Ruby said. “That was our biggest fear.”
Danielle and Ray Ruby, both 33, have always been active, outdoorsy people, and they didn’t want having a baby to change that. Both had spent plenty of time outdoors as children and wanted the same experiences for their daughter.
“I have a picture of myself potty training in the middle of the Allagash Wilderness,” Danielle Ruby, who grew up in Madawaska and cherishes the childhood memories she has of her family canoeing and camping in the north Maine woods, said.
After talking with some friends, the Rubys decided that Maine’s many state parks would be great outdoor destinations to explore as a young family. In fact, Maine’s state parks are designed with families in mind, with many of them featuring playgrounds, changing rooms and restrooms, family campgrounds, swimming areas and easy nature trails.
Scattered throughout the state, these parks each have their own unique characteristics, from the sandy beaches of Reid State Park in Georgetown to the rocky slopes of Quaggy Jo Mountain in Aroostook State Park. And because so many of these parks are located hours away from the Rubys’ home, the family is taking their time, planning each trip out and often spending multiple days enjoying each park and its surrounding communities. In their blog, they highlight the restaurants, breweries and other attractions they enjoy while traveling.
“We want to go and explore each park, slow down our busy lives and enjoy it,” said Ray Ruby, who manages Portland’s Ronald McDonald House, a facility serves as a home away from home for families of critically ill children receiving treatment at nearby hospitals.
Danielle Ruby works a full-time job as project manager and software developer at Diversified Communications, and she admits that sometimes at the end of a busy work week it’s hard to launch into a weekend of camping. Sometimes she just wants to stay home and relax, but once they arrive at whatever park they’re destined for, she’s glad they’ve made the effort.
“She hates being in the car seat,” Danielle Ruby said of Eloise. “The hardest part of these weekends is the ride.”
When it comes to actually spending time outdoors with Eloise — changing her diaper on a mat on the forest floor and feeding her mashed carrots at a picnic table — the Rubys have realized it’s not all that different from caring for her indoors. In fact, in some ways, it’s easier.
“She’s less fussy outside,” Ray Ruby said, adding that the many sights, scents and sounds of the wilderness seem to fascinate and soothe their daughter.
Waking from her nap on July 22, Eloise started to squirm, her big blue eyes watching the swaying tree branches overhead. Setting her down on a blow-up sleeping pad on the forest floor, they hemmed her in with a Coleman cooler and watched as she crawled back and forth as if attempting to escape into the forest.
“Everything she utilizes at home, we just make sure we bring with us — or some sort of outdoor version of it,” Danielle Ruby said.
A fold-out high chair sat with the other camping chairs around the firepit of their campsite, and another special high chair was clamped to the edge of the picnic table. A Pack N’ Play took up half of their spacious tent, and Eloise’s favorite toys were always within reach.
It was their second experience camping as a family, and they appeared well prepared.
Their first camping trip was at Camden Hills State Park over Father’s Day weekend, which turned out to be rainy and cold.
“It was kind of good because it was like training with ankle weights,” Ray said of their time at Camden Hills.
Despite the poor weather, the Rubys had hiked Camden Hills State Park’s Megunticook Mountain with young Eloise tucked comfortably in a special baby carrier backpack, created by the outdoor gear company, Osprey. It had been gifted to them at their baby shower.
Even though there aren’t any hiking trails at Lake St. George State Park, the Rubys brought the backpack child carrier with them and used it so Eloise could ride on her father’s back as they walked the gravel campground roads to the park beach, lawn and playground. Danielle Ruby walked beside them, pulling a cart full of anything they might need, including a pop-up sun shelter, waterproof blanket and diaper bag.
Once at the beach, they waded into the cool water of the lake and dipped Eloise in to her waist. Her face scrunched up, unsure of the new experience. Safe in her father’s arms, she looked up at her mom and smiled.