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Let's go camping

If the prospects of pitching a tent, cooking over an open fire and navigating Oregon's outdoors are keeping you home, a statewide program — new to Southern Oregon — makes camping a cinch.

Let's Go Camping uses grant funds and equipment donations to entice novice campers to state-managed parks. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department plans 17 overnight excursions — coordinated on site by department staff and volunteers — starting June 15 in the Columbia Gorge.

The program comes July 6 to Valley of the Rogue State Park. At a cost of $20 per family, it is among the most affordable forms of recreation you'll find this summer.

"We had couples in their 70s who brought the grandkids," says Jimmy Childs, special projects coordinator for Oregon Parks and Recreation.

"I think (camping) can be kind of an overwhelming thought ... if you don't have that experience," says Nancy McLeod, ranger supervisor at Valley of the Rogue. "We help 'em put up their tent."

Providing tents, sleeping bags and mattress pads, along with hands-on activities and any hand-holding that participants require, Let's Go Camping is geared toward families new to the pastime. It's grown in three years from 10 events hosting about 250 people, mostly in the Willamette Valley or along the coast, to more than 300 people planning a trip, including some in the state's less-populated interior regions.

"I have worked so hard for Valley of the Rogue and Wallowa Lake and Tumalo," says Childs.

An event was scheduled last year at Valley of the Rogue but canceled for lack of interest. This year, 16 people already have registered, with room for 19 more to sign up.

"It will not be canceled this year," says Childs.

Participants are responsible for their own transportation to and from the park, which allows for arrival Friday evening before the official start Saturday morning. Campers must supply their own food, outdoors-appropriate clothing, sunscreen and insect repellent, says Childs. The program sends out a checklist of items to bring about a month before the excursion, he adds.

"A lot of folks bring hot dogs or cereal," he says. "We bring all the stuff for s'mores."

Campers can expect demonstrations of Dutch-oven cooking, guided hikes and talks on natural history, ecology and outdoors ethics amid other activities. Oregon Parks and Recreation furnishes trained facilitators and also taps into the expertise of each park's ranger, says Childs.

"We like to involve everybody that's there."

The program eases the experience of camping for single parents and seniors, says Childs. Single campers also can sign up, he adds, recalling a woman who participated last year, a half-century since her last camping trip. The cost is $20 regardless of the number of people per reservation.

Funded and outfitted largely by The North Face and REI, Let's Go Camping started at Portland's Tryon Creek State Park in 1998. It became so popular that the volunteer group coordinating it couldn't keep up and turned it over to the state three years ago, says Childs.

This year's campouts on the north coast sold out as many as three months in advance, says Childs. Future Let's Go Camping sites likely will be Joseph Stewart State Recreation Area at Lost Creek Lake, Harris Beach State Park in Brookings, Bullards Beach State Park in Bandon and Sunset Bay State Park near Coos Bay.

Unlike the majority of reservations for state campgrounds, Let's Go Camping cannot be booked online. Call 1-888-953-7677 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays. See www.oregonstateparks.org and click on "Let's Go Camping."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com.

Participants in a Let's Go Camping event at Memaloose State Park in the Columbia River Gorge learn about fire safety. - Courtesy Oregon State Parks