Cheap summer fun in the area

What can a family do for summer fun on an income of less than $30,000? Not the Birch Bay Waterslides where tickets for a family of four runs $64 and gas to get there and back will set you back another $32. Rule out an air-conditioned movie at Marysville's Regal Cinema where tickets for four will cost $34.50 plus having to explain to the kids why dad won't buy popcorn.

When money is so short that you have to drop car insurance, any entertainment with an admission charge is too expensive. When you thank God for Value Village and Marysville's Food Bank, shelling out $2.50 for popcorn is out of the question. If a movie is still a possibility, keep the kids from complaining about popcorn by filling their mouths from a zip-lock full of peanuts and raisins. But this is summer and the great outdoors is calling. What can families on bare-bones budgets do to provide their kids with fun-in-the-sun memories?

In these times, who knows who might be asking that question? With WAMU shedding employees, living costs up, construction down and car dealers sitting on stagnant inventories, ripples of the downturn hit a lot of us. Some harder than others. One sign of the times is glitzy destination resorts offering summer getaways at astounding discounts, but a $150 per night bargain means little in light of a pink-slip. Or if struggling with a damnable adjustable-rate mortgage.

Poverty is so real. We lucky ones get to theorize and write about it while anyone trapped in it must deal with it. What does one do when there is too much month left at the end of the money? How about financing summer fun with a payday loan from one of more than ten businesses offering them in the Marysville area? When a $100 advance on an upcoming paycheck can cost $115, payday loans make the situations of desperate people even more desperate.

When times are tough there is still cheap summer fun to be had in the beautiful PNW. Gissberg Lakes near the Smokey Point Costco is a popular spot for family outings. The park offers a one-mile perimeter trail, swimming, paddling, trout and bass fishing, beaver activity, restrooms, fire-pits and acres of lawns. No charge here, unlike many county and state parks that charge $7 and up. Gissberg Lakes, a.k.a. Square Lakes, suffers only one drawback: freeway-roar.

Even closer are Marysville's Concerts in the Park. From rock to reggae and mellow to modern, evening concerts are scheduled for Comeford and Jennings parks. These are BYOB (bring your own blanket) affairs. Check with the Parks Department at 360-363-8400 for the full scoop on these free 7 p.m. functions.

Try Everett's Jetty Island for a world-class beach experience. No charge for parking or admission, and even the ferry from the Tenth Street Boat Launch to The Jetty is free. The oddest bit of information about Jetty Island is the great number of locals who have never visited it. Just imagine two miles of sandy beach that shelves off so slowly that children can wade out for hundreds of yards in sun-warmed shallows.

Jetty Island's free ferry runs through Sept. 1 from 10 a.m. until 5:50 p.m. weekdays (closed Tuesdays), later on Fridays and Saturdays. For a special treat, visit the Jetty when the breeze picks up to power ever-present kiteboarders back and forth across the bar. In fact, the Jetty is reputed to be one of the PNW's kiteboarding hot-spots.

One notch farther away is the Stillaguamish River, rated by anyone who has drifted down it as one of the state's best floating streams. Floaters should come with a full set of begged or borrowed floatation tubes and life jackets. Factor in about four gallons of gas because it is necessarily a two-family-two-car expedition. Dump the air-mattresses and inner-tubes at the Arlington Bridge Park. Run both cars down to a take-out point upstream from the I-5 bridge where one pick-up car is left. Buzz back to Arlington to join the group. Don life-jackets and you're off. This float is far more pleasant than in days of yore when the Stilly reeked of run-off from dairy farms. One rafter from years ago would advise not leaving the pick-up car's keys at the top end.

If you find that river-swimming turns you on, buzz up toward Granite Falls, then turn north onto the Jordan Road. A few miles will take you to a too-small parking area at the Jordan suspension bridge. Cross the bridge to a river park with a gravelly beach. Swim across to a rope-swing. Late in the season, sit with children in downstream riffles to watch Humpy salmon thrash upstream beside you. Total investment is a couple of gallons of gas.

In many minds, summer just can't be complete without an expensive vacation in a far place. Logistic issues and the nervous wear and tear of transplanting a family to an unfamiliar place can add to the cost. When the pluses and minuses of those big-deal vacations are compared with close-to-home adventures, a strong argument may be made for low-budget activities no sense letting underfunded families have all the fun. After all, which is the richer experience, a drift around a pay-to-play water park's "lazy river" or floating the real thing? My personal question is, which is more comfortable, a distant hotel's bed or my own?

There's irony at work here. A few families may have slipped into poverty by overspending on non-necessities like pay-to-play vacations featuring man-made replicas of the real thing. Or look-but-don't-touch national monuments. But if you can't afford those big-ticket vacations, you can settle for the genuine rivers, real lakes, real beaches and free music. All of it free and close to home. Enjoy.

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