The female members of our family set off on a Labor Day youth retreat, which left my son, Brian, and I alone for a couple days. My son gets bored very easily and during the Summer months, the condition worsens. Brian’s older sister, Brianna, is content jamming with her iPod and texting all day long, so we have to pry her off the rocking chair to get her to do something on her feet. With Brian, we can’t get him to relax and sit still.
He’s been begging me to take him camping all Summer, which I very much intended to do. But alas, good intentions alone, do not a camping trip make. Sorry, I tend to sound like Yoda from Star Wars every so often. With Brianna’s Summer swimming, trips to band camp at the Peace Gardens, Marching band practice, not to mention Brian’s Summer track and tennis clubs he was involved in. About all we managed was to go golfing once and before we knew it, Summer was gone and school was back in session.
But, as any parent worth their salt knows, you really need to keep promises made to your children. Labor Day weekend provided a good opportunity for me to make good on the camping promise. So last Saturday we said goodbye to the females and started preparing our excursion.
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you know I try to do things on the cheap. I also grew up tent camping and in my mind that is what camping is. These big RV’s with the fancy, posh accommodations aren’t really camping in my opinion. I can see myself maybe getting interested in these after I retire and want to see the world. But for a weekend jaunt, a tent is the only way to go.
My dad set us up with a lot of supplies when I got married and I’m happy to say, for the most part, everything is still in working condition. I’ve got a 6-person dome tent, portable propane cook stove, a cook set with pots, cups, and dishes that all fit inside each other, and various other odds and ends to make the camping experience complete.
My first thought was Ft. Abraham Lincoln State Park. I always enjoyed wandering around the block houses and reconstructions of the military post as well as crawling inside the earth lodges at the On-A-Slant Indian Village. I also realized since it was Labor Day weekend, it would probably be full up with campers. So I called before leaving.
Sure enough, they were totally booked with not a single camping spot vacant. So my backup site was Cross Ranch State Park. A delightful place even if it is lacking in military history. When I called they boasted several open spots. So we loaded up the car and headed North.
The location could not have been more perfect. I really like how they have separate areas for the “RV” crowd vs. the primitive “Tent” crowd. The RV section was totally clogged with campers. But the tent spots had all sorts of room. We were able to find a nice secluded area all to ourselves and very close to the outdoor toilet. There was a nice parking spot off the road for our car, and the picnic table, fire pit, and tent spot were arranged very well so nothing interfered with each other.
The first order of business was to set up the tent. It is always an exercise in comedy. I have gotten more efficient over the years, but it’s still hilarious to watch. There are these three very long, hollow, poles which collapse into several sections held together by an elastic string running along the inside, so you have to unfold this thing and insert it into the sleeves provided in the tent. a 6 foot tall person can stand upright in the center, so you can imagine, when the tent is flat on the ground, there is a lot of pole that needs to get hoisted up and over the roof of the tent.
This part goes easier with two people. I found this out the hard way. You get one pole hooked into the sides and the tent starts to fall over before you can get the next pole hooked in. Like I said, this is hilarious watching me put this up. But, with two people you can have one person get inside and hold up the roof in the middle, while the other person runs around hooking the poles.
So I sent Brian in the tent to hold it up. It was working fairly well until a stiff breeze came up. My son hardly weighs anything, the lucky dog, so he started getting excited when the wind started carrying the tent away with him in it. So I had to quickly hook the poles one handed, while hanging on to the tent to keep it from blowing away.
Once that job was done, I had Brian come out and hang on to the tent while I pounded anchor spikes in the ground. He was barely able to hold on to the thing. Thank goodness he gives 150% effort into everything he does.
Sadly, I have no photos of our tent. Pictures just aren’t my thing. I always think about taking them long after the photo opportunity has passed. I asked Brian if he wanted to go fishing or eat. Brian looks at me like I lost my marbles. He thinks about food all day long. 30 minutes after one meal is done, he’s thinking about what’s on the menu for the next one. Given a choice between eating and anything else, it’s most always going to be eating.
First, a campfire must be lit. This is hands down my favorite aspect of camping. We really want to get one of those portable fire pits some day so we can have faux-campfires in our driveway. I kind of have this down to a science. Brian walked around the campsite gathering little twigs. I crumpled up some newspaper, laid the twigs on top of that, along with some fire starter sticks I got at Target. Then I made a tee-pee like construction with 3 of the bigger logs. One match was all it took. The paper ignited one of those little fire sticks and boy howdy did that light up. Combined with the respectable pile of twigs, the fire stayed lit long enough to ignite the larger logs.
While the fire was popping and crackling merrily, I fired up my propane cook stove for some beans. My personal favorite is Bush’s Homestyle baked beans. But they’ve had a variety called Grillin’ Beans that I’ve been meaning to try. They have several flavors so I opted for the one called “Smokehouse Tradition”. I opened up a can of these and set them on the stove to warm.
We brought out the lawn chairs, skewered some hot dogs, and settled down next to the fire while things started to cook. I tried to put on my best, “expert camper who knows what their doing,” expression.
Brian’s always got a load of questions. “How long does it cook?”
“Till it’s done.”
“How do you know when it’s done?”
“That depends on how you like it.”
“Do I have to let it get all black?”
“Not if you don’t want to, but a few black charred marks makes it taste better.”
“How close do I hold it to the fire?”
“As close as you can get without actually touching the flames.”
“The flames keep moving.”
“Yes, they do that, it’s part of the fun.”
Brian’s ready to eat after just a few seconds. “Do you think it’s done yet?”
“Nope, not yet, you have to be patient.”
“I know.” I prop my stick against the fire pit and go stir the beans. My goodness do they smell good, I take an experimental taste. Cold to luke-warm but WOW are they tasty. I highly recommend this brand. I sit back down.
Brian asks, “are the beans done?”
His hot dog is starting to get black, but not exactly sizzling. I like my hot dogs hot, with nice black marks, and sizzling as I remove it from the poker. So I wasn’t ready just yet. But Brian was really starting to fidget so I told him he could try it and I put his on a bun for him. He had the whole thing gone by the time I turned around after stirring the beans again.
“How was it?” I asked.
“That was the best hot dog ever.”
“Things seem to always taste better outside.” I said. “Was it hot enough.”
“Not really, but I like them just a little warm.”
Finally, I started getting some sizzle so I made mine. It was good, but the middle still wasn’t hot enough. The beans were done so we scooped up some of them. WOW again, these are really, really good. I put two hot dogs on my stick this time for more efficiency. My second and third dogs were going to cook longer.
Brian had the technique down and was ready to take it off the fire. Way too early, in my opinion. “Isn’t it still cold in the middle?” I asked him.
“A little, but I like it that way.”
Brian got some more beans and I let my dog continue to bake. He was full and couldn’t seem to understand why I wasn’t eating my other two hot dogs. “I like them done, really done, hot and sizzling.”
“Aren’t they done yet?”
He grabs a stick and starts poking the logs, walks around the camp site. I continue to patiently cook my dogs.
“Dad, when are you going to eat them.”
“When they’re done.”
Finally, Brian made me so nervous with his walking around I made my last two hot dogs. They still could have cooked a little longer, but they were nice and hot. We scraped the last remnants of beans and ate them straight out of the pan. Time for dishes.
I had filled the largest kettle with some water from the pump provided at the park, and had that on a burner to warm up. I squirted some dish soap and started doing dishes. Brian dried.
“That was so good.” He said.
A satisfied smile stole across my face. “It sure was.” I replied. Dishes got done in short order and we loaded up our fishing gear.
We were within spitting distance of the river but there was a good 10 foot drop down a very steep bank. I warned Brian about the dangers of running around, particularly after it got dark, and he was not to visit the toilet without me. We walked along the river for awhile looking for a better way to get down to the water. We came across another father-son duo already fishing. The kid was extremely chatty.
“Catch anything?” he asked.
“Haven’t started,” I replied.
“There’s all kinds of places to come down, you can take any one of them, you just have to keep walking until you find a spot, be careful though, ‘cause it’s really steep, I’d hate to see you fall in.” He said all this really fast.
“Thanks,” My son and I don’t like to waste words.
We kept walking. I had it in mind to put as much distance between us and the talkative lad as I could. After awhile we found a secluded spot and made our way down to the water. Then I realized we forgot the worms. Bummer. “Brian, I’ve got a mission for you.” Hey, he’s the track star, not me!
We both climbed back up the bank and headed back to camp for the worms, Brian hustled on ahead, while I maintained a more leisurely pace. Brian was there and back before I covered half the distance so we made our way back to the fishing spot. A few minutes later we had lines in the water.
I will tell you right now, I’m no pro-angler. And fishing from a riverbank is substantially more difficult than in a boat with an electronic fish finder that allows you go where the fish are. We fish because my son really enjoys it, even if he doesn’t catch anything, and it’s quality family time. I also like to use the excuse that I spend so much time baiting hooks and tying lures that I have very little time for actual fishing myself. I think it’s a pretty good excuse. Brian had rigged a bottom bouncer with a night crawler, while I was using a diving crank bait. I prefer the crank baits because you can cast, reel it in, pull weeds off, cast, reel in, repeat as needed. The bottom bouncer you throw out there and wait. It’s just not enough action if the fish aren’t biting.
Evidently, Brian thought the same, so after a few minutes, I had to tie a crank bait on his line as well. The night crawlers lay forgotten, poor guys. We still had a grand time. It was an idyllic setting. Peaceful, great scenery, and all kinds of nature sounds in the air. We kept at it until dark and I got to try out another new purchase. Head lights!
A co-worker had told me sometimes fish will start biting right after dusk. I asked her what she does when it gets dark. She had bought some LED clip-on headlights that fit really nice over the bill on a baseball cap. Thus, lighting your way and leaving your hands free. These are the bomb! Those little lights really pump out some brightness and its so easy to direct the beam exactly where you need it simply by turning your head. I had bought a pair when I was shopping for supplies, they were easily the most useful new item we had with us. We used them after we got back to the campsite also.
When you get outside the range of city street lights, darkness can be really quite dark. We kept at it until the sun was well below the horizon. We both got lost in our thoughts and the night was extremely quiet.
“CATCH ANYTHING?” I nearly fell in the water. It was that talkative kid from the camp next door.
“Nope,” I responded after assuring myself I was securely standing on dry land. I didn’t hear anything else so the kid must have left. He had officially, certifiably, gotten on my nerves.
S’mores and another campfire were beckoning to Brian, so we reeled in the lines one last time and made our way back to camp, headlights lighting the way. The chatty boy must have been off bothering someone else as their campsite was quiet as we walked past.
Brian asked to start the fire. He’s got to learn sometime so I said ok. We built another setup with paper and kindling. Brian was a little nervous. He was too quick to drop the match so it landed in the fire pit too far from the paper to do any good. On the third attempt, he got really close, I kept hoping the paper would catch but as the match slowly burned up, this seemed unlikely, so I grabbed the unburned piece and threw the match on the paper. After the initial flare-up it started to die down so we quickly added more kindling and the bigger logs finally caught. Another spectacular sight.
I broke out grahams, chocolate, and marshmallows. Special dark for me, milk chocolate for the boy. I’m partial to bittersweet dark chocolate, which incidentally goes fabulously with coffee, so I started up the cook stove and put the coffee pot filled with water on to boil. No coffee makers out in the wilderness.
Toasting marshmallows is always fun, part luck, park skill. You want the thing toasted, but not ignited and black. Watching my son with his marshmallows had me laughing as it brought back all these memories of campfires in my youth and my marshmallow experiences. We’d get everything nicely toasted, just about ready to pull off the fire, and POOF, the thing would light up, then you’d have to quickly blow it out to try and salvage as much gooey goodness as possible.
Brian had the disadvantage that he wouldn’t eat it if there was any black on it at all. I asked him, “Why not?” he claimed he didn’t like it. “How do you know you don’t like it, if you’ve never eaten one?” I’d much rather have mine toasted brown, but that doesn’t stop me eating the black ones.
We finally had some decent s’mores made, and the water started boiling. I took the water off the heat and added the grounds. Its camp coffee so there is no filtration. The grounds got dumped right in the water. A common mistake is for people to put the coffee back on the burner and boil it to a bitter mess. Coffee needs to be steeped, so you stir it in, put a cover on it, and let it sit off the flame. After about 7 minutes, you have got some decent coffee and because the grounds haven’t been churning in the boiling water, they will have all settled to the bottom resulting in a cup without any soggy grounds in it. If the coffee starts to cool, it may be placed back on the heat but NOT brought to a boil.
Brian likes coffee too. The only 12-year-old as far as I know that likes black coffee. So we snacked on gooey s’mores, sipped our coffee and reflected on a most delightful day. Brian had more fun poking the fire with a stick and playing with his headlight. I was simply having fun basking in the knowledge I’ve made my son happy. If my kids are happy, I’m usually happy.
Finally, the last log in our bundle burned out and it was close to midnight. We washed the remaining dishes, put out the fire and went in the tent. We played games for a while, visited the toilet and went to bed.
Brian was sleeping instantly and didn’t wake up until I roused him a few hours later that morning. We had to get home, showered, and to church by 9:30. I didn’t sleep hardly at all. The ground, I discovered, was very cold and hard. I’m old and enjoy a comfortable mattress. In the early morning hours the wind really started to howl. That pretty much ended any hope of my sleeping. I’m an extremely light sleeper. It has to be dark, quiet, and I have to be comfortable. If any one of those needs are not met. I’m not going to sleep.
But it was kind of futile anyway, as we didn’t get to bed until very late and we had to get up so early. My little travel alarm went off way too soon. I loaded up as much gear as I could and rolled up my sleeping bag so Brian could stay sleeping as long as possible. All that was left was to wake him up, pack up his sleeping bag, and roll up the tent. Thankfully, tents come down a lot faster than they go up so we were on the road in about 10 minutes.
We got home, showered, and were able to make it to the church on time. It was a fabulous time, however, if we do it again, there will definitely be air mattresses involved, and will probably be arranged so we can sleep in the next day if necessary.