Winter Campout at Blue Stem Lake

Sunrise over a frozen Blue Stem Lake.

We started the year off right last weekend with our first campout of 2018. My wife was out of town as of Wednesday night, leaving me to manage the comings and goings of our 52 children. By Friday afternoon, the chaos was palpable.

The kids were being profoundly childish, with the smallest of disagreements escalating from mild insults, like “you’re weird,” to full-blown domestic warfare, in a matter of seconds.

The house was a total disaster, with books, backpacks, paper, crayons, playing cards, clothes, toilet paper, silverware, you name it, scattered throughout. It was a dad’s-not-looking free-for-all. Open pantry, bandaid collage, lego confetti, impromptu WrestleMania. No limits, all in, party on. Don’t tell mom the babysitter’s dead.

Amphibian elephants, frozen while coming up for air.

If you know me at all, you know that I struggle with the indoors, especially when they’re full of people and stuff. In the end, every room in the house looked like a page from an I Spy book. I didn’t want to play I Spy. I wanted to escape to the woods, surrounded by the essentials, where food, fire, and shelter are my only concerns, where I can subdue the small circle of dirt that is my campsite and then meditate on the beauty of the earth.

For about 6 minutes. Until hundreds of wild children storm in, demanding food.

Do you think we can walk all the way across? There’s only one way to find out.

So, around 4PM we loaded the truck and headed out to Blue Stem, a small reservoir southwest of Lincoln, nearly identical to the rest in size and landscape, except for the ancient, fully rusted slide and swing set near the entrance.

Aside from a local man cruising the lake on his tricked out fat bike, we had the place to ourselves.

Two reasons to winter camp: no people, no bugs.

The weather was relatively mild for mid January, with highs in the 40s and an overnight low in the 20s. The kids were champions, as usual. Only the youngest of the pack, who must be about four years old now, struggled with the cold, and the tears dried quickly once the treats came out.

Sun, ice, and shadows.

Most of my evening was occupied by setting up camp, finding and cutting wood. We had the traditional dinner of hot dogs with bread for buns. Again following tradition, I forgot the ketchup and mustard. Then, s’mores, sitting by the fire, brushing teeth, and snuggling into sleeping bags around 9PM for bedtime stories about dragons.

In case you missed it, our dog Echo died last spring. It was rough for me, and I didn’t expect to get another dog anytime soon. But here we are less than a year later with a puppy. Her name is Veda. Details to come.

This was Veda’s first campout and she loved every moment, sniffing, pouncing, chasing, exploring, just like a kid, only much faster. We brought her kennel into the tent and she slept soundly all night.

[More winter camping adventures]

I slept until about 3AM, and then stayed up until sunrise listening in disbelief to the sporadic groaning of the frozen lake just outside our tent door. The acoustics of the foot-thick ice, stretching and contracting as if alive and breathing, were surreal. It was mostly a deep garbled rumble, like a truck gunning the engine and spinning its wheels in loose gravel. In fact, until I checked, and then double checked, I was certain someone was driving back and forth across the ice. There was no one. Just a rare seismic wonder, and my nighttime imaginations.

Strolling the lake at dawn.

Saturday morning, after a breakfast of hot chocolate and the rest of the hot dog bread, we conquered the lake. The littlest two kids were spooked, but caught up once they saw the rest of us happily not sinking. It took about an hour to cross from west to east, with numerous breaks to explore curious looking cracks, deep frozen flurries of bubbles, and what appeared to be layers of puddles that had thawed and refrozen with thin slices of air in between.

Saturday afternoon, we were home again, cleaning up and wishing we were camping.

Life and Backpacking Point Reyes, California With the Kids

Alamere Falls contributing its small part to the Pacific Ocean.

My fourth-grade daughter recently told me that she checks my blog from on her school computer. This was great to hear, as I don’t often get to meet my fans in person.

I did wonder if she had encountered any adult content here. Aside from the innuendo-ridden banana guard gear review, which I think we’ve all tried to forget, and now we’re regretting that I brought it up, this site should be pretty family friendly, so I think we’re good.

Now I’m just embarrassed that I haven’t written here in over three months. Twenty-seventeen probably saw more Avengers movies than updates from Dad vs Wild. And while we can never have enough Hulk vs Thor, what the world really needs in this time of political turmoil and changing climates is a mid-thirties father of five speaking for the trees and the kids.

This blog has become a point of conflict in my life. My love for family and the outdoors, and writing about them, wrestles like a god of thunder against my hulking aversions to technology and to having myself plastered on the internet. In the end, it comes down to talking about the things I love doing vs actually doing them, and I’ve yet to find a good balance.

Some deer at dawn.

Today, I will write, mostly to appease my avid readership, whose requests for updates have become unbearable. But also because writing encourages reflection. From my post on Time Travel and How I Got to Be Thirty:

Life is like a book. If we never stop to think, it is gradually compressed into a few brief pages, an executive summary, and, looking back, that’s all we have to represent it. But as we ponder on our days, weeks, and years, simple experiences gain substance and value, life grows, and pages are filled. Reflecting on life is one of the secrets to making life full of memories and meaning.

Wow, I had some deep thoughts when I turned thirty. Now, five years later, I feel more compressed than ever. I need to listen to my own advice. I need to slow down, decompress, stop seizing the day so much. Again, borrowing from my more thoughtful thirty-year-old self:

It’s not enough just to seize the day; any other life form can do that. When a dog escapes from the backyard, it holds nothing back, running, jumping, slobbering, wagging, living life to the fullest. Even dogs can seize the day. It’s not enough to squeeze our day for all it’s worth, if we don’t savor it, internalize it, understand it, remember it. Making time count involves using that thing which sets us apart from any other animal: reason, or critical thought.

In an effort to make time count, today I’m reflecting on a long forgotten backpacking trip with my oldest two kids, ages six and four at the time, to Point Reyes National Seashore. Our first backpacking trip together, in the summer of 2012.

Point Reyes protects 70,000 acres of Pacific shoreline, mountains, and forest north of San Francisco, California. Campsites are only accessible by foot or boat. We started by foot at the south end of this nature sanctuary, parking at the Palomarin trailhead and then embarking on the Coast Trail, which, for a mile or so, skirts the eroding edges of a 200 foot cliff with waves crashing quietly below.

I remember the ocean, spreading forever into the horizon, like another sky, infinite and inaccessible. We could only observe and wonder from the edges, with our tiny footsteps traversing its endless perimeter. The kids were too young to say much about it, besides that it’s really, really big. So I was left to imagine what they were feeling as they stare wide-eyed into the dark, wavy expanse.

Sunrise over Japan, from behind.

To a kid, I imagine that much of life feels like an ocean, infinite and inaccessible. Sharing with them such a vast and wild place helps me understand how the kids must feel, always relatively small, but also more easily impressed than us grown ups, who increasingly funnel the big world through a four-inch screen.

If I remember correctly, the hike in to Wildcat campground is around six miles. This distance pushed the limits of my four-year-old’s tiny legs. Two miles was enough, let alone six. It might as well be six hundred.

As the trail curved into the hills, gaining some altitude, the magic of the ocean wore off. Questions devolved quickly into complaining, and then crying. I opted to take her backpack, but that only bought us a few minutes. She wanted me to carry her too. She wanted to go back to the car. She wanted to see her mom.

Looking south over Wildcat Lake at Point Reyes.

The breaks were getting excessive, so pulled out my parenting playbook and tried some classic distraction strategies. First, the moving target strategy, effective for getting kids from point A to point B, when point B is inconceivably far away: let’s keep going a little longer, and take a break once we get to… the top of the hill, the next turn, the next shady spot, a babbling brook, a waterfall, a rainbow, a tree that looks like a dragon. That tree looks more like a lizard, I’m sure we can do better. I feel like we’re getting closer… can you feel that?

Second, the diversion strategy, effective for redirecting attention away from the idea that is causing kids immeasurable suffering toward something relatively pleasant or just neutral: remember that time we went camping in Minnesota, and everyone was covered in ticks? Did you know that ticks can survive on your clothes after going through the washing machine? Did you know that Wildcat campground is named after a mysterious bobcat that has been spotted prowling camp before sunrise? A bobcat is like a cat, but bigger. Remember when mom…?

Warning: when using the diversion strategy while hiking, avoid recalling memories involving mom, home, or ice cream. Stick to happy, innocuous, or initially annoying but actually OK memories of things that happened outside.

A cool slug, doing its thing, slugging around.

These strategies probably got us through mile three, at which point, on the brink of total meltdown, mother nature came through with the most effective coping strategy of all, connecting with the wonders of the earth.

First, we found a banana slug, which was neat, but not too out of the ordinary. Next was a fox, which was surprising at first sight, and then surreal and, I admit, a little concerning, as it accompanied us down the trail, sometimes leading the way.

Mr Sox Fox, doing her thing.
stray fox
Mr Fox keeping us company.

Our pet fox eventually got bored with us, I assume because we didn’t reward her behavior with trail mix or bits of granola bar. She slipped quietly into the tall grass bordering the trail, and we were left alone to wonder what that was all about.

Remember that time a fox joined us on our hike? That question, and the fantastic answers we invented helped us endure the middle section of the hike, until the trail curved back toward the ocean. Within a mile, we were at camp, and then playing shoeless in the cold sand, on the brink of the Pacific.

Wildcat is a favorite campground at Point Reyes because it is perched on a small bluff just above the beach. Some sites have ocean views. Ours did not, but it did put me in close proximity to the campsite’s elusive namesake early the next morning.

bobcat at wildcat
The legendary wildcat of wildcat campground.
Lynx rufus giving a backward glance.

I followed him from a distance, taking shaky pictures on my point-and-shoot and creeping along as stealthily as I could. Like a cat, he made no appearance of caring whatsoever. He knew I was there, of course, which he acknowledged with a quick backward glance, but I hardly registered in his utterly aloof feline mind.

beached whale
A beached whale near the Palomarin Trailhead.

After all these magical encounters with wildlife, Point Reyes left us with a sad image on our hike out, of a whale beached not far from the trailhead. How did this happen? Could someone save it? Probably not, I told the kids. We speculated that it got sick and died, and then the ocean washed it to shore. More likely, I think, it just came to close too the perimeter of its other sky, the infinite and inaccessible dry land.

Gear Review: High Density Polyethylene Rain Cover Carry All

The rain cover carry all in action, protecting my backpack from road spray after a mildly wet rain. Base model comes with 3D integrated handles. Bluetooth optional.

Today I’m stoked off the charts to review what has become a key element in my gear arsenal, the high density polyethylene, multi-purpose, rain cover carry all.

It is lightweight, reversible, foldable, reusable, and hypoallergenic. Six gold stars and three thumbs way, way up for this revolutionary product.

Shown here in standard top-down mode, optimized for traditional, vertically descending precipitate. Note the reinforced seams and high-definition OmniShield™ finish.

Maximal Versatility

Designed with the on-the-go metro multi-tasker in mind, some verified uses include:

  • Rain protection – cover your books, bags, monocle, mustache hair, etc.
  • Carrying things – insert things and carry

And the list goes on. The things it can cover or carry are truly limitless. For the animal lover, be confident in picking up:

  • Dog poop
  • Cat poop
  • Any species of poop, really
  • The dead possum that the kids found down by the creek
Easily compresses into compact travel mode, making it perfect for people with tight pants.

The shod of feet will enjoy these added benefits:

  • Quarantine your muddy loafers when in transport
  • Wear between socks and shoes for emergency winter warmth

Dare I say that this staple resource rivals duct tape in versatility and potential for extremely satisfying feats of ingenuity.

Only 2 Cents

Single-use plastic grocery sacks cost stores around 2 cents each. For only 2 cents, they save us the immense trouble of having to either

  • carry our purchases in our hands like some kind of animal,
  • install an oil well in the backyard, refine the crude into molten plastic, and engineer a manufacturing system so as to create our own bags on demand, or
  • fashion another cargo device out of scrap wood, cardboard, mustache hair, or the bags we got last time we went shopping.

With stores willing to defray the upfront cost, and the environment willing to absorb the unseen impact of humans producing and then disposing of over 500 million bags per year, its no wonder that we as consumers prefer to take a new bag rather than inconvenience ourselves with the forethought of bringing our own.

Our Legacy of Plastic

An empty plastic bag bounces down the highway like an urban tumbleweed before snagging on a haggard oleander bush. It flaps there in the breeze for the remainder of its 180,000 days of life on earth, content in having successfully accomplished its single-use, but restless with a feeling deep inside that it is capable of so much more.

The ephemeral plastic bag will outlive us all, a lasting emblem of our obsession with convenience.

We can do better, people. Let’s consider the true cost of convenience. Let’s acknowledge that the single-use lifestyle, though efficient in the short-term, is unsustainable and irresponsible in the long-term. Plastic is not our legacy.

Let’s give our high density polyethylene a second chance at life. Let’s reuse the environmentally subsidized plastic we’ve already created. Then, let’s say no to both paper and plastic. If we forget to bring our own portable carrying technology, we take the shopping cart to the trunk of our motorized carrying technology and we transfer our mostly unneeded purchases by hand. In the time it takes to complete the task, we don’t see any plastic bags blowing across the parking lot. Our legacy will be actual tumbleweeds.

Nebraska to Wyoming, Climbing in Vedauwoo

Looking down from Turtle Rock, Vedauwoo, Wyoming.

Day one of our annual summer road trip to the west coast begins with excitement and anticipation. We’ve got wallets, purses, phones, chargers, snacks, water, books, paper, pencils, and pillows. Bags are loaded, bladders are empty. We are clear for departure. Engage turbo boosters.

[The kids think our minivan has turbo boosters, and that they’re reserved for special occasions, like on road trips and when we’re late for church.]

Lincoln is small enough that we’re soon out of the city in light traffic, flowing west on highway 80, the contiguous asphalt artery that will carry us like an oxygenated blood cell from the Nebraska heartland to the congested extremity of our trip, California.

Everyone is pumped.

The freedom of the open road, the anticipation of seeing new sights and old faces, of camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, restaurants, parties, together we’re bound for a good time, and we’re bonding on the energy and excitement. Parents have visions of free babysitting, and sleeping in while the kids watch Fox News with grandparents. The kids can almost taste the bottomless smorgasbord of pizza, soda, treats, and all-out gluttony that awaits them. Each day, they’ll consume before lunch more sugar than they’ve had in the past month.

This is going to be an epic trip.

Fast forward eight minutes and the magnitude of 1,500 miles has sunk in. The good times are so, so far away. Too much asphalt artery separates us from vacation glory. A steady stream of questions is projected from the back of the van. Hey, are the turbo boosters still on? Why not? Wait, isn’t Nebraska a city? What is a state? Can we have a snack? Now are we there?

Vedauwoo sunrise over a quiet and dry camp, last summer.

One kid mentions Wyoming, and the rest convince themselves instantly that we must have just crossed the vast expanse of Nebraska. Phew, I thought we’d never get there! Wait, we’re not there yet? Then why did someone say Wyoming? Six more hours? The positive vibes and bonding give way to irritability and then hopelessness. The blood cell has lost all its oxygen.

For the remainder of Nebraska, everyone is holding out for Vedauwoo, where we’ll stop to breath, at least for an hour or two, possibly for the night.

[Recommended reading: Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping]

Vedauwoo is an unassuming US Forest Service camping area just off highway 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie. If you’re ever passing through, I highly recommend a visit. Exit the freeway and faster than you can say, “Stop pinching your sister or I’ll tie your fingers and toes together, you just watch me, oh, you think this is funny,” you’ll find yourself on a mesmerizing hike through enormous, globular granite formations, stacks of rounded, misshapen bricks that glow orange and pink in the evening sunlight.

Camping is ten dollars, day passes for the paved areas are five. There’s also a dirt road to an unofficial looking parking area past the main entrance where you can stop, and possibly camp, for free. Take a look.

When the weather is right, you’ll see rock climbers doing their things, flaking ropes, sorting through piles of cams, some as wide as your head, in preparation for a distinctive climbing experience. Note that the bulbous bricks that characterize Vedauwoo have no mortar between them. The gaps have been flossed clean, leaving cracks and chimneys of every shape and size, some just large enough for a fingertip, bicep, thigh, or twisted foot, wedged in for stability and then upward leverage. After much squeezing, contorting, and grimacing, all while mummified in roles of athletic tape to preserve skin against abrasive granite, people are able to shimmy their way to the top. Vedauwoo is famous for this off-width style of climbing.

Some spring-loaded cams, up to size 3, for anchoring into small to medium cracks and gaps.

This summer, my oldest son and I roped up for our first climb on Vedauwoo’s iconic turtle rock, which resembles a mountainous, scraggly old tortoise resting on its belly. Having trounced around on the crag’s scree every summer since he was five, bouldering on petrified turtle droppings, it seemed fitting that my son’s first lead belay and first climb on traditional gear would be a scratch on the turtle’s shell.

Most of my son’s belay experience comes from playing on our tiny basement wall. We’ve also practiced at the local gym. One of us will climb on the auto belay, a mechanized self-tightening safety rope, while mock lead climbing on a second rope, as the other mock belays. This seemed like adequate preparation. Looking up at the route, I did pause for a moment to make sure everything felt right. It did. Harnesses, helmets, knots, and belay were all triple checked. We were ready.

First time following lead on Walt’s Wall, making his father proud.

We made it up the first pitch of Walt’s Wall, a gentle meandering ascent with ample protection (more at Mountain Project). Rated 5.4, Walt’s is mostly a steep scramble, perfect for a dad helping his 11-year-old navigate climbing on real rock. Unfortunately, after hugs and high fives at the first set of bolted anchors, a thunderstorm rolled in from the north. With lightening approaching, we decided to call it off, before getting the full body experience of off-width. Next time.

Leaving no trace at Vedauwoo after getting rained out, Turtle Rock relaxing in the background.

Rain meant an immediate departure. Tents and gear, soaked within minutes, were crammed into the roof rack, sleeping bags were strewn about the cabin, as kids clamored into boosters and car seats. An hour after arriving, we were back on the road, with 400 miles and another state to go before our next stop, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Happy Birthday to Thoreau

Today is the 200th birthday of minimalist, naturalist, transcendentalist, carpe-diem-ist, and American author Henry David Thoreau, whose writings and simple, sometimes disobedient lifestyle have influenced greats such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. while also inspiring generations of self-righteous teens to free themselves from the oppressive demands and unhealthy expectations of a consumerist society.

Let’s reflect on a few of Thoreau’s more meme-ified quotes. The first is a poignant and depressing observation that, come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen in meme form.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

According to Thoreau, simplicity and down-to-earthness, less buying of things and less nose grinding, would go a long way to alleviate our quiet desperation.

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

These ideals are captured in the hopeful, adventurous statement of purpose that motivated Thoreau’s experiment at Walden.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Finally, a pithy and pretty accurate rule of thumb to guide us on the Thoreaudian path to less is more.

All good things are wild and free.