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.

St Patrick’s Day Overnighter

The earliest morning rays warming up the iron bridge.

We celebrated St Patrick’s Day this year with a campout at Wildwood, a reservoir and wildlife management area about 20 miles north of the city.

Our neighbors on both sides ended up being noisy and remarkably potty-mouthed, partying late into the night, but good times prevailed overall thanks to reasonable winter weather, epic skyscapes, and kids who mostly kept it together.

[Last time at Wildwood, my first campout alone with all our 72 kids]

We left the house Friday around 5PM, with five kids, two adults, seven backpacks, food, water, the dog, and kitchen sink all crammed into the minivan like toys in a closet or books on a bookshelf after the kids have “put them away.” The trunk and doors of our now lowrider would only close after the unwieldy mass of gear was piled, squished, and finagled into place. Upon opening the trunk and doors at our destination, the gear would then spill out like water into the gravel parking lot, with the kids surfing out on top of it, and dispersing in all directions.

Open camping on the lake.

Wildwood has zero amenities, aside from the dumpster and outhouse. No fire rings, tables, tent pads, or hookups. It’s free range, libertarian camping, without regulations to speak of, and no rangers to enforce them anyway. Camping is open, in the sense that you stake a claim, spread your camp chair legs, and then hope in vain that the crowds congregating around you aren’t too rowdy.

We snagged a nice lakefront spot and pitched our accommodations, a three-person backpacking tent for the four youngest kids, a two-person tent for the adults, and the hammock for our oldest. Next, we went to work scavenging wood from the nearby cedars, and building a fire to boil water for dinner.

Each kid was responsible for planning and preparing some portion of a meal. For dinner, we ended up with Maruchan Ramen noodles over shredded carrots and cucumber. For dessert, we had foil-wrapped s’moritos, tortillas besmeared with peanut butter, folded around chocolate chips and mini marshmallows, and baked on the coals.

Thick, low clouds temporarily absorb the blow of Nebraska’s pounding wind.

The kids, exhausted from three hours of uninhibited outdoorsing, running, jumping, shouting, rock throwing, and exploring, started putting themselves to bed around 9:30PM. The adults weren’t far behind.

As the clouds dissipated in sync with the fading twilight, the stars found their places in a big, dark night sky. The quiet serenity was only disturbed by the distant honky-tonk song of migrating geese, and the uninhibited reveling of our neighboring campers, who drank and yelled and trolled around the lake cat-fishing until 3AM.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.John Burroughs

The kids slept soundly all night, as oblivious to the noise as were the stars. I slept more like a catfish, I imagine, restless in the dark shallow waters next to camp, with a rusty old jon boat buzzing around me.

Fortunately, there’s more to camping than sleeping. In the morning, there’s breakfast, homemade honey muffins and hot chocolate next to a warm fire, followed by a radiant sunrise.

Sunrise over Wildwood Lake, Nebraska.

Winter Camp Out Long Overdue

Setting up camp with the kids on the west bank of the majestic Wagon Train lake.

To my regular readers, I want to apologize for the empty chasm between my last post and this one. It has been far too long since I’ve written, and I’m sure the silence has been bewildering and unbearable. I’m back for good this time, I promise. It won’t happen again.

To everyone else, welcome to dad vs wild, where you’ll find regular updates on the mini-epics of me and my fam, plus an occasional gear review. I pretty much post every week, unless I have more important things to do, like live my life, in which case months may pass without so much as a phone call.

Today, I’m both excited and embarrassed to report that we finally made it into the woods for our first camp out of the season, and the year. Last Friday, I recruited four out of five kids for a night on the marshy banks of Wagon Train lake. Fingers and toes got cold, and a few tears were shed. Otherwise, it was mostly smiles, so, a minor success, which I consider a major success.

The kids finally subdued, by food and fire.

Wagon Train is one of the dozen or so dammed-creeks-turned-reservoirs close to Lincoln. In the spring and summertime, it’s generally a hot swampy mess, thick with mud, and crowded with mosquitoes, ticks, and foliage. But in the fall and winter, all the other forms of life either dry up or hibernate, leaving a bleak but peaceful landscape for us and the owls.

We typically park on the west side and hike north into the woods until we find a flat, dry spot without too much bramble. Like the last few trips, this one was about as simple as it gets. We walked in half a mile, pitched tents, built a bonfire, and cooked hotdogs on sharpened sticks before snuggling up in our sleeping bags. It was breezy but not unreasonably cold, with highs in the 30s and lows in the low 20s.

Boiling water for breakfast, a combo of nearly expired freeze dried eggs and spaghetti
Boiling water for breakfast, a surprisingly tasty combo of nearly expired freeze dried eggs and spaghetti

Some things I’m learning about winter camping with kids, and a dog:

  • At this point, our younger two (three and five years old) are able to pack and carry their own clothes, water, and some food. But they still haven’t figured out how to keep their extremities warm. Pockets are for rocks, shells, and miscellaneous objects that look cool and are probably worth lots of money, but are actually worn down pieces of trash. So, after getting to camp, the first thing I do is put up a tent and lay out a sleeping bag where the littles can recoup from their long, slow walk in. This ties them over until the fire is ready.
  • Kids under six are still learning that pee and poo should be taken care of with more than eight seconds of forethought. As with their fingers and toes, which are just fine until they’re frozen stiff and everyone is sobbing, potty needs are put off carelessly until the insulated snow clothes almost become a giant diaper. Regular, mandatory potty breaks are key. It’s like on a road trip, but much worse.
  • The dog still has no idea how to sleep out in rural Nebraska in the winter. He paces the tent and barks all night. More here. My current solution is to take him to the truck around 9PM and leave him in the back seat until morning. In warmer weather, we’d leash him to a tree.
  • The harebrained parent supervising this outing needs to stay calm, even when everything spirals downward into a cold whirlpool of tears and pee. These kids are champs just for being here. Power through the challenges, and soak in the successes, like telling fantastical bedtime stories under a dark wintery sky before sleeping warmly next to the greatest kids on earth.
  • Apparently, geese are just as nocturnal as owls, and dogs. Please remind me to bring ear plugs next time. I love listening to the sounds of nature at night, but only for like an hour, not seven.

Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping

Another sleepless starry night at Vedauwoo. Over the past five years, the annual Vedauwoo campout has become a tradition for us, a brief but important interruption in our 1,500 mile road trip from the waterlogged Midwest to the drought-stricken west coast. Our first time through was in 2011, en route from Minneapolis to Sacramento. We’ve stopped in twice per summer ever since.

The scene doesn’t change much from year to year, whether we’re heading west, excited to get on with our vacation, or returning east, worn out and missing home. Our tired van sputters into the campground in the early afternoon, its brakes squeaking as it eases into the familiar parking spot at campsite 4. As soon as the van door rolls open the cheers and crying of countless children disrupt the peaceful serenity of the campground.

Kids scatter in every direction, each knowing almost instinctively where to go: the nearby bathroom to pee, the bush 6 inches from the van door to pee, down the hill to find a stick sword, or up the mountain because we’re here to climb and time is short.

This was Echo’s first time at Vedauwoo and first time out of Nebraska. He also knew exactly what to do: run and smell. Glorious freedom, just like on his first campout at Indian Cave. Sadly, he kept sneaking off to beg or borrow food from other campers, so we had to tie him up while we set up camp. Not everyone appreciates a 50-pound puppy hopping onto their picnic table, tongue and tail a-wagging.

With the tent staked and firewood gathered, we were ready to hit the crag. I took the oldest three and Echo straight up the most accessible of the reddish orange granite hoodoos that characterizes the area, while my wife spotted the littlest two as they bouldered on the massive scree at its base. The dog did surprisingly well, scrambling up with us no matter how high we went. I had to boost him up a few ledges, and carry him across a few crevasses, but his four paws gave him excellent traction on the slab.

The actual rock climbing at Vedauwoo is almost entirely crack and off-width (see Mountain Project). The slabby granite boulders are rounded and featureless, leaving very little to grab. We have fun for now just hiking, scrambling, and exploring. But I am looking forward to climbing Edward’s Crack and some other routes on Walt’s Wall, once my oldest is comfortable belaying.

Tradition has it that, after hiking and climbing until dusk, we cook hot dogs and s’mores over the fire, and then settle down for few hours of star gazing and not sleeping. This time, after telling stories, and then spotting a few satellites, everyone dozed off close to midnight as I tried to explain to a five-year-old what a satellite is.

Every hour or so, when I’d wake up to rotate my back or shoulder off the hard ground, I’d check on Echo, who was leashed to a large tree stump close by. For most the night it was too dark to see, and I could only hear him rusting around on his cardboard mat, not sleeping. Toward dawn, the full moon and approaching sunrise revealed his sharp profile silhouetted against the glowing horizon, as he stared and listened attentively into the darkness.

A few times Echo sent a low warning growl toward the forest below our campsite, but I don’t think he stayed up all night in fear. I think his curiosity was just overwhelming. To a puppy, everything is exciting and new, especially on his second campout. The nighttime only amplified the mystery of the unexplored outdoors that surrounded him.