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.

Paddling the Nishnabotna River, Iowa

preparation canyon state park

A few weeks ago I joined a youth group from church for some hiking and paddling in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. We camped two nights in Preparation Canyon State Park, which boasts 344 acres of thorny locust trees and stinging nettle, and is home to thriving populations of mosquitoes and ticks.

At one point someone commented, “at least ticks can’t fly.” That’s looking on the bright side, I thought, as we pushed through swarms of hungry mosquitoes clouding the trail ahead of us.

And therein lies the simple truth we hope all our campers learn before returning to the comforts of home and mobile device, that happiness is a matter of perspective, a matter of seeing the forest for the bugs and weeds that live there.

This youth had figured it out after only a couple hours of suffering, that it could be much worse, which means it’s still actually pretty good.

Of course, some outings get much worse. Storms rage, canoes sink, and ticks follow us home. But at least we have a home.

The float trip went surprisingly well. We pushed into the west branch of the river at Hancock around 10AM and disembarked around 3PM at Carson, 15 river miles to the south. Those 15 river miles meandered mostly through corn and soybean fields, separated from one another by an occasional thicket of trees. Aside from the fisherman cleaning his catch with a machete, it was uneventful, but also peaceful, with only the swishing of paddle blades to accentuate the silence.

It’s a good thing ticks can’t swim.

preparation canyon state park

Backpacking at Indian Cave State Park

Yes, we finally made it happen: a campout, with all the dirt, unconditioned air, and unmanicured trees and shrubbery of an organically grown forest. It was glorious.

I should start by announcing that we recently got a dog. Echo is about five months old, and mostly resembles his black lab mother, with subtle features from his German shorthaired father, like a narrower face and build and patches of white fur on his chest and paws.

It turns out, raising a puppy is an absurd amount of work. Although I was familiar with the basics of dogs, having grown up with a few, my main responsibility as a kid was scooping up the poop with a shovel and catapulting it into the field behind our house. Spooping is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll save the details, like the number of socks he has ingested, for later. For now I’ll just say that, without a fence on our yard, we have to keep him on a short tie out. He endures it well, but it’s sad to restrict such a free-spirited animal to a small circle of grass.

Old longings nomadic leap, chafing at custom’s chain;
Again from its brumal sleep wakens the ferine strain.
John Myers O’Hara, in Atavism

I know how Echo feels. Since moving to Nebraska our time outdoors has been limited to a small radius from our house. We play in the yard or at the park, but we rarely leave the confines of the city, the concrete and the habitation, the business and daily routines. I feel like a dog on a tie out, in a “brumal sleep.”

Last weekend we unclipped ourselves from custom’s chafing chain. We broke through the circumference of Lincoln and the gravitational pull of the daily grind, to spend a brief but welcome night out at the remote Indian Cave State Park in southeast Nebraska.

After parking at the trailhead, we set Echo free and watched and laughed as he rocketed down the trail, only to hurry back moments later, and then sprint away again. He never stopped running, up and down, back and forth, to and fro, as if trying not to miss a single leaf drop or bird chirp. He had to see and smell it all, be everywhere and part of everything all at once.

Echo’s adjustment to the “wilderness” of Nebraska reminded me of Call of the Wild, where Buck reverts completely from domesticated to wild, from farm dog to alpha male in a wolf pack. Jack London highlights the beauty of this backward evolution to our simple primitive origins.

He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

The pure joy of a puppy unleashed outdoors is inspiring.

The main attraction of Indian Cave State Park, besides graffiti in a cave that we didn’t get to see because of road work, is the backpack camping. The park boasts both remote backpacking sites and Adirondack shelters. From what I could tell, both options are free. And both include the simple amenities of primitive man, space for shelter and fire, and then, lots of space.

From the trailhead, we hiked in through a forest of swamp white oaks just waking up to spring, with their leaf buds slowly opening like millions of tiny green eyelids. The trees were undisturbed by Echo as he crashed by, scouting a quarter mile ahead and behind, and in all directions, continuously on the lookout for something interesting. After walking an easy mile, with Echo probably covering ten times that, we claimed the first shelter we found, about an hour before sunset.

Remnants of a fire, still warm from the previous campers, quickly ignited the leaves and sticks we piled into the fire pit. We boiled water for some freeze-dried backpacking meals that have lurked in our basement for years, lasagna, chicken teriyaki, and apple crisp, all a little soupy but still tasty. After dinner we hiked around camp, shot the BB gun, and got ready for bed by the light of my phone because I forgot a flashlight.

The kids fell asleep to a bedtime story about dragons and unicorns, and then I lay awake for most the night listening to coyotes singing in the distance. The howls would start as individual yips, and then a chorus would crescendo together from different parts of the river valley below us. After a few minutes of this, the howling would slowly subside and we’d enjoy thirty minutes or so of quiet.

Through the night, Echo paced back and forth in the moonlight, tripping over us and stepping on our heads, as he watchfully protected us from those primordial beasts, his Canis Lupus kin. He would often pause to listen, his silhouette still and attentive. Did he want to join them? Was he scared or curious? I wondered what it was like for him to encounter, by sound at least, his undomesticated counterparts. Could he sense the difference?

Exhausted, I think I finally fell asleep a couple hours before dawn, only to wake up around sunrise to feed Echo his cup of kibble. For breakfast we humans had granola and dried fruit, and we broke camp soon after. And less than 24 hours after leaving the city’s gravitational pull, we were back.