Paddling the Nishnabotna River, Iowa

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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.

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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.

Camping With the Kids at Wildwood Lake, Nebraska

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A thin glaze of ice on Wildwood Lake, with wild woods behind.

Last weekend I took the kids camping at Wildwood, a small reservoir just north of Lincoln, near Branched Oak. This was my first overnighter alone with the full crew. Five kids, no mommy.

I’m not going to lie, camping with kids is stressful and exhausting. Half of the time I’m stoking a fire or prepping a meal. The other half I’m helping an unhappy camper, wiping tears, warming fingers, zipping, buttoning, or tying. But camp we must.

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An old iron bridge, with many failed attempts to break the ice below.

The earth is a part of me, and I want it to be a part of my kids. I want fresh dirt in their pores and fresh air in their lungs. I want the open spaces to inspire them, the unexplored shadows and hilltops, the depths and ledges, to challenge them.

I want them to experience what would happen if… Break a stick just to hear it crack. Splash a pond to see the ripples. Dig, build, break, throw, run, jump, climb, spin, taste, just because. See what happens.

All good things are wild and free
Henry David Thoreau

There’s no other time or place when kids can so much be kids. When they’re outdoors, unleashed and unrestrained, there are few limits they don’t create. As a result, they get to experience all of themselves. And I love to watch them grow as the discovery unfolds.

Anyway, here’s a quick summary of our night at Wildwood: eating, crying, eating, crying, storytelling, sleeping, waking to drunk people yelling and breaking things, sleeping, waking to shotgun fire, sleeping, shotgun fire, etc., eating, hiking, cleaning up after drunk people.

The shotgun fire came from some very excited duck hunters.

The crying came from our 18-month-old on her first campout without mom.

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The full crew, in full effect.

Roadtripping and Camping in Southern Ireland: Part I

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Last year we increased the number of kids in our family by 25%. Our oldest will soon be nine and the rest are spaced about two years apart, so seven, five, three, and one. It’s a lot of kids. Actually, the term a lot doesn’t do them justice. When they’re all together in one place you naturally refer to them with collective nouns that usually apply to animals. They travel as a herd. They eat as a swarm. They talk as a gaggle. If they all swam in the same direction together, they’d be a pod. Otherwise they’re just a horde.

Side note: According to Wikipedia, lots of alligators and magpies are both called congregations; however, a lot of magpies is also called a murder. That’s interesting. I wonder how magpies, and not alligators, earned such an endearing term.

I just realized that there aren’t any words specifically for collections of children. The first one that comes to mind is cacophony. This highlights the most striking characteristic of a lot of kids: consistent, mind-wrenching noise.

Five is a cacophony of kids.
Me, and anyone with a lot of kids

Anyway, five kids take about ten years to create if you have them one at a time, which we did. This means that my wife, Jill, sacrificed most of her twenties to the sorrow of conception. For 520 weeks she was perpetually multiplying and replenishing, growing, birthing, and then nursing babies.

It occurred to me last year that she deserved some kind of recognition or award for her prolific baby-making, something more than the crayon scribbles on construction paper that we call a mother’s day card, something like a trip to the UK, no kids attached, to see her best friend. I promised to make it happen the following summer, after baby five was weaned.

I thought about the logistics of such a trip about as much as I had thought about the logistics of having a horde of kids. So, not very much. But, I figured that minor details like cost, and timing, and who would watch the gaggle, besides me, would work themselves out. When something seems right, I say, go for it. Make it happen. Life is short. And ten years of parenting is cause for celebration.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
W. B. Yeats

In the end, everything came together like it was meant to be. As this summer approached I was surprised to learn that the next meeting for a project I’m working on would be in Ireland in July. Thus, I excused myself from the sorrows of herding all the cats alone. My parents agreed to step in as zookeepers, bless their hearts. And so, after driving the crew back to California this summer, Jill and I packed our bags for our second vacation without children in ten years of marriage.

This is the first installment of what I can still remember from our camping road trip through the quiet, childless countryside of southern Ireland.

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County Clare

Before the road trip campout with Jill began, I spent a week in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. Jill stayed four days in Scotland, with her friend, and then we met up in Dublin for our grand giro.

For most of my first week I was in meetings. But during any free time I quickly went into tourist mode. I walked the streets, saying halloo! and howya? to everyone and taking pictures of things that are totally normal for Irish people but fascinating for a curious American, like plants growing out of chimneys.

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My first observation of County Clare was that plants grow everywhere. This proved to be true for all the other counties too. Plants seem to thrive on any surface, including vertical and overhanging ones. Even rolling stones gather moss. In contrast, Nebraska plants grow wherever you put them, but you have to put them there first, and they at least need some damp soil and a little sunlight, the standard plant diet.

But Irish plants just propagate. They multiply and replenish, even in dense shade, or shallow soil, or chimney soot. I actually saw two shrubs growing from different chimneys in County Clare. It was fascinating. Did someone plant them there? A disgruntled woodland fairy, maybe? I don’t have an answer.

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My second observation as I toured the streets and countryside of County Clare was that everything is made of stone. Houses, paths, walls, and bridges are all stone, and in some shade of grey. It’s like there’s a surplus of stone, and they don’t know what to do with it, so they keep making paths and buildings, and then stacking stone walls around them. Like the plants, this also continued for the rest of our trip. In Glendalough, southeastern Ireland, we stopped at an old village where all the buildings have vaulted, gabled stone roofs. No joists or beams, no flying buttresses. Just stone. And some pixie dust, of course.

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Killaloe

I stayed at the Lakeside Inn in Killaloe, a village about 20 kilometers north of Limerick on the River Shannon. In Ireland, the names of places always come after the thing that they’re naming. So, it’s the River Shannon in County Clare, instead of the Shannon River in Clare County. I’m not sure why they flip it around. It does sound more Irish this way.

I was reading recently about how some people are genuinely obsessed with the earth and all things outdoors. It’s called biophilia. Two episodes from my week in and around Killaloe confirm that I’m a complete biophile.

First, I had an incessant urge to swim in the river. This happens anytime I’m near open water. I’m drawn to it like a baby to a flame or to something fragile. Until I get my fix, I have a hard time focusing on anything else.

One night, we had dinner on a patio overlooking the river. Everything was fine until a group of local lads started jumping in from the stone bridge. It looked really fun. The bridge was about 20 feet high, perfect for diving and flipping. If only I had an excuse to join them. Unfortunately, no one needed rescuing, and no one dared me to go, so I just had to suffer, clothed and dry, while my land-loving colleagues finished their meals.

I swam the River Shannon the next day, in the 15 minutes after our meetings ended and before we met again for dinner. It was awesome. The water was cold and dark, with a reddish tint that reminded me of the River St. Croix, in State Minnesota, which is silted with iron and tastes a little like blood. Besides the color, everything else was new, from the smell of the river air to the consistency of the water itself. Long slimy leaves from unfamiliar river plants slithered past me like eels on their way to the Atlantic. Tall stone retaining walls on either side made the river feel like an ancient castle moat. And the tint of the water made it look more like ale. Overall, swimming in the Shannon felt very Irish.

Swimming is such an immersive experience. It connects you in an instant with the essence of a place. In a hot tub or jacuzzi, for example, you’re immersed in a bubbly soup of human microbes containing the essence of all the other people who join you, and those who dunked themselves before you. It’s sort of gross if you think about it. In a river, you’re immersed in a vast, complex flow of animal, plant, and mineral life. It’s not just a few other people staying in the same hotel as you. It’s everything that the rain touches. Limestone particles from a mountain stream mix with the starchy runoff from a potato farm and the organic runoff from pastureland and open countryside. These combine with the runoff from city streets, over rooftops, through gutters, and down storm drains, to form the one thing that contains a piece of every place. As a result, when you jump into a river, you jump into the essence of everything.

What I love most about rivers is, you can’t step in the same river twice. The water’s always changing, always flowing.
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I also had an incessant urge to explore the nearby mountains. A lad named Fergal who worked at the hotel recommended Ballycuggaran, about a mile north of the village. To save some time, I took a taxi to the trailhead right after my meetings ended.

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From the trailhead, I followed a dirt and gravel path west, climbing slowly to the top of Feenlea Mountain, and then crossed east along the ridge of Feenlea in an attempt to shortcut my way back to the “You Are Here.” After sliding about fifty feet down a slope of thick ferns, I ended up having to crush my way through endless head-high overgrowth. Occasionally, and unexpectedly, I’d slip down ten feet through something thorny that would thrash my shins and arms. In the end, I was dripping with blood, both mine and the plants’. It was stupid, but exhilarating.

Before I became a blood-brother with the Ballycuggaran flora, I also bonded with some of the local fauna. First, I stumbled upon a herd of sheep, lazing and grazing on the slopes of Feenlea. Then, a few minutes later I found myself directly above a family of foxes. Very awesome. And very Irish.

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Swimming and hiking were the highlights of my week in Killaloe. I did get some work done too, and I had some great food, and met some “really coo” people (that’s how they pronounce “cool”). On Saturday morning, having bid my colleagues farewell, I rented a tiny, stick-shift Opel and started an entirely different experience – nine days of driving on the wrong side of the road. More to come.

Platte River State Park, Nebraska

Platte river cabin

This spring we spent two nights at the luxurious Platte River State Park, which sits about 15 minutes off highway 80, halfway between Lincoln and Omaha. The trip was definitely a new experience for me. Although I grew up camping in an RV, and had a great time, for the past ten years our campouts have been as primitive as possible. Sometimes there’s running water and some form of outhouse. But, ideally, it’s just us and the woods. Some people call this “primitive” or “backcountry” camping. I just call it camping. Anything else is glamping.

Platte River State Park is glamping. It has the unassuming woods, plus everything else you might have left at home because you aren’t supposed to have it while camping. We rented what they call “modern” cabins. In addition to four walls, a roof, and a floor, which is already excessive, the modern cabins are furnished with real beds, carpeting, and soft things to sit on, like couches and chairs. You can store your mess kit in the kitchen cupboards, next to the actual cookware. And you can put your baggie of toilet paper rolled up in a rubber band on the shelf in the actual bathroom, next to the porcelain toilet.

The flat-screen TV took the experience from slightly awkward to offensive, from weird to wrong, from questionable to blatantly unethical. Adding a TV to camping is like “enhancing” your water with artificial sweeteners and flavoring. I like a little sugar in my water. But you can’t enhance water, just like you can’t enhance mother nature. They’re already perfect. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re still drinking water.

That said, we did have a great time. We shared two adjoining cabins (called Chokecherry) with two other families. This put us slightly way over the recommended occupancy, with six adults and thirteen kids. But that was part of the fun. Also, the cabins were right on a pond, and our canoe was the only craft to tread the water. And we found some decent hiking nearby, with noteworthy changes in elevation. We spent an afternoon walking down to the humble Platte River, which is more of a really wide creek, and were surprised to find a waterfall along the way. Nothing grandiose, but still an nice getaway with family and friends.

Next time we might try the modest “camper cabins,” which only have a fridge and beds, in addition to the walls and roof. It’s still glamping, but slightly less glamorous.

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