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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Newton Creek, Shoshone National Forest

car campingA few days ago, my oldest and I were reminiscing about “that time we slept on top of the van.” Ah yes, I remember it well. Pretending that were trying something new, getting a better view of the stars, when in reality I just wanted get as far as possible from the hungry grizzly bears.

It was the summer of 2011, if I remember correctly, and Newton Creek, apparently home to some grizzlies, was the final stop on our road trip from California back to Minnesota. We had departed from Sacramento three days earlier in a caravan lead by my parents in their RV. The trip took us east on highway 80 through the Sierras and most of Nevada, and then up to Nat Soo Pah, an RV park near Twin Falls, Idaho, that boasts of “magical mineral water” in its spring-fed swimming pool.

As a kid, our road trips often took us through Nat Soo Pah. My dad loves a good swimmin’ hole. From all accounts, he spent most of his childhood on the banks of the American river, like a modern day Huck Fin, exploring and causing trouble. Those were the good ol’ days, when you could jump from Rainbow Bridge into Lake Natoma, a reservoir on the river, and not go to jail. Nat Soo Pah is great because it has a massive high dive. With enough bounce, it’s almost like jumping from a bridge. Also, the water is a consistent 99 degrees, so it’s like a giant, communal bathtub. The kids have fun, at least.

As far as I could tell, nothing at Nat Soo Pah had changed, from the slimy diving boards, to the mustachioed camp host, to the arcade games with their familiar theme songs and worn-out joysticks. After 20 years, we were crunching the same gravel and sitting at the same picnic tables around the same fire pits. The nostalgia was flowing like spring water from the prairie. It was nice to go back.

Shoshone riverNewton Creek was beautiful, and definitely memorable, but I don’t have any yearning to return.

I’ve never seen grizzly bear warnings, let alone campgrounds prohibiting tents because of “grizzly activity.” Leaving the east exit of Yellowstone on the North Fork Highway, we passed 2 campgrounds (Threemile and Eagle Creek) which allow only “hard side” campers and RVs. My parents had turned back at Yellowstone, and all we had was a 2-person backpacking tent, the sides of which are quite soft.

Next up on the North Fork Highway is Newton Creek, which allows tents after June. It was late July, so we were safe. I reassured my wife, who slept in the tent, at ground level, that bears use calendars.

Campsite on the Shoshone riverThe meaning of “grizzly activity” is up for interpretation. I can’t remember if there’s a sign as you pull in to the campground that attempts to depict the “activity.” I think there was a small sign, but it only made things more ambiguous. I’m going to stop joking about this now, because after returning to our hard-sided home and getting on the internet I learned that a few people have been pulled out of their tents by bears at Newton Creek and neighboring campgrounds. So, I appreciate the warning, despite the ambiguity.

At the time, I thought I was being nice by giving my wife the tent. I guess nice would have been some structure that could withstand a bear claw. After making sure she and the girls were situated, I wished them luck and my son and I climbed on top of the van and tied ourselves to the roof rack. We watched shooting stars in the clear mountain sky, confident that we were out of reach of the shorter grizzly bears. I reflected on my nighttime half-dome hike and eventually dozed off for a couple of hours.

Campfire at Newton Creek campgroundThe best part about this campout was dinner. We brought some frozen salmon that my dad had caught in California, but I had forgotten to bring suitable cookware. Rather than holding it over the fire on a stick, or frying it on a hot rock, which I’ve done, we decided that the easiest cooking method would be to foil wrap it.

We bought the foil for a ridiculous price at an outpost on the way out of Yellowstone (a new frying pan would have been cheaper). And for seasoning, we crushed some potato chips inside before wrapping it all up. Flame-broiled, Lay’s-encrusted, wild pacific salmon. Good eatin’.

Looking back, I would add some moisture to the foil wrap, even if it’s just some water. The grease from the chips doesn’t really distribute itself like it does on your hands.

Also, don’t feast on salmon before camping out in bear country. We were like foil-wrapped salmon in our sleeping bags. Good thing it wasn’t June. And good thing we smelled more like diapers and road trip than anything else.

Wildwood Lake, Nebraska

sunrise at wildwood lakeLast weekend the temperature jumped to 50 °F, with clear skies and an overnight low around freezing. Those seemed like prime conditions for introducing a toddler to winter camping. I decided to take the four older kids to Wildwood Lake, a tiny reservoir hiding among the corn and soybean fields about 45 minutes north of Lincoln.

Wildwood is free, semi-primitive camping. Semi-primitive includes latrines and fire pits, but no running water and no designated sites. As a result, you have to stake your claim. That’s not a problem in the winter. We saw a dozen or so people ice fishing on the lake, but ours was the only tent on the entire shoreline.

The kids behaved like they owned the place. They shouted to each other when it was absolutely not necessary – when they were only a few inches apart and when they didn’t actually have anything to say. For example, “Hey, Anthony! Are you hitting that stick on that rock!? Whoa!” They also never stop running places. Unnecessary yelling and running are two signs of a successful outing.

The kids really staked our claim by never using the latrine. Not once. Peeing in the middle of nowhere, or right next to where you’re going to sleep, is one of the simple beauties of camping. It’s especially fun for a newly potty-trained two-year-old, though it’s also strange at first, given that pottying anywhere but in the toilet is usually a problem.

ice fishing at wildwood lake

Walking on a lake is really strange, too. My oldest was fine, but the others, especially the toddler, were spooked. They were very cautious for the first 30 minutes or so, looking down to scrutinize each step, and then looking up to remind themselves that other people were doing this too. I could see the wheels turning in their little heads: “Is this OK? Well, dad’s doing it. But dad is crazy. I think he eats bugs. Oh, other people are doing it too. And they look normal. Wait, that one is eating candy!”

Really, as soon as the candy comes out, everything is OK. We lasted for about an hour out on the ice. The kids ate candy and then transitioned to nuts and these amazing dried bananas from Costco that taste just like candy. But, with the warmer weather, the surface of the lake was becoming one giant puddle, making it difficult to run without slipping. Once everyone had confirmed this to be true, we decided to head back.

At camp, amidst the yelling, running, and peeing, I’m continually reminding the kids that these freedoms are only available when we’re camping. My goal here is to make camping seem super rad, building it up into the greatest thing that has ever happened to them, partly because I want them to share in my obsession, and partly because it’s getting cold as the sun sets and two of the kids are going to realize that mom is not there to comfort them.

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We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows and then started the transition to bed time at about 7PM. Transitioning from party time to bed time is one of the major challenges of camping with kids. Sadly, the party has to end – no more running, peeing, or yelling. No more candy. None of these are compatible with sleep. It is tragic, really.

The younger two kids lost it soon after we got in the tent – their toes were cold, they were still hungry, and they wanted mom. But, after about 20 minutes of tears, I finally prevailed by reading to them from Call of the Wild. My explanation of “the dominant primordial beast” put them right to sleep.