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.

wildwood lake campfire

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.

Camping Gifts for Dad

sillyband tentIt’s the season of shopping and you may be wondering what your family will get you. If you don’t think of something reasonable, soon, you’ll end up with more emblems of your favorite, losing, sports team, probably on a pillowcase or license plate holder.

Or, maybe you’re out of ideas for your husband, and he pretends he already has everything he needs.

Either way, dads never have everything they need. They always need more camping stuff. Dads are responsible for teaching their family to survive and enjoy the outdoors (see here). This requires lots of gear, including different variations of the same tools and equipment.

Assuming that the bigger, more expensive items (e.g., tent, sleeping bags and pads, hiking packs) are either out of the budget or already taken care of, here are my top ten most important pieces of camping gear for under $50:

  1. Knife/multitool
  2. Camp stove
  3. Hatchet
  4. Headlamp
  5. Things for lighting fires
  6. Mess kit/cook set
  7. Ropes and cords
  8. Gear box
  9. First aid kit
  10. Camping chair

Because they’re so basic, most of these items have a pretty low “that’s not the one I wanted” factor – variations across brand/make/model are minimal.

If you have to choose between them, I recommend the hatchet – it’s guaranteed to increase the toughness and ruggedness of whoever wields it.

For more gear ideas, see here.

Canoe Camping on the St Croix

Sunrise on the St Croix

We’ve had three successful canoe trips with the kids this summer – two with very reasonable crying/whining to fun ratios (Minneapolis chain, Phelan chain), and one with nearly as much crying and frustration as fun (we capsized – more to come in a later post). On average, I think we were all ready for our first overnight river voyage.

There are plenty of rivers to choose from in the land of lakes, but not many that met our requirements of being kid-friendly and close to the cities, with free camping. We charted a course on the St Croix, which creates most of the border between MN and the land of cheese heads to our east. The St Croix is contained within a national scenic river-way, so the campsites are easy to find and well maintained, unlike those on the Minnesota river (see here).

We convinced a friend to come with his son, which put the crew at two dads manning the oars, and three kids crammed in the middle of the boat with all the gear. Starting at Interstate State Park, near Taylors Falls, MN, we made it to the Eagles Nest group camp (pics below) just before dusk. The site was excellent, and we would have enjoyed an evening by the campfire, but no piece of foliage was dry enough to burn, not even the dead leaves and pine needles (not the first time it has happened – see here).

Add the lack of campfire to a thick fog of mosquitoes and we had a campsite that was really only worth sleeping in. But, the rest of the trip went well, with much more fun than crying. The kids enjoyed it, and that’s pretty much all that matters, right?

I’d do it again just to see the sunrise over the river – it gave me goosebumps, at least, I thought it did. They turned out to be mosquito bites.

Canoeing the St Croix

Eagles nest campground on the St Croix

Eagles nest campground on the St Croix

Vedauwoo

Vedauwoo, pronounced vee’-da-voo, according to a forest ranger who seemed pretty smart, has nothing to do with gris-gris (voodoo) or South Korean auto manufacturers (Daewoo). It has everything to do with beautiful campgrounds surrounded by strange rock formations.

On the first leg of our journey this summer from MN to CA, we covered Iowa and Nebraska – not the most exciting states of the union, at least from our perspective on the infamous highway 80. We pulled into the Vedauwoo campground at 7 PM, after 14 hours in the van. The kids legs started spinning, like wind-up cars, and we set them loose on the first trail we could find.

That night we hiked until sunset and then had a bonfire with the leftovers from the rocky mountain bark beetle infestation. The next morning we hiked until sunrise before hitting the pavement.

Vedauwoo sunset

Vedauwoo campground

Vedauwoo rocks

Vedauwoo hiking

Vedauwoo sunrise

I highly recommend it, especially to weary road trippers who want to save on lodging. The sites are clean and spacious (28 tent sites, potable water, vaulted toilets), the rate is low ($10), and the location super convenient (only a few miles from the freeway: Google map).

See the USDA website for more info.