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.

Gear Review: Camping Stuff From Grip

Zucchini in the Grip-On non-stick skillet, cooked over spruce and organic fescue.

Last year the kind folks at Grip-On sent us an assortment of camping stuff to try out and review, including the:

The ones with links are available via the Grip shop on Amazon. The others aren’t yet for sale online.

All of these items have held up well over numerous camping trips and cookouts, and they’re all a decent bargain. I’ve found the skillet most useful. We like to cook over a campfire in the backyard, and zucchini on a stick just doesn’t work. The pocket light and waterproof cards would be nice stocking stuffers or birthday presents for the outdoorsy. The jumbo fork and marshmallow tree are great for roasting en mass, but when we need skewers we usually default to the on-demand whittling of sticks.

Here’s some more info on the light, skillet, and cards.

Pocket Light

This light gets the job done. The bottom is magnetic, which is nice for sticking to a tree stand when hunting, or to other metal objects for hands-free doing of things. The torch itself is blinding, as LED tends to be.

Stock image of the pocket light, as ours has apparently gone the way of the earth.

This sturdy light withstood numerous falls over the past year, in the custody of our five year old son. It shined strong until the very end. We think it is now resting peacefully among the grass and sticks en route to our last campsite.

The LED Camo Pocket Light goes for about $7 as an add-on item at Amazon. This is comparable to other small LED work lights. Requires 3 AAA batteries, included.

Non-Stick Skillet

We’ve used the skillet to cook some tasty meals on the grill and over the campfire. It works well for anything too large or awkward to cook on a stick, like hamburger patties, or foods that would slip through the grates on the gas grill or BBQ, like cut meat or veggies.

The skillet, in fold mode.

The diameter is 12 inches, depth is about 2 inches, and weight is 24 oz. So, it’s reasonably sized for a short backpacking trip. The quality is fine, though the folding handle is getting a little loose.

The skillet will run you about $10, making it cheaper than most.

Playing Cards

We’ve used these cards on a few campouts and around the house. Mostly they stay in our camping box, so as to be ready for the impromptu overnighter.

The cards are slick, both literally and figuratively. The glossy plastic makes them slippery, which isn’t really an issue unless you’re trying to play solitaire in an RV as it curves up a mountain road. On a level, stationary surface, they’re fine. Figuratively, they’re slick because they don’t fold or crease like the standard issue card. They take a beating and bounce right back.

Blackjack with the translucent waterproof playing cards.

The only downside we’ve discovered is that they’re not entirely opaque. Beware that if there’s any more than an average amount of light coming in from behind, your hand will easily show through to your opponent.

The waterproof cards are $13 after shipping.

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.

Climbing Devils Tower, Wyoming via Durrance


It’s muggy and grey in Lincoln today. The sky is full to the brim with cloud cover, a moist blanket that erases the horizon, absorbing and diffusing any sunlight.

As bleak as it sounds, I actually enjoy this weather. It’s rare for Nebraska, and it takes me back to the Sacramento valley, where the only precipitation is a slow and steady drizzle, with moisture dissipating in all directions. Before coming to the Midwest, I’d never experienced a real thunderstorm, where dark, dense concentrations of rain can pound one end of the city, and leave the other end untouched.

In terms of climate, Lincoln has a consistent diversity of flavors and textures. Winters range from frosty to fresh, springtime starts slushy and ends up soupy, summers are spicy, and autumns transition to crisp and crunchy.

It’s the landscape of Lincoln that I struggle with. In terms of geography, southeast Nebraska is blander than plain old original oatmeal.

To escape the flat, pasty gruel this summer, my buddy Case and I journeyed to the Black Hills, a veritable topographic smorgasbord. We drove 600 miles northwest to feast on Devils Tower, Wyoming, and after a night there, we spent two nights at Winkled Rock, sampling the crags, walls, and spires behind Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.


We pulled into our nation’s first national monument late on a Monday afternoon. After 10 hours of driving, our fingers were twitching for a climb, so, with a few hours of daylight in the sky, we hurried to scope out the approach and pitch one of the classic Durrance route.

Having roped up at the base, a passing cloud, the remnants of an earlier thunderstorm, decided to relieve itself right above us. The tinkling was brief, but enough to send us back to camp to prepare for an early start the following morning.

The Wyoming sun rises soon after 5:00 AM this time of year. To beat any crowds, we set our alarms for 4:30 AM, and were back at the base of the approach pitch, racking up and flaking ropes, by dawn. The sky was mostly clear, with a chance of storms in the afternoon.

The prospect of being on legit rock all day filled my heart with joy. Every few moves up the gentle approach pitch I pinched myself to confirm this was real.

Devils Tower Durrance approach pitch

Everything was awesome, from the hexagonal igneous protrusions that made up the route itself, to the pigeons cooing on their platform penthouses two hundred feet above us. Moss growing like mortar in the lower cracks? So nice. Shadow from the tower stretching into the valley below? Yes. That ladybug, just doing her thing? Yep. It was going to be a good day.

Devils Toward Durrance approach pitch

I led pitch one, Leaning Column, which follows an easy hand crack that widens at times to minor off-width. This was my first crack climb, and my first lead placing large protection, some 2s, 3s, and a 4. I had to gulp down a few mental hurdles along the way, but it worked out. Embrace the friction, trust the protection. As the kids would say, just keep swimming.

[Wikipedia reviews the basics of crack climbing]

Case led pitch two, Durrance Crack, which brought us to the crux pitch of the route, Cussin’ Crack. The cussing is inspired by an off-width section ascended using a creative combination of jamming, squeezing, pushing, thrashing, and heel-toe camming. I tapped out after two failed attempts.

Case would lead us to glory. Once on top, the total exertion of it nearly pushed him to puking, but he held it in. Parties below us were unaware that they’d been spared a shower of vomit.

Devils Tower Cussin Crack

After Cussin’ Crack, we continued up Flake Crack and Chockstone Crack. Flake was manageable, though the last few moves up onto the platform push you out a bit and make you think. Chockstone pushes you out at the last move as well, but your only option is to fully embrace a yoga-ball sized stone as you clamor to get around and above it.

From the top of Chockstone, we turned right to face the Jump Traverse. This famous pitch starts as a horizontal and then downward scramble toward the sloping bulge of rock that is the launch point for the jump. About 7 feet of air separate you from the welcoming landing zone, a small platform, and the remainder of the pitch.


Having investigating the logistics of it, Case decided to climb around and through on lead, and then belayed me from the other side. I scooted to the edge and contemplated the jump for a minute, running through the what-ifs in my mind, some of them reasonable, like what if I lose my balance just prior to departure, and others more outlandish, like what if my foot cramps up or a pigeon dives into my face. In the end, I went for it, landing on all fours with a triumphant howl.

A frolic across the Meadows follows the Jump Traverse, and it’s easy going from there to the top. Three quick rappels then brought us back down to our starting point, where we immediately asked the standard post-climb question, “did we just do that?”

Devils Tower Summit Selfie

After the tower, we rested for a bit at our campsite, and then decided to hit the road and stay the next two nights at Wrinkled Rock, where the camping is free and the climbing menu is endless. Wrinkled Rock is a few minutes west of Mount Rushmore, about a two hour drive from the tower. We spent most of our time climbing in the Emancipation area, which borders the backside of Mount Rushmore.

More on Emancipation next time.

Extra Beta

Durrance is a popular climb that apparently gets crowded and slow on weekends. We opted for a Tuesday morning and mostly had the route to ourselves, with only one party ahead and one behind. The chance of rain may have discouraged others who prefer not to strap themselves to a gigantic lightning rod as a storm rolls in.

The Belle Fourche campground, managed by the parks service, is $12 per night, first come, first served.

Note that the National Parks Service has instituted a voluntary climbing ban during the month of June:

A voluntary climbing closure on Devils Tower is in effect during the month of June. The 1995 Devils Tower National Monument Climbing Management Plan established a voluntary closure for all climbing routes on the Tower out of respect for traditional cultural activities of American Indians. The voluntary closure has been implemented each June since 1996. The average number of climbers that choose not to climb during June has seen an 85% reduction.

Gear Review: Climbing Holds From Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear

Last spring, Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear sent us a sampling of their holds to test and review. After using and abusing them on our basement wall for a year, the results are in. Awesome.

My official rating of awesome takes into account three factors: value, construction/durability, and usability.


As a dad of five kids, I am obsessively frugal. I reuse plastic utensils. I wear shoes until the soles are bald and falling off, and then I salvage the laces, storing them in an old No. 10 can. If you come over to dinner, and we have ribs, and you ask for a napkin, it will come from a stash that I’ve accumulated from random restaurants and complementary airline beverages over many years.

I’m still getting used to throwing away floss after a single use.

That said, the holds from Rocky Mountain are a bargain. I searched and did the math. I couldn’t find a better deal per hold. Their shop on Amazon seems to have the best prices. At the time of writing this, their larger sets of holds boiled down to about $1.50 per hold, including hardware and shipping.


We haven’t used these outdoors, so I don’t know how they hold up under the elements. Indoors, they’re still going strong. No cracks or chipping, even after cranking them to the wall, both with the included socket head bolts and with hex bolts.

The holds look and feel like old chunks of cement, like debris from a construction site. No fancy company logo stamped in the corner. No bubbly or creative features, like grape clusters, or snail shells, or Buddha bellies. Just angular chunks of stone.

I’m imagining the company was started by a student at UC Boulder who dropped out of college to sell climbing holds out of his garage. He sorts through road work rubble at night, and then chisels and grinds down each piece by hand, while wearing a leather apron and a slouchy beanie. If any climbing holds out there are going to have blood, sweat, and beard hair mixed in, it’s these.

Perusing the company website, it appears the holds are made from over 70% recycled materials. It’s not clear if this includes beard hair, but the materials are said to be non-toxic. The website also says the founder/owner was an aerospace engineer, not a hipster college dropout.

I smacked one around with a hammer, just to see how it behaved. No signs of damage. Granted, I don’t know anyone who climbs with a hammer, so this test isn’t all that relevant.

What really counts is that a hold withstands the pressure of a bolt cranking it to the wall, while also supporting the weight of a climber. So far, so good.


The only downside to these holds is, so far, the features are limited mainly to jugs and nubs. The lack of interesting shapes makes them less ideal for climbing gyms, but perfect for DIY home walls or jungle gyms, especially with younger climbers who are more interested in going up than in perfecting their technique.

To keep things interesting, we turn the holds sideways or upside down. They double as small ledges and even foot chips when rotated the right way.