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.

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.

The Sounds of Duck Hunting

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska

I wrote a few days ago about our recent overnighter at Wildwood, a small lake north of Lincoln, Nebraska, nestled between fields of corn and soybean. I mentioned there that our sleepless morning was interrupted by spurts of shotgun fire. But I forgot to describe the source of the shooting.

I didn’t actually see them until sunrise, but their commotion in the quiet morning air gave the duck hunters away.

If you’re too busy too duck hunt, you’re too busy.
Jase, Duck Dynasty

It was long before dawn when I awoke to gravel crunching in the parking lot, first under rolling truck tires, then under shuffling boots. I checked my cell phone for the time. It was 4:30 AM, about two hours before a Nebraska hunter could legally open fire.

Gray limestone gravel paves all the roads and parking lots in my camping memories. Those small chalky rocks, with random angles but uniform size, create a sort of man-made welcome mat on mother nature’s vast front step. Reflecting on all our family trips as a kid, dusty gravel was always first to greet me as I jumped out of the truck. The sound and texture of it are subtle but distinctive and unique to that point where driving ends and a campout begins.

As the waterfowlers unloaded their truck beds, oblivious to me and my eavesdropping, I heard the unnatural clatter of their most essential trapping, the flock of decoys. Dozens of hollow-bodied, featherless, plastic ducks, who would be carefully placed to create the illusion of a safe and inviting stretch of lake-shore property.

Until this point, the sounds of the setup were mostly quiet and cautious. I heard some rustling in the bushes and grasses, and soft splashing as the hunters waded out and distributed their bait in the most effective pattern they could think of. I could picture them pausing in the cloudy moonlight, to imagine how the scene would appear to their prey. Maybe the decoys would seem too eager, or too exclusive, as the ducks flew past in search of friends.

Eventually, with the stage set, the splashing stopped, and the waiting began. The hunters were clearing the air. At some point I fell back asleep.

sunrise at wildwood lake

At 5:30 AM, the decoys came to life. I’ve never heard such a lively group of ducks. Their quacking seemed forced, as if someone were squeezing it out of them against their will. It was awkward. No real duck could have the lungs to maintain such a consistent, rhythmic squawk.

And yet, apparently, the hunters found something to shoot at. The shooting was almost as relentless as their calling. Blam, blam, blam, …, blam, blam, blam, blam, blam! Then, more calling. Squawk, squawk, squawk, squawk, …, squawk, squawk, squawk, …, squawk, squawk! Over and over, back and forth.

The kids, exhausted from a late the night by the fire, slept through it all. But I was wide awake. As I stretched out in my goose down sleeping bag, I thought about the ducks. I wished they could be taken more elegantly, with less squawking and blasting. And I hoped the hunters were grateful for their kill.

Hunting presents a difficult contrast for me: you take an animal’s life to, hopefully, sustain your own. I first confronted this contradiction while bow hunting last fall, when I shot my first buck. My heart was pounding and my eyes were damp as I let my arrow fly, an arrow that would stop his heart from beating and his eyes from seeing. As someone with a relatively small and superficial connection with the earth, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to end the life of a creature that is one with the earth, a creature that spends all of his existence with it and in it. I’ve never felt so close to and so far from the natural world at the same time.

These thoughts and feelings came back to me as I listened to the duck hunt. And I realized that the sounds of a hunt can be beautiful or disgusting, depending on the attitude and reverence of the hunter.

Camping With the Kids at Wildwood Lake, Nebraska

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska
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.

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska
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.

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska
The full crew, in full effect.

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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