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.

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.