Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Camping Calamities

Hi Bill

Today I have been thinking about our camping experiences back in the early to mid-1990s.

You and others who know us well probably understand that Clark and Pat are not campers. It’s not that we think it is dumb to subject ourselves to roughing it in the woods with hungry bugs, struggling through sudden damaging wind/rain/lightning storms that seek to tear down our inexpensive flimsy tent, trying to cook a decent meal on a camp stove or even over a small fire, attempting to get a comfortable night’s sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor of a tent, and tolerating your camping buddies who seem to relish in the absurdities of camping! Well maybe that is dumb! There are campers in this World and there are non-campers in this world. Pat and I fit into the latter species.

However, we didn’t reach this state of hostility toward camping without having some camping adventures back in the early 1990s. At that time we were living in Brookings, SD, where I worked at South Dakota State University. Pat and I became good friends with Mark, who was a colleague at SDSU, and his wife, Sue.

Our good friends and camping buddies, Mark and Sue

Mark and Sue were campers, and they (especially Mark) seemed to make it their passionate goal to recruit and indoctrinate Pat and me into the wonderful world of camping. They kept talking to us about their camping experiences under the celestial canopy or under the enchanted forest canopy. Also they subtly used guilt to persuade us by alluding that our kids deserved to have that experience with nature. 

We finally decided to take the plunge. We bought a decent sized tent and some sleeping bags. However, we didn’t buy much else. We figured we could get by with the flashlights and other things that we already had. We knew Mark had cooking equipment and other camping equipment so we didn’t worry much about it.  

Nando and Sue

We began our camping experiences with Mark, Sue, and Mark’s nephew Fernando (Nando), who spent most summers with Mark and Sue back then. We camped with them a couple of times in the local state parks, including Lake Poinsett State Park and Oakwood Lakes State Park. Those overnight camping outings went well. I remember camping at Oakwood Lakes State Park with Mark, Sue and Nando when Mark and Sue had borrowed a popup camper from Sue’s father, Murph, who by the way is a wonderful man and a great professor and musician. They slept in the popup camper and Pat and I slept in our tent. Rayna, Zeb and Nando slept in Mark’s tent. It turned out to be a fun communion with nature. We had a campfire and Mark and Sue’s cooking equipment helped us prepare some tasty camping meals. There were reasonably nice bathroom facilities near the campground in that park. Best of all the weather was mild and a beautiful starlit sky enchanted us from above. We had no rain, no strong wind attacks, and no animal (or people) confrontations. Everyone had a good time. In fact it was enjoyable enough to encourage us to buy more equipment that would make camping even more comfortable and enjoyable.

Clark and Pat, the reluctant campers

The next summer, we decided to try camping for a longer stay and a little further away from home. We got the same caravan back together, with Mark serving as the great white hunter and leader, Sue serving as his beautiful nature girl, and Nando was a lock for their feral nephew. We made camping reservations for a few days at Niobrara State Park at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers on Nebraska's northeastern border. It turned out to be a wonderful state park with rivers, woods, and hills that provided great vistas to gaze at and photograph. There were also decent bathroom/shower facilities near the campground. Mark, Sue and Nando slept in Mark’s tent and Pat, Rayna, Zeb and I slept in our tent. The park was indeed beautiful and we enjoyed it for the first two days. The hiking trails provided both easy strolls through the open plains and more challenging areas with steep grades through the forested areas. Pat and I still didn’t have very good cooking facilities, but Mark and Sue helped us with that. Imagine, Pat and Clark (both city critters) spreading our wings and embracing the wildlands and wild waters. It was all good.

During the evening of the second day Pat and I noticed the skies looked a little darker with some larger clouds. However, we enjoyed conversation around a campfire during that evening, which lasted until we all crawled into our tents and sleeping bags and almost instantly fell into a deep and rejuvenating sleep. Being in the wild seemed to be good for sleeping, or maybe that was only for me.

Unfortunately, we were awakened by some strong wind gusts that blasted and shook our tent. Pat and I peeked outside to discover that the moon was covered by thick dark clouds and the strong winds were ominous. It began raining soon after we zipped the tent door back up. Rayna and Zeb were worried and we tried to reassure them that it would be fine. However, Pat and I were also worried. It continued to get worse, with extremely strong winds that required us to desparately hold the sides of the tent up with our arms and hang on to it as hard as we could. Rayna and Zeb were terrified, especially when the severe thunder and lightning seemed to attack us. Needless to say, we made it through that stormy camping ordeal. However, we and many of our possessions got wet and we were not feeling good about camping anymore.

The intrepid campers:
Nando, Clark, Rayna, Sue, Zeb.
Pat was the photographer and
I don't know where Mark was.

However, by the next summer we had gotten over the camping storm trauma and Mark, Sue and Nando were planning another trip to Niobrara State Park. However, this time we suggested that we reserve a cabin in the park for about 3 days or so. The rugged cabins that we expected turned out to be very well appointed with a kitchen, table and chairs, four bedrooms with beds and mattresses, a screened in porch, and a bathroom and shower. Okay, this is the kind of camping that Clark and Pat could embrace – not all the comforts of home, but damned close. Of course the most important thing was that those cabins provided solid roofs and walls that withstood the wind and rain! There was also a fire pit area where we could pretend we were camping in the wildlands. Hey, this camping trip was guaranteed to be trauma free! At least that was what we thought.

Mark, Sue and Pat

The first day we arrived we did some hiking in the plains area of the park and then sat around the fire pit in our camp chairs enjoying the beautiful starlit sky and conversation. It was a wonderfully relaxing evening and we all got a good night’s sleep indoors on what were possibly Sealy Posturepedic mattresses.

Rayna and Pat

There was a steep forested valley behind the cabin area of that park. On the second day, we discovered a very narrow path that led down into that valley and we decided to explore it. We all trudged down the path and discovered several branching paths, some leading down and others leading up or horizontally along the valley. We wanted to see what was at the bottom of that valley, so we always chose the paths that led downward. When we reached the bottom of the valley, we discovered a river rushing along the valley floor. It was a very scenic river with lots of rapids, large rocks and some deeper pools were people could wade or swim. Nando, Zeb and Rayna stuck their feet in that water and discovered that it was way too cold to swim in. Anyway we spent some time along that river and had a wonderful afternoon. 

Rayna and Clark

We managed to find our way back from the river, up the valley paths to the campground area where we rested and had some supper. After supper we decided to take another walk down the valley paths and along the river. Evidently we were all young and strong enough to play survivor back then. We walked along the river for longer than we expected. Nando was busy trying to impress Rayna and Zeb was just being his normal goofy self. However, we were all having a nice time.  Sunset was approaching and we adults decided we should get back to the cabin. Rayna, Zeb and Nando did not want to go back yet. They wanted to hang around in the woods along the river a little while longer. Nando was a few years older than Rayna, who was about 15 at that time, and he said he absolutely knew the way back to the cabin and we made him recite the directions to us. We also made them all promise that they would begin the return walk within a half hour, before it got too dark. Then Mark, Sue, Pat and I returned to our cabin.

Niobrara State Park in Northern Nebraska

Unfortunately, the three juveniles did not appear at our cabin on time and we began to worry. However, we expected they would soon show up. That didn’t happen, and it was getting fairly dark so Mark and I took our flashlights, hurried down into the valley, and walked along the river to the area were we had left them. They were nowhere to be found. We hurried back to the cabin area hoping we would find them, but they had still not shown up there either. Needless to say, we were all very worried now! Mark was sure that Nando would lead them back to the cabin, but it was really dark by then and they were still presumably lost in the woods with (by-the-way) no flashlights, and of course no cell phones back then. Or, they could have gotten linked up with some sleazy characters who had their own plans for the kids. We had seen two sketchy-looking guys fishing on the river before we had returned to the cabin. Mark and I took our flashlights to the river again and walked in the other direction thinking that they might have walked beyond the path to the cabin area, but we still could not find them. Eventually, we returned to the cabin, where Pat and Sue were frantic. Those kids had been missing for several hours, and we were about to contact law enforcement for help. We were all very stressed out.

Suddenly three very tired explorers walked up to our cabin. They had indeed gotten lost in the woods because it had been too dark by the time they finally decided that they should get moving. They missed the path up to the cabin area and continued to walk along the river, which (luckily) eventually took them to a highway. Nando chose the correct direction for following the highway a short ways and then recognized a road that led toward the park. It took a while but Nando found a way back to our cabin in the park, although it was a very long hike. We were still traumatized but extremely relieved when we saw them. They had no flashlights in that pitch dark woods, but they occasionally used Rayna’s Timex indiglo watch light to help them. Since then she always wears indiglo watches.

Niobrara State Park in Northern Nebraska

We stayed another night at Niobrara State Park, but that was the last time Pat and I ever went camping. We don’t miss it – not a bit.

Bill, I don’t remember for sure, but I don’t think I ever told you this story before. However, I seem to remember that you and your family did some camping back in the day. I would like to hear about it sometime.

Take care.

Sincerely Clark

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Superior Ocean

Hi Bill

Today I decided to write about my family’s first trip to Duluth and Lake Superior.

During the early summer of 1993, Pat and I threw Rayna and Zeb into our small car and headed for Duluth for the first time. After living on the South Dakota plains for about 10 years and 6 years in Cincinnati and Omaha, we desperately needed a sojourn at a large body of water. Lake Herman and Lake Poinsett were just not providing the water therapy we needed. We didn’t need to swim in an ocean of water to wash away the years of prairie life. We just needed to see an ocean of water and spend time with it.

Luckily someone told us there was an ocean-like lake called Superior up north in Minnesota. We crammed the kids and lots of essential (and unessential) vacation stuff into the car and headed in a northeasterly direction. We had never visited northern Minnesota before and it was an interesting 340-mile drive across the plains and eventually into the forested northern hills that spit us out near a visitor’s center at the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of Duluth. We were mesmerized by the magnificent view of a body of water that certainly had to be an ocean. We had heard and read about Lake Superior and knew it was the largest of the Great Lakes. However, nothing could have prepared us for the sudden and incredibly stunning view of Duluth spread along a steep ridge leading down to Lake Superior on that sunny afternoon. That “ocean of water” beckoned to us as we picked up some tourist brochures and maps and then pointed the car toward it.

Post Card of Duluth, MN

As we drove down the ridge into an industrial-looking city with lots of bridges and a water front area, it reminded Pat and me of our beloved Pittsburgh. However, Pittsburgh’s rivers and bridges did not equal the beauty of that monstrous inland ocean. Unfortunately, we needed to keep expenses down so we had made reservations at a Comfort Inn that was not on the lake. 

Rayna and Clark on the Lake Walk in Duluth, MN

After checking into the hotel we drove to Canal Park, a well-developed lakeside tourist area, and we did plenty of walking and sitting along the lake walk that afternoon and evening and on several succeeding days. We just hung around and sat on benches and enjoyed the sights and sounds of that powerful lake communicating with us and soothing our ocean-deprived lives on the plains. There were even seagulls to amuse us, especially Rayna and Zeb who also enjoyed climbing over the large rocks and running from the waves on the beaches.

Sea Gulls and a Shopping Area 

Of course the Canal Park area provided lots of interesting and entertaining tourist activities in addition to many nice hotels. There were many shops that provided local art, souvenirs, and other retail therapy experiences, including a Duluth Pack store were we bought some warm sweatshirts because we discovered that it is very cool in early spring in Northern Minnesota, especially during evenings. Obviously we were not educated travelers back then. Just jump in the car and drive! Canal Park also contained family/kid-friendly tourist areas along the channel into the harbor. We took Rayna and Zeb inside a huge freighter that was permanently docked in the harbor for tourists to enjoy. Also we all enjoyed a tourist boat ride around the harbor and out a ways into the lake.

Zeb, Rayna, Clark on the Channel Wall in Duluth

The Channel from the Lake to the Harbor
The most compelling experiences in Canal Park were when we joined crowds that gathered to greet behemoth cargo ships and other vessels that entered the channel leading from the lake into the harbor. We lined up with other visitors along the channel wall to greet those ships and wave at their crews as they made their way through the channel and under the famous lift bridge that raises a section of highway into the air (backing up automotive traffic on both sides of the channel) enabling the ships to creep under the bridge and into the harbor. Watching those ships arrive from locations all over the world is an experience we still enjoy when we visit to Duluth.

Pat and Clark at Lake Superior

We spent a couple of days in Duluth exploring the town that spreads from lakeside up a very steep ridge and then on the plateau above. We certainly noticed that downtown Duluth had seen better days, like many other industrial cities. However, Pat and I were quite accustomed to gritty industrial cities and we felt very comfortable there.

Of course, we spent most of our time in Duluth along the lake. There was a very nice lake walk that allowed us to walk along the shore from Canal Park north toward the downtown area of the city and then up the ridge a little to another engaging and intriguing lakeside area that included the Fitger’s Brewery complex, which had mostly been converted into a shopping/restaurant area. We also walked beyond Fitger’s through the rose garden and beyond. That fabulous view of that huge and beautiful lake was always beside us.

Clark, Pat, Zeb, Rayna about to board
the North Shore Railroad for a trip to
Two Harbors 
Our train at Two Harbors

There was lots to see and do in Duluth, but we decided to also see some of the north shore, i.e., the area along Lake Superior north of Duluth. Therefore, Pat took the kids (including me) for a ride on the North Shore Railroad that runs north from Duluth to Two Harbors. We had a wonderful time on the train and Two Harbors turned out to be a charming little lakeside town with lots of tourist attractions, and an industrial port area. We drove back to Two Harbors the next day and spent more time there. It was, and still is, an industrial, but charming, little lakeside city that caters to tourists. We all liked visiting the light house and walking out on the breakwaters (stone and concrete walls that extend from shore out into the lake) which probably protect the harbor and shore from serious damage during bad storms. However, I don’t really know what exactly they do, but they definitely define a harbor area and they provide paths and perches for tourists like us to walk on them way out into the lake. They also provide places to sit on out in the lake. We all loved walking, and sitting, on them while just communing with the lake and each other. Two Harbors is a nice little town full of friendly people and over the years it became one of our favorite vacation spots on the North Shore.

Rayna, Zeb and Pat on a breakwater near Two Harbors

Rayna, Zeb and Clark on a breakwater in Two Harbors

Post Card of Two Harbors 

Other attractions that we visited during that first trip to Duluth and the North Shore included Split Rock Light House and Gooseberry Falls State Park. Split Rock Light Station served as a guide to iron ore ships on western Lake Superior from 1910 to 1969, but now it is maintained as a historic site. It’s was fun to take the kids inside and climb to the top of the lighthouse to see a truly wonderful view and think about its history. Gooseberry Falls State Park provides a terrific wilderness experience with lots of wooded walking trails and an amazing falls.

Our photo of Split Rock Light House

That first visit to Duluth and the North Shore with Rayna and Zeb established our standard vacation spot for many years. In fact we like it very much and still visit it as often as I can force my tired and worn-out body to make the trip.

Rayna and Zeb below Split Rock Light House


Bill – I would love to take you to Lake Superior north of Duluth and just explore and enjoy the woods and lake. I think you would enjoy getting a break from the Philadelphia area.

Take care.

Sincerely Clark