Camping provided some of the best adventures of my youth. My parents encouraged sleeping outdoors. When summer came, they practically expected us to. With a blanket over a line strung between two trees and a slab of pasteboard for a floor, I could quickly make a tent. Wind would always take it away in a matter of hours, but I was usually able to find the blanket in a neighbor’s field the next day.
In winter, we were allowed to sleep out if it wasn’t below zero, but only if we slept between two fires. Given that my maternal grandmother was born in 1884 in a sod hut in Kansas, my own parents kept close to the land and raised a bus-load of organic children as well.
My other grandmother owned a camp on Porter Lake in New Vineyard, Maine. By the mid-1960s, when my cousins Danny and Rusty, and I, were in our teens, we roamed the woods with no limits. We routinely equipped ourselves with an axe, a .22 rifle or two, and lots of rope and nails and stuff.
If it was raining hard enough to discourage doing something constructive, we might walk the roadside and shoot bottles in the ditch. This was before the returnable-bottle law. On a better day, with the axe and rope, we built a crude log cabin. Really crude. So crude that one mild winter afternoon we snowshoed out to it and discovered a bear hibernating against the outside wall instead of inside, where it was nice and dark with only a couple inches of standing water under a delicate skim of ice. (We never slept in it either.)
If it seems as though all our outdoor activity involved preparing for sleep, that would be correct. But as much as we attempted it, sleep was actually what we spent the least time doing.
The summer I was 14 and still a couple years from owning my own canvas canoe, the flotsam in the cove by our camp included someone’s dock, liberated by the winter’s ice. Rusty and I converted it into a raft, and with a couple long oars from under the camp, we had ourselves a functioning watercraft. (There was never a motor boat at that camp.)
Five hundred yards from our shore lay the only island in Porter Lake, cigar-shaped, 200 yards long, and uninhabited. One night during the summer of the raft, Rusty and I loaded it with gear and set out to camp on the island. Just as we were unloading at the island’s near tip, a persistent drizzle began. We built a fire under some sheltering pines and prepared our meal: hot dogs stabbed with sharp sticks.
The rain grew steadier and drenching. With the fire consuming far more wood than we were prepared to feed it, we stood on opposite sides of it, so close to the flames that we each had steam swirling from the fronts of our denim pantlegs while the skin on our thighs blistered. We kept the flames high, the sparks rising against the downpour, but we knew the wind and rain were going to quench it before long. In those days, sleeping bags, even the Boy Scout kind, were made of cotton cloth with layers of cotton batting. With no waxed cotton (canvas) tent for shelter, we were not tempted to crawl into that bedding and lie all night on the saturated ground.
In the distance the rain was building to thunderstorm intensity. As darkness closed heavily upon us our determination to tough it out weakened. Then we heard shouting from the direction of camp. It was my father, and the best we could tell, he was calling us back. So we jumped onto the raft and, standing on opposite sides of it, drove the oars into the lake as hard as we could. The chop in the water kept the deck of our craft ankle deep and washed all our gear into the depths, so we must have appeared to be gliding Jesus-like over the lake. We drove onward, two barefoot boys without life jackets, standing like lightning rods on the sides of a crawling but invisible raft.
It was a violent storm, our craft heavy and slow. Lightning was striking every few seconds, first near the camp, then on the island, then in the distance, then fore and aft of us again, conveniently lighting our way. We could easily see my dad, standing on the shore, waving and shouting. We shouted back.
It must have taken half an hour to plow across the lake. When we jumped off onto our own camp shore we were hustled inside and given hell. From the start, my father had been trying to tell us to stay on the island no matter what.
A couple years and many camping adventures later, my other cousin, Danny, and I were somewhere in the western Maine woods on a hike. We were going to stay out a couple nights, exploring and foraging. We packed light: A two-man tent, a bedroll and knife apiece, matches (always matches), and a hatchet. Between us we also had a compass, with which we had no practical skill.
The first night out, we were following the Sandy River, with appropriately sandy banks, very pretty. We found a narrow beach along the rivercourse, just wide enough to allow for a small fire that we could squat beside, and above that spot, about eight feet straight up an embankment kept vertical by a web of exposed wiry roots of shrubs and saplings, was a flat space just big enough for our tent.
No rain threatened this time. After goofing around and swearing because we hadn’t brought any food and foraging had provided only unpalatable mystery berries, we climbed the bank, set up the tent, and turned in. For a while, we lay with our feet toward the drop-off, figuring that would be safest. But the ground turned up steeply at the back edge of the tent site, so we were lying side-by-side, our bodies on the flat spot but with our heads against the bank, our necks bent, chin-on-chest.
We agreed: I would rotate a quarter turn one way, Danny a quarter turn the other way. Side by side still, but head-to-toe, we were finally comfortable. Danny was nestled against the embankment, away from the brook. I was comfortably away from the precipice where it dropped off to the little beach.
Some time far into the night, I was aware that we had a visitor, sniffing and shuffling outside the tent. Very close to my head, in fact. I couldn’t tell whether Danny heard it or was still asleep. His foot next to my ear lay perfectly still. So I decided on my own to get a closer look. Groggy from sleep, I raised myself with one arm and, with the other, I fumbled awkwardly with the zipper.
I forgot that we had rotated 90 degrees, and when I chanced to lean against the side of the tent, the better to manage the zipper, there was suddenly nothing beneath me.
In total darkness, as the free-falling tent yanked him over the edge, Danny spun past above me and far out over the brook, trapped in his bedroll and on his way to a soft landing in about a foot and a half of water. He came to rest, which in this case is a totally inappropriate word, with his head downstream in a fast-moving torrent, wrapped in a tight snarl of blanket and tent shroud. Also still in the tent, I landed hard on my chest and broke a rib. But as Danny was coming to and trying to roll out of the brook onto the beach, my belly began to appreciate the residual heat of a dormant campfire. I tried to scramble past him and into the brook to cool my blistering navel.
Somewhere in our half-submerged struggle, Danny kneed me in the face and set my nose bleeding, which lasted for several days. We both stood up in the brook at about the same time and tore our way out of our dripping cocoon. Huddling on the narrow beach at two in the morning, we were equally slow to apprehend the fresh, strong odor of a severely-frightened skunk, so stunningly out of place next to the gentle music of the stream, an olfactory accompaniment like someone throwing up at a child’s violin recital. Which is what I did next. Danny followed suit.
We had hiked for hours to get to this idyllic setting. Now we couldn’t agree which way would be the quicker way to go to get us out to a road. Nor were we quick. I was unable to draw a breath deeper than a sidewalk crack. Danny had one knee that had swelled so big he had to cut his jeans open with a hunting knife, to give it space, and in the total darkness he slit his shin in the process. Abandoning our gear, we hobbled and stumbled our way through the moonless forest, falling often, over and into obstacles and onto one another.
It was daybreak when a sheriff’s deputy found us snoozing against a 45MPH sign, but he would not allow our stinking carcasses into his cruiser. If we had told him we had wrestled a poor defenseless skunk from the jaws of a bear, he might have believed it more readily than the real story. He called a friend of his, who gave us a ride home in the back of a pickup.
So, I have enjoyed camping all my life. These early episodes are what you call “experience.” Lots of kids nowadays are missing out on these opportunities. Now we drive them to their tent sites and provide 110-volt lighting. If they carry matches and knives they’re branded as dangerous. We make them sit down in the boat and wear life jackets. When they take a walk, we send them with “trail mix.”
That’s not experience, that’s like living on the set of Sesame Street.
I am grateful for real experience, and am reminded of a line attributed to Bill McKenna, a professional motorcycle racer, (Cycle magazine, February 1982): Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in one pretty and well preserved piece. The point is to skid across the finish line broadside, thoroughly used up, worn out, leaking oil and shouting, “Whooie – what a ride!”