I like to camp, or “camp out” as it was referred to in my youth. And I am a tent pitching, sleep on the floor camper at that. I became increasingly interested in camping as a means to extend my fishing trips, maximizing the time on the water and minimizing the time on the road. Camping was economical too, and I had portable, customized digs for a modest investment. Heck, I already had gas lanterns, stove, cooler and other useful camp gear like hatchets and folding wood saws from earlier family outings and excursions. And camping, in the days of gas rationing made even more sense. Still does, both economically and environmentally.
So as Johnny Cash once said, “I thought I’d seen myself a thing or two.” Well maybe I had, but not, as it turns out, compared to a couple of camping buddies, my dad and my son. My father, as was often the way of his generation, never spoke in too much detail about his experiences in the South Pacific in WWII, especially when my brother and I were young. But as the war took him and the rest of the 14th Army Corps island hopping from the Solomons to the Philippines, he lived in a tent for the most part. In the jungles. For three years. He knew about camping.
After graduating college, my son served three tours with the SCA (Student Conservation Association)’working on and eventually leading wilderness trail crews. This involved camping of course. For two years, from the deserts of California to the mountains of Montana. Most often, not in a tent, but on a tarp beneath the stars, or under the tarp beneath the rain. His grandfather would have understood. The tarp is unpleasant to snakes and and tarantulas (but not to kit foxes, desert campers take heed). In the movie True Grit, Rooster Cogburn used a lariat to the same end: snakes and tarantulas don’t much like the feel of rope either. Although my dad and my son “schooled” me on extreme camping, I reciprocated by teaching them (my father as a middle-aged man & my son as a child) a kinder, gentler camping, but nonetheless in places where the wild things roam, particularly fish.
My first tents were canvas, from pup tent to cabin tent. They were cumbersome and care intensive but economical and efficient enough. As a boy, the outdoor humorist Patrick McManus bought his first tent at an Army Surplus store (so did I), a two man mountain tent. He asserts that is was so named because it took two men to figure out how to pitch it and it was as heavy as a mountain. Modern gear is exponentially lighter in weight ( I use the same tent for backpacking & car camping), easy to care for and easier to store. That is enough about gear and technique right now, let’s focus the narrative on the nature of camping, the benefits you accrue from being outdoors for twenty-four hours a day, pretty much the definition of camping out.
I have done most of my camping on our public lands, usually state and national parks and forests. Just enough amenities to allow the camping to rise above the level of “Survivor,” but not enough to obscure the natural beauty that drew you there in the first place. Now within the boundaries of our public lands there are different types of camping available, from backpacking opportunities, to family friendly areas, to canoe or watercraft accessible locales. And within each type there is usually a choice or two of type of sites, from primitive, with minimal amenities (read pit toilet, no shower) to family sites with picnic tables, grills and electric, heated showers and restrooms, to trailer sites with full hook-ups and dump station. They all offer a different experience as far as creature comforts and wilderness feel are concerned, but if you have chosen your destination wisely, they all do the trick.
A correct destination is one that offers reasonable access to your favorite nature related activity. For me, that means fishing, so my campsite is most often located near fishable waters, from mountain streams to sprawling lakes, to the sea. Many public lands have websites or online brochures detailing the outdoor opportunities available, flora and fauna and significant natural features. So whether you are a bird watcher, hiker, photography buff, angler, kayaker or canoeist, you can lay out your own personal itinerary. And unlike most day trips, your camping can keep you engaged 24/7 if you chose.
The fishing situations I encounter vary by time of day, and the experience at dawn is different than at dusk, with both being different from mid day hours. But all are easily experienced while camping out, often in the same day, often within walking distance of the campsite. Naturalists, particularly photographers, will also have varied experiences as well, due to light and temperature changes, fauna activity periods, etc. Camping can afford wonderful opportunities to observe nocturnal creatures, such as bats, owls, raccoons, possum and more. And the same trail you hiked at two in the afternoon, will look different as darkness falls, or before day arrives. If you don’t spend a lot of time in nature at night, you’ll be tickled to find how quickly you can recover your night vision. And night vision optics can add yet another dimension to your wanderings about, or even while just gazing into the woods from your tent.
As with so many pursuits, the more you put into your nature camping adventure, the more you may get out of it, in terms of unique experiences or encounters. For example, one early morning fishing excursion while camping along the Doe River on Roan Mountain in Tennessee comes to mind. After landing and releasing a beautiful brown trout from a plunge pool, I clambered up onto a stream side boulder to warm my legs with the rising sun. As I gazed over the meadow behind me, I watched some whitetail deer grazing in the mist shrouded field. Gradually the misty fog dissipated, and revealed three dozen deer, buck, doe and fawns, literally a herd. The largest grouping of deer I have ever seen, even to this day. And within a quarter of a mile from the campground! Deer are a familiar stream side bonus at dawn and dusk, although in the fall I have waded around a bend and come upon deer standing in the stream drinking at mid-day also.
A little further south, in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, in the North Carolina section, I had a singular wildlife experience right within one of the camping areas. This occurred while fishing a high banked section of the Oconoluftee River adjacent to the Smokemont Campground where we had pitched our tents. The fat fallfish and scrappy rainbow trout would have made the morning memorable enough, but a coyote added an additional flourish. As I waded and boulder-hopped my way upstream, I found myself following a coyote who was foraging along the stream bank and headed upstream and upwind. Just as I slowly fished the runs, riffles and tiny pools of the river, the coyote seemed in no rush, and did not alter his upstream progress for half an hour. He finally turned and trotted downstream passing by this inanimate angler without a glance before crossing the river at a gravel bar and heading back to his den I suppose.
On another trip to this region we visited the popular (read often crowded) Cades Cove area of Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Observing the abundance of human fauna, we left the relative crowded conditions on the loop road and hiked up a side trail. My son and I spent several hours locating, photographing and identifying colorful salamanders on a a quiet ridge above the Cove. Once you are camped out in a park, it is easier to be flexible and spontaneous with your itinerary, and let nature take you where it will.
Of course, you can always give nature a hand along the way. One summer my son and I were on a camping/fishing trip in Michigan’s Waterloo-Pinckney Recreation Area. This area abounds in natural beauty, and among others, is home to a couple of interesting critters; the Massasauga Rattlesnake and the Sand Hill Crane. While most visitors are not that anxious to stumble upon the former, encounters with the Sand Hill’s are much sought after. There are even guided trips to catch a glimpse of them, not dissimilar in many ways to the coastal whale or dolphin watch trips along our coasts. But if you are camping, and have 24/7 access to the natural world, there are other opportunities as well.
My son is a distance runner, and while I prepared a camp meal one evening, he took off on a training run along the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. About five miles in, he came upon not one, but a group of Sand Hill Cranes, actively engaged in their distinctive and elaborate dance. A singular occurrence to be sure, but one that he duplicated after hitting a predetermined turn around point, as he passed them again on his way back to camp. I cannot guess what the cranes thought of the encounter, but it certainly made an impression on my son. Now, this type of experience could logically be replicated by hikers, but I tried here to no avail. Perhaps a fast moving runner was more in step with their unique choreography than my hiker’s footfalls.
Camping out in our parks and forests, both in my home state and throughout the country when opportunity presented itself, has yielded many fond memories. Watching eagles soar in the Little River Canyon in Alabama or ravens soar in the Grand Canyon in Arizona; listening to the loon’s plaintive cry in Maine or a bull alligator’s bellow in Georgia or Florida; viewing sea otters and gray whales off our Pacific coast; manatees and moon jellies in the Gulf; or bottle nose dolphin and sea turtles along the Atlantic, are all opportunities that you can increase your odds of experiencing by staying outdoors 24/7. And that’s really the point of all this; the more time you spend in nature, the more experiences you will accrue. And to me, one of the most pleasurable ways of accessing that 24/7 window, is through the zippered flap on my tent. See you under the stars!