I always had a romantic view of camping. Something stirred in my soul as I pondered sleeping outdoors under the stars, cooking over a crackling campfire, watching waves lap lazily along a sparkling shoreline.
My first "camping" experience was with my dad. He and I, and later, my sister as well, were in the YMCA Indian Princesses program (now known as the Adventure Princesses program). It was special daddy-daughter time. We had great fun, especially during the seasonal weekend "campouts," which involved sleeping in cabins and eating in a large communal hall, playing games, tobogganing in the winter, and doing all kinds of crafts and outside activities. The dads built campfires where we sang songs, lit marshmallows on fire and ate s' mores. For my young self, it was a rugged outdoor experience. At least that's what I thought.
Then I went to Camp Windego, a Girl Scout camp in Wild Rose, Wis., for two-week stretches during a couple of summers. There, we slept in tents on wood platforms. I learned to build a campfire myself and cooked whole meals over it, eating things I never ate before. It's amazing what you'll eat when you're starving and there are no other options.
I learned to canoe and make floatation devices out of my wet clothes. I discovered that I disliked outhouses, especially in the middle of the night, although an outhouse was a major improvement over digging a hole in the woods for such purposes. I also learned that I truly didn't like mosquitoes or spiders, no matter what. They simply didn't fit my romantic view of camping.
Despite outhouses and bugs, I still dreamed of sleeping under the stars, and looked forward to "real camping" someday.
Fortunately, I married someone who loves the outdoors. He never camped as a kid, so we bought a little tent and went camping. It was fun to watch him enjoy the experience.
Fast-forward a number of years, and weekend camping trips became part of our family's summer ritual. For several years, we enjoyed the serendipity of rain-free camping. We grew more confident in our outdoor skills and purchased a beautiful tent that would sleep all five of us comfortably, with room to spare. We headed to Devil's Lake in Baraboo, Wis., for the tent's maiden voyage—an apropos description for the experience.
After setting up and admiring our new purchase, and then filling it with sleeping bags and gear, we built a fire and cooked dinner. Exhausted by the three-hour car ride, fresh air and activity, we snuggled in under a starry sky—the ultimate in camping romance. I remember thinking we forgot something.
Several hours later, I woke to popping bursts of light, crashing thunder and the sounds of three distressed kids. A stream of water poured from the roof seams onto my head.
I remembered what I forgot: One must seal the seams of a new tent to avoid leakage.
"Try to go back to sleep," I told the kids. That lasted for maybe five minutes, as our sleeping bags absorbed water that not only came from the ceiling, it flowed from the sides of the tent as well.
My husband and I stared at each other as lightening flashed again, wordlessly communicating an action plan. He got up, ran outside, started our vehicle and turned on the lights. With the kids loaded inside the minivan, he and I made record time tearing down the mud-covered tent and its sodden contents, stuffing everything into the trunk area. Within 10 minutes, we were on the road toward home, the kids sleeping soundly in the back seat.
Did my romantic notions about camping change after that experience? Heck, no.
When we lived in Minnesota, I was a Girl Scout leader, and volunteered to chaperone a summer overnight campout in August. The night was clear and the Perseid meteor showers were scheduled to be in full view, so we let the girls who were interested sleep under the stars.
The meteor shower was indescribable. We lay on the ground in our sleeping bags, eyes cast upward, trying to count the twinkling stars as they made their way across a velvet sky. My childhood dream was coming to fruition! The night air cooled. The girls' voices quieted one by one. Confident that they were finally going to sleep, my eyelids drooped.
Until someone screamed, "What was THAT?" I looked up. Then I heard it—a soft flutter.
Then I saw it. Or rather, them.
Of course, the bats were more interested in eating the mosquitoes and other nighttime bugs than bothering a bunch of girls in sleeping bags on the ground; however, the girls were unconvinced. They ran into their tents.
My idyllic image of sleeping under the stars ended. I became more pragmatic about camping—but not completely.
One Memorial Day weekend we headed to Minnesota's North Shore. I was excited to learn that there were campsites available right on the lakeshore. All practicality disappeared as I imagined sleeping next to the lake, the sound of the waves carrying into my dreams. (Feel free to insert a sigh here.)
However, I forgot something. Again. The average May low temperature in that area is 40 degrees—a whopping 8 degrees above freezing, often made colder when the wind comes off a recently defrosted Lake Superior. Throughout the night, one or another family member was up, shuffling in his or her bag to pull on one more sweatshirt, a pair of socks, even gloves. Only a crack-of-dawn fire and cup of hot chocolate helped alleviate the chill—as did sitting in the car with the heater on "high."
Our kids are grown now, and my husband and I both prefer sleeping on a mattress to not sleeping on the hard ground. We love being outdoors, but appreciate life's comforts as well.
Still, if I ever have the chance to sleep under the stars with my grandkids—I will do it. Bats and all.