Travel Story: Rotten Weather, Camping with Incompatible People
The second installment of the travel series starts with the first leg of my 2022 road trip with my husband and flashes back to the story about my canoe trip in 1978, which was introduced in my last post.
Sowulo Rune, June 21, 2022
The sun lit the night sky late into the evening of the Summer Solstice. After a glorious sunset over an alpine lake, the horizon glowed with the halo of the sun’s most northern reach. Nestled into a secluded campsite in the Black Hills National Forest, our campfire glowed, taming the chill night air—a welcome relief from the baking heat we experienced driving across the plains. I continued to reflect on the Sowulo (Sun) Rune that I’d drawn that morning … its elemental energy and its symbolism. Sitting around the campfire, I recalled a fable about the Sun and Wind that I learned as a child. It goes like this:
The Wind and Sun were having an argument about who was the strongest. Certain of being the victor, Wind challenged Sun to a contest. Looking down at a man sitting on a park bench with his coat open, Wind declared, “Let’s see who can blow that man’s coat off first.” Eager to prove superior strength, Wind blasted the man relentlessly. In response the man clutched at his coat tighter and tighter. Eventually, Sun stepped forward, radiating warmth and light with growing intensity. The man grew hot and shed his coat.
BWCA Canoe Trip 1978
The next day, my mind kept wandering back to Bobbi’s note and the 8-day canoe trip we took in the summer of 1978. Seeking reflective solitude after we’d kayaked around the lake, I wandered from our campsite, through an alpine meadow toward the lake. In a flat, shady spot with a view, I set up my camp chair and started jotting notes about my 1978 camping trip. Twenty minutes later, I’d filled two pages with vivid memories that flooded to the surface.
The Characters: We were a random group, who didn’t really fit together. Bobbi’s husband spearheaded the plan. He’d canoed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) before and knew all about getting permits in January and the logistics for reserving gear (note: pre-internet era). We held meetings throughout the winter to plan our summer trip. As was often the case in our 20s, friends who were gung-ho when the trip was theoretical, flaked out at various stages along the way. Shortly before our departure date, the planning team had dwindled from eight to four: Bobbi, her husband, my ex-husband, and me. Our reservations were for eight, so both couples recruited others. In the end, we added Bobbi’s husband’s Frat Brother (AKA fishing fanatic), my high school friend (Becky), Becky’s friend, and her friend’s boyfriend.
The Plan: Given that everyone had different goals and preferences for what to do once we got into the Boundary Waters, we decided to travel into the wilderness together and set up a basecamp on an island. Then everyone could take day trips to do what they wanted … fishing, hiking, canoeing, exploring. We mapped a loop that involved crossing four lakes with three portages between them. The distance involved one night of camping on the way in and another on the way out. Plus, it crossed the international border between the US and Canada, where we’d need to show permits and ID, plus subject our bags to inspection for any prohibited items.
Between the eight of us, we owned three tents: two 3-person tents, and one 2-person pup tent. To minimize the weight and bulk during portaging, we decided to fit the eight campers into the three tents.
Since I was studying to become a dietitian, the group put me in charge of planning the food. (I didn’t know anything about planning rations for back-country camping). Dehydrated camp food was emerging technology then … very expensive and not very appetizing. No one wanted to bring dehydrated food. We couldn’t take any perishable foods, and some food packaging (e.g. glass) was prohibited. I came up with cheese, dried fruit, nuts, granola, dense whole grain bread, peanut butter and jelly pouches, plus rice and dried beans to cook over the fire. Everything was stored in ziplocks and plastic containers. Not a lot of variety. I struggled to estimate the quantities needed to feed eight people.
What Went Wrong? Our first challenge was that some members of our party had very little or no canoeing experience. They inefficiently meandered across the lakes, bogging the whole group down and tiring themselves.
The first portage (a short one) was miserable. With both hands occupied carrying gear, it was impossible to swat away the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats. Our arms ached; we sweat. We hauled our loads over fallen trees and hacked through undergrowth. Deep Woods Off did not protect us from the incessant onslaught of insects that left stinging welts. Everyone and all our gear emerged on the next lake landing, but we agreed that we had brought too much stuff. The second portage was twice as long and equally unpleasant.
Before our last portage, Bobbi accidentally tipped the canoe she was in. All the gear in that canoe got wet, but nothing was completely soaked and everything was retrieved. The more experienced canoers had gotten ahead when the mishap occurred. That dynamic created the first rift in the group’s cohesion. By the time we finally arrived at the island and set up basecamp, nerves were frayed.
Then the rain started. Before we could get all the tents pitched and fire started, a downpour pelted our campsite. The Frat Brother opted out of camp set-up to fish (foreshadowing his teamwork for the rest of the trip). He returned to camp soaking wet just as we finished the work and were trying to cook dinner. Because he didn’t help us pitch camp before the rain, Bobbi and her husband’s tent (where he was sleeping) did not get set up properly. Between the canoe capsizing and the tent leaking, their bedding was drenched by Day 3.
The rain continued for the next six days. Sometimes, in downpours. Other times, in a gentle but steady patter. Occasionally, it lightened to a drizzle or mist. The rain continued to ebb and flow relentlessly … until departure day. We were never able to air-dry wet gear. When our jeans, socks, sweatshirts, and sleeping bags got soaked, they never dried out.
How We Coped: In a nutshell … not very well. Close quarters in constant rain, our mismatched group did not enjoy each others’ company. Unable to branch out and pursue separate activities, we were cooped up together, bored as we laid around in tents. Sometimes we mixed up the sub-groups who gathered in different tents. In our better moods, we played cards, told stories, and giggled.
Becky liked to goof around, sometimes quite loudly. For example, she repeated howled at the top of her lungs, “It’s not raining, it’s only heavy d-e-e-e-e-w-w-w-w!” Around the 30th time, I felt like punching her. She was sleeping in the tent with me and my ex-husband (who didn’t know or like her very well). I usually got a kick out of Becky’s brazen tomboy spirit, but that trip she got on my nerves.
No one liked the food. We didn’t get to cook many of the meals that I’d planned because it was impossible keep the fire going long enough. A few times, I managed to coax enough fire and coals to make grilled cheese sandwiches. We ended up trekking most of the dried beans and rice back out of BWCA! I felt like I let my camp-mates down in the meal-planning department (and didn’t enjoy the food either).
When I got down to my last precious pair of dry socks, I recalled a technique that my mom taught me to keep my socks dry when we camped in my childhood. She slid old bread bags over our dry socks before putting wet sneakers on our feet. I shared this technique with my camp-mates. That kept everyone’s feet dry for a day or two longer. Then one stir-crazy afternoon, laying around our tents, Becky went running around the campsite in her socks and plastic bags shouting, “Moon boots! We have moon boots!” Everyone joined her in a rare jovial mood. So much for dry feet and clean storage bags!
How It Ended: The clouds lifted the morning we broke camp. We could shake things out and hang them up to dry for a while before packing. Damp, not soaked, was good. Although the trip had been a disappointment, we were ready to move on. The lakes glistened in the sun as we glided out of the BWCA. At our last campsite, I absorbed the pristine beauty of the lake country.
Unfortunately, I left my favorite hiking boots snuggled next to the campfire (where I’d hope they dry enough to wear). By the time I discovered they were missing, we were too far away to retrieve them. I missed those blue suede hiking boots for many years. They were smaller and lighter weight than most hiking boots in the 70-80s. Decades later I found a replacement pair, but have not forgotten those boots and all the other mishaps.
My friend Becky and I had a romping reunion in Ithaca, NY in 1997. I was pregnant with my second child when she rolled into town on her Harley. We drove around Lake Cayuga, went swimming, and laughed about that canoe trip. She died tragically a few years later in a freak swimming accident.
I lost touch with everyone else, except for Bobbi.
What I Learned: My experience camping in rotten weather with incompatible people, dampened my enthusiasm for rugged, wilderness adventures. I never returned to the BWCA—maybe that’s unfortunate because it’s certainly beautiful territory. Although, I still like to explore wilderness areas, my tent-camping days ended years ago. Our teardrop camper with a cozy, warm bed and pop-up kitchen offers a perfectly comfortable, outdoorsy experience. Glamping has its perks.
That said, this story reveals a few useful lessons for camping. First of all, be prepared for adverse weather conditions. When traveling in the wilderness, it’s vital to stay together and have a communication plan if separated. Never be disappointed if you bring waterproof shoes and rain gear but don’t need them! Keep food simple and flexible. Get everyone to buy into the menu and help.
This episode also reminds me that possessions come and go; old friendships are priceless. I fixated on my lost hiking boots and all the bad luck on that trip for way too long. Reminiscing with both Becky and Bobbi about that trip years and decades later makes all the unpleasantness seem irrelevant.
There’s also a major theme about teamwork in this travel story. Adversity undermines teamwork and can destroy relationships—don’t let it. And everything works better when everyone pulls their weight. A deck of cards or a pocket-size game like “Pass the Pig” can offer diversion and camaraderie that soothes raw nerves.
My biggest take-away is that camping, and travel in general, involves:
- Planning—Figure out the basics. Put paperwork and logistics in order. Try to learn about where you’re going and what you might need in the best and worst scenarios.
- Pivoting—Be prepared to shift course when the situation unfolds differently than the plan. Bring along back-up resources, just in case (food and water, rain gear, warmer clothes). But embrace the serendipitous possibilities that might come your way.
- Pursuing—When something strikes your fancy, follow it. Be curious and in-the-moment. Open up to inputs from people you meet who know the territory you’re discovering.
I’m lucky to be able to walk, hike, and kayak—enjoy these adventurous activities while I can.