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From the June 2014 Conservationist

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Photo: John Bulmer (header image); camping image provided by Eileen Stegemann

Back Trails

The Joy of Camping

By Eileen Stegemann

I grew up camping. Not the kind of camping you do today, with all the high-tech gear and comfortable equipment, but the kind with the heavy canvas tent that you swore weighed 200 pounds and took four adults almost an hour to set up! The poles alone required an engineering degree to assemble, and the process of setting it up was reminiscent of erecting a circus tent. Needless to say, once our home away from home was up, we'd stay put for awhile, free to explore the wonders of Mother Nature.

It's not that my parents were real outdoorsy people who loved to hike and camp, it's just that with a large family, camping was the affordable way to travel and vacation. And travel we did. Every summer we'd take a two- to three-week vacation to "See America" as my parents called it. We'd travel from campground to campground, exploring national historic sites in between-part of the educational experience according to my folks. But for me, the joy was in exploring the campgrounds: capturing lizards, stalking wildlife (usually chipmunks and squirrels), and collecting rocks to add to my growing collection. It was a child's dream.

An adult and several children in front of a tent and cooking implement

One year, we drove to Yellowstone National Park via New Orleans-just a tad out of the way from our starting point in New Jersey, but my father wanted to fit in a visit with my grandparents. Honestly, it's amazing we survived. Imagine 11 people traveling 5,400 miles in one station wagon. Back then you didn't have to wear seat belts, so the six youngest (me included) sat in the "way back." Let's just say, it wasn't always amicable.

When I was in fifth grade, my parents replaced the huge canvas tent with a pop-up. The set-up was a breeze, and it had all the modern conveniences: a stove, sink, refrigerator, table, and beds. As a kid, it was great: a traveling home from which you could still explore campgrounds.

During college, I was introduced to back-country camping. While I found hiking with all my gear a challenge, I loved camping in the wilderness. For the next decade, my husband and I camped a lot. Much of it was done in the Adirondacks, but we also stayed in numerous state and national parks, and even camped above the Arctic Circle.

When kids came along, we traded in our small pup-tent for a six-person dome tent and primarily stayed at campgrounds. Car-camping, where you could bring lots of gear and baby paraphernalia (including a porta-crib) became our new norm. Most times we'd go with friends, which made the experience all the more fun. The kids would head off together to explore the surrounding woods, collect frogs, and pick out sticks to toast marshmallows with. If the weather was bad, we'd hop in the car and head into the nearest town to see the sights and catch a meal. (Cooking in the rain is not as much fun as you might think.)

Two of our favorite family camping spots were DEC's Buck Pond and Indian Lake Campgrounds. With its small sandy beach, Buck Pond was especially great when the kids were young. Often we'd bring our canoes along and paddle and fish in the surrounding areas. As the kids got older, we spent more time at Indian Lake, where we'd pack everything into canoes and paddle out to a remote water site. We were often serenaded by loons, and were even treated to the northern lights on one occasion.

Camping was an integral part of our family life, but I have to confess that it's been about ten years since I last camped: older children, busier lives, and if I'm being totally honest, reaching the age where my body protests sleeping on the ground. But I know this is only a temporary hiatus from camping, and in fact my husband and I have plans when we retire to get a small camper, travel from park to park, and "See America."

I guess sometimes life does come full-circle.

Eileen Stegemann is assistant editor of Conservationist.