With great apologies to Rear Admiral David Farragut for appropriating his line (which he probably never uttered anyway), I took my own advice from my last post and went camping in a secluded spot this weekend – mosquito swarms and all. And my goodness… was it full of the bloodsuckers, but worth going despite them. The park I chose was in east-central Illinois – not exactly one’s first choice for “dramatic” scenery, but I am in the early stages of checking out a number of ‘short-hike’ backpacking locations for me and my wife to use in the future. This was trip #1. And what was nice about it was the fact that the campsite was indeed away from other people, and campsites.
The backpacking trail was relatively short – just 3/4 of a mile – but within a few steps of entering the trail I was accosted by all kinds of insects. I quickly returned to the car and just about doused myself in 23% DEET, which did help. At the end of the trail there are two campsites near a creek (the first four sites are within a hundred yards or so of the parking lot). With my pack still on, I checked out both, and decided on the one that had easier access to the creek, as it was more wooded, and a lot prettier too.
Upon arriving at the site, I spotted a great blue heron along the creek. My DSLR was still in my pack, and knew the bird was too far away to capture with my cell phone camera. It flew off, and I hoped I’d see it later (more on that below). I set up camp, with my new Quarter Dome 2 tent, which went up quickly and easily. I was also glad for the extra room of a two person tent that weighs less than many one person tents!
I oriented its location so that when one of the vestibules was open, I could see the creek from inside.
I did a bit of exploring next, looking around at the other campsite, taking some photos and just getting familiar with the area. It was definitely quiet – no one else around for at least a good 1/2 mile or more. Where my campsite met the creek, there was a sandy section that had built up, allowing easy access to the creek itself, and also sitting some two feet up from the creek level too. It was a gorgeous view, and I was glad to have gotten this campsite location.
I thought about going back and buying some firewood, but the thought of carrying sufficient wood 3/4 of a mile to have a decent campfire wasn’t particularly appealing. We’ve had a LOT of rain in this part of the country earlier in summer, and this location was no exception. The silt on the leaves of the underbrush was still evident – my site had clearly been submerged under 2 to 3 feet of water not all that long ago.
As a result of that, there were quite a few trees that didn’t survive the onslaught of water. One section along the trail into my site is a currently dry creek bed, but one that obviously has water in it during times of precipitation. There I found several recently-downed trees, and one had been dead long enough that its branches broke off with a simple pull. I dragged a few large limbs back, enough to make a fire to last an hour or so. I had to baton a few of the larger pieces, but most of it broke either in my hands or with a quick step from my foot.
After I got the fire going, I heated some water with the stove and poured it into the Mountain House Lasagna pouch. Immediately after doing so, a rather serious thought crossed my mind:
DID I HAVE ANY UTENSILS WITH ME!?!
No, not I did not. See, I had broken my spoon-fork after my last time out, and hadn’t replaced it. And I’d neglected tot even put a simple plastic fork or spoon into my backpack. How would I eat the food?
The interesting thing about backpacking, is when you need to do something, you find a way. I realized I could pour the lasagna, in small amounts, into my coffee mug, and then carefully shake bite-size portions into my mouth! So I did that, while I tended to my still-young fire.
After finishing the meal, and working the fire up to its hottest point, I heard the unlikely sound of voices. Looking up the trail, there were four younger guys – probably mid-20’s or so – hiking their way in.
Quick aside, and I’ll be blunt here: This trip was a little scary for me (emphasis on “little” – I wasn’t petrified by any means). This was my first time going camping “away” from anyone else, all by myself. My past backpacking trips were either with a group of people, or I camped in a “real” campground, with RV’s and tents all around. This was my first, “I’m not near anyone – no one will hear me scream!” trip. That’s why it was a short walk; it’s why I only did it for one night. But overcoming fears – even if a small one (it wasn’t an overwhelming one, just a, “Wow, I really am out here by myself” type thing), is important if I am to do more like this.
Anyway, here come the guys, one with a backpack on him, and one with what looked like a 20 or 30 quart cooler… on his shoulder! I was thinking, “Oh boy, this could be fine, or it could get sketchy really quick.” I first said, “Hey guys – how’s it going?” to break the ice, and they asked if there was another site. I directed them up the trail to the other location I didn’t care for, and they sauntered away that direction. I heard them occasionally at night, but the insects, frogs and owls were all louder than they were.
I managed to hang my dry sack with my food in it using the PCT bear-hang method. It wasn’t the prettiest hang, and I know I didn’t do the clove-hitch knot properly. BUT, I did hang my food, and felt pretty accomplished for having done so successfully, even if not ideally. It was probably only about 10 feet up or so – not high enough for a true “bear” hang – but then, I wasn’t in bear country, either. The only bears I was likely to experience were the mini (raccoon) and micro (mice) kinds.
I didn’t have a lot of firewood, and so I burned up what was left, and carried some water from the creek to douse the remaining embers and one large log. It took about eight trips with a 1/2 liter water bottle. Because the mosquitoes were all over me, I decided to head to the tent for some solace from them around 9:00 or 9:15. I knew it was early, and the sky wasn’t quite dark yet, but I didn’t mind resting in a bug-free zone either!
Before getting to sleep, I heard what I believe was an owl – first quite a distance away, and then I heard it RIGHT above me. I mean, it sounded like it could have been in the tree with my bag (it was probably farther, but it sounded VERY close). So I quietly got my phone out, and turned on the video recorder. It was 10:15 or so at this point, so there was no light in my tent, but I just let the recorder capture the sound of both the insect / frog cacophany – which was LOUD, by the way – and then this bird, which I assume was an owl (UPDATE: Reddit.com/r/whatsthisbird says it was a barred owl).
Owl sounds at 0:12, 0:39, 1:01 and 1:22.
I didn’t sleep particularly well – partly the noise outside being so darned loud, and other noises. I kept hearing a cow moo in the distance, which often was then followed by the sound of firecrackers, and then a dog barking. Random, I know, but it repeated more than half a dozen times in that same sequence. I also heard the occasional jet, which was weird, as I don’t know where there’s a nearby airport to there, infrequent motorcycle revving, and sporadically the four guys a few hundred yards away at the other creek-site, though they were by far the quietest of all the sounds.
Oh! Two things. One, I bought an MSR red light flashlight. BEST. INVESTMENT. EVER. It’s pricey at REI for what it is, but it is SUPER lightweight, very easy to hang in most any tent, and provides light that won’t kill your naturally-produced melatonin. The other thing is a water-spray fan I bought at Ace Hardware on an impulse buy. I didn’t put any water in it, but the fan runs on a single AA battery. It provided just enough airflow to cool me down after I got in the tent. I turned it off before I heard the owl hooting.
I woke up around 5:00 am, but didn’t actually look to see the time until 5:30, when I really had to visit nature as nature was calling my bladder. Taking care of that, I returned to my tent for another hour or so before getting up and getting ready to eat and then tear down camp. As I’d forgotten my utensil, I ate some beef jerky with cheese and a granola bar rather than the Mountain House eggs/bacon or biscuits with gravy that I’d brought along, as I couldn’t figure out how to eat them with my cup, which was full of Starbucks Mocha Latte coffee.
While enjoying breakfast, I spotted two great blue herons again. Both flew off, but one landed in a spot I could photograph it. It isn’t the greatest photo, as I had my ‘compromise’ 28mm – 105mm zoom lens, which didn’t quite have the reach I needed to really get this well. But I got something, and the more I do this, the more I will know what lens(es) to bring with me to capture interesting things when I hike.
After I packed up and hiked out, I drove around the property to see what else was there. The lake looked nice, and it was being used by a number of people fishing. I caught a bird flying in mid-flight (not sure what it is) along with some flowers I saw along the way. I didn’t care for the main campground there, as the sites were all very close together, so the backpacking locations will indeed be best.
This was a good experience. It gave me some reminders of things to do, it got my “feet wet” by doing my first solo away from other people, while being close enough to my car that I could bail on a moment’s notice if necessary, and it isn’t too far from home. I’ll probably be back here, though likely when it is cooler, and the mosquitoes aren’t so bad.
And I must remember to bring a utensil to eat with next time….