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October 22, 2008

Why Camp?

Filed under: Opinion,Philosophy,Travel — Steve Hamlin @ 1:24 pm

Our campsite, Lake Ivanhoe CG, New Hampshire - July 2007Why shun the comforts of hotel, cottage or time share to sleep on the ground and bathe in a shared facility?

If choice of accommodations was simply a matter of comfort, camping would be off the menu.  Sleeping bags and folding chairs just don’t stack up to a king-size bed, wide-screen TV and hot tub.  For me though, comfort is only one consideration.  I don’t like being uncomfortable, but, beyond that, physical comfort’s not my primary concern.  Fortunately for me, Linda is reluctantly willing to leave those luxuries behind too.

I love camping.  I love waking up in the morning and being surrounded by nature.  Even walks to the toilet facilities become adventures.  This past summer, camping at Cobscook Bay State Park in Maine, I began carrying my camera, complete with 600mm lens, to the outhouse.  On two such errands, I spotted an elusive ovenbird, succeeding in photographing it once.  Warblers frequently pop out of the shrubs.  During the same stay, Linda had a terrific opportunity with a pileated woodpecker and her juvenile offspring as she walked to the outhouses.

Nighttime walks to the facilities can be magical.  Many of the places we visit are in remote settings with very little light pollution – even less than our own small town.  The night sky can be humbling in its display of uncountable stars.  Seeing the star-filled sky, while walking along a dirt road through the woods evokes something primeval.  It conjures deeply buried feelings; an instinctive connection to our ancestors.

Mornings are my favorite time, though.  I usually get up an hour or two before Linda.  I spend the time working at the picnic table with a pot of coffee brewing.  Unlike accommodations with solid walls, when I’m working in my office in the woods, I’m often interrupted by a bird call that demands investigation.

One such occasion happened on the first morning of our first driving trip south since being bitten hard by the birding and wildlife photography bugs.  We were staying at Kiptopeke, a Virginia state park on the Delmarva Peninsula.  Kiptopeke is situated on the Chesapeake Bay, just to the north of the bridge-tunnel to Norfolk.  I awoke shortly after daybreak.  Feeling euphoric at finally starting on the trip we had planned for months and filled with a sense of adventure, I set out to explore the park’s shore.

Heading in the direction of the water, I found a path and followed it through the narrow woods that separated the campground from the bay.  Emerging from the woods, I stopped to take in the vista before me.  To my left, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was strung with a garland of lights in the gathering dawn, disappearing in the distance.  While I stood watching, rafts of pelicans flew effortlessly, low over the water from north to south, towards the bridge-tunnel.

After a few minutes watching the pelicans, I continued along the path, which had become a boardwalk.  It led me to a dock that extended out into the bay.  A hundred yards or so beyond the end of the dock, several ships’ hulls lay low in the water, having been partially sunk in the 1940′s to form a breakwater.  On the north side of the dock, about halfway along its length, a large round structure poked out of the water, separated from the dock by about fifteen yards of water.

The off-shore structure appeared to be a ring of pilings, lashed together and filled with concrete.  It had probably been built to moor the ferry that had used the dock in the years prior to the construction of the bridge-tunnel.  Its flat top was now festooned with a large osprey nest.  As I watched, a head appeared in the nest.  Soon, an osprey flew in, landing to join its mate.  It carried several branches in its talons to add to the nest.

I watched a couple of rotations of the pair, as one fussed around the egg that apparently lay just out of sight and the other flew off, returning with nesting material.  It was the closest I had ever been to an active osprey nest.  Its nearness, combined with the unusual fact that the nest was close to eye level, and the ospreys’ apparent lack of concern about my presence was exciting.  I wanted to share the experience with Linda, so I left to tell her about it.

We returned together and photographed the ospreys’ activity for an hour or so, watching all the while for other interesting opportunities.  In the end, we came away with an excellent collection of photos – a great start to our trip.

Later in that same trip, while camping at Fort DeSoto, off the tip of the St. Petersburg Florida peninsula, we had early morning visits by a curious great blue heron, a white ibis, and, to Linda’s great excitement, a reddish egret.

This past summer, during our stay at Cobscook Bay in Maine, I arose the first morning at my customary time.  Soon after emerging from the tent, I heard a twittering in the trees to which I could attach no source.  Following the sound, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a dozen or so golden-crowned kinglets.  They flitted through the branches of the pines and spruces at, or just above the level of my head, gleaning tiny insects from the needles.  Moving swiftly in a cohesive group, they worked their way through the stand of trees I was in, quickly moving along the shore of the bay.

The word “camping” encompasses a broad spectrum of comfort levels, from the most basic of bivouac kits, light and compact enough to carry on one’s back for weeks on end, to the rolling luxury apartments that have become so numerous in some of our most popular destinations.  Linda and I fall somewhere in the middle in our choices.  We are tent campers, but we have made quite a few concessions to comfort.  Our current setup is akin to the base camps you might see on safari or the lower slopes of Mount Everest.

One of our biggest concessions to comfort is an air mattress.  I grew tired of sleeping on the ground or thin mats years ago.  At one time, I thought my tent camping days were over.  About fifteen years ago, I bought a queen-size Coleman air mattress that was on sale, hoping that it would be some small improvement over a foam mat.  Linda and I were amazed at the comfort.  It was not like the air mattresses that I had grown up with at all.  Since that purchase, an airbed has been a requisite part of our moveable home.

We’ve also left behind the small dome tent we used for years.  This past year, I bought a 9′ x 12′ cabin tent, advertised as accommodating seven people.  It’s just right for the two of us.  We’ve got room to stow our bags, change clothes standing up, and, perhaps most importantly, avoid contact with the walls.

In rainy weather, or even heavy dew, touching the walls of a tent defeats the water repellency of the fabric.  I remember the last night of one of our last trips with our little dome tent.  It began raining around 9:00 at night, just after we had finished setting up and fixing dinner.  It rained through the night and was still pouring in the morning.

Our airbed was a dry refuge in the pond that had accumulated in the tent.  The foot of my sleeping bag was soaked where it had been touching the sloping walls of the tent.  I rolled out of bed and landed in about an inch of water.  The only dry place to be was in our van.  We packed our belongings as quickly as we could – all soaking wet, of course.  By the time we were packed, we were soaked to the skin too.  We drove away hoping the van heater would dry our clothes.  It took about 100 miles of driving.

Our current tent allows us to avoid wall contact, and it has a durable waterproof floor, both conditions contributing to a generally drier experience.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend among campgrounds, especially state and national ones, toward gravel “tent-pads” – if not an oxymoronic concept, the application, at least, seems to be contradictory.  The gravel provides for improved drainage, but, far from “padding”, it’s very hard on fabric tent floors.

Besides our sleeping quarters, we’ve taken measures to ensure our comfort during our waking hours with a screen-house.  Our “living room”, the screen house affords us comfort and shelter while cooking and eating, working or playing cards.  Since our camping trips always revolve around photography, we need an “office” to be able to download and review our photos.  I’m usually working on a job while we travel too, so it’s important to be able to work without risking damage to my laptop computer.

Camping, especially when the weather cooperates, is a wonderful way to connect with the world around us.  With only a thin fabric barrier between us and the elements, we are immersed in the natural world, rather than insulated from it.  Camping allows us to extend our limited budget, expanding the scope of our explorations.  With the accommodations we now have, we can live and work effectively and in relative comfort, as we travel in search of wildlife photography opportunities.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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