By Chris Niskanen
My first taste of adventure occurred the summer of my seventh birthday, when I struck out for a nearby sawmill to climb a pile of sawdust. We lived in Oregon at the time, and I recall that the three-block hike to the mounds of old-growth fir chips seemed like the long road to China. It was my first summer roaming out of sight of my parents' watchful eyes. When the big saws at the mill quit in the late afternoon, the neighborhood kids swarmed the pile of fresh, sweet-smelling dust. It was our Everest. At dusk we wandered home, tired and smelling like sweaty little lumberjacks, our feet full of slivers.
I'm a Midwesterner now, with two daughters of my own. At midnight toward the end of summer, the scent of pine and balsam was heavy in the air again. The girls and I were camping on Lake Superior's North Shore, but we were in for a rough night. Lightning flashed over Temperance River State Park, where we had just pulled in after a five-hour drive. The warm, piney air had me thinking of sawdust and childhood adventures, but as a parent I was contemplating: motel, dry bed, Nickelodeon.
With the girls still asleep, I trotted through puddles to get a tarp out of the back of the pickup. I tried to select a level spot and be nonchalant and purposeful in setting up the tarp, but it was obviously folly to pitch a tent in the storm. I mumbled: should I bail on the campsite or torture us further with wet sleeping bags and fretful sleep?
Back inside the truck, the oldest stirred. "Where are we going to sleep?" asked my stepdaughter, Bailey, age twelve. She and my daughter, five-year-old Grace, were awake now, watching me fumble in the darkness for temporary shelter. That morning their mom had flown to Washington, DC, on a business trip, and in her absence I had announced that we would go camping.
"What do you say we sleep inside the truck tonight?" I proposed.
"Yea!" Grace shouted.
"I call the backseat," Bailey said.
It wasn't the first time during the weekend I wondered if I was wimping out as Outdoors Dad.
A few raindrops still tapped on the roof of the truck topper at 7:00 a.m. Grace and I were stretched out in sleeping bags in the bed of the truck; I looked through a foggy window at a verdant evergreen forest. Through another window I saw Bailey curled up, cocoonlike, in the backseat. I crawled out of the truck wearing boxer shorts and came face to face with a silver-haired woman walking a Pekingese. She smiled and continued her power stroll.
Around the camp cul-de-sac were Airstreams and Winnebagos and a few waterlogged tents. It was the first time I'd felt relaxed in weeks, even though the bottom of my sleeping bag had soaked up water during the night and felt like a soggy cotton ball.
We ate Cheerios out of plastic bowls, bought some firewood at the park store, and perused the gift shop. Grace broke into tears when she realized her favorite stuffed lamb was still at home, so we pored over the selection of stuffed animals amid the tourist sweatshirts and books about animal tracks. She picked out a puffy and friendly looking gray wolf. "I'll name him Pup," she said, and the day seemed a little sunnier.
The ground was still too damp to set up the tent, so we wandered down to the beach, a rough shore of pebbles gradually increasing to cobblestone and driftwood. Waves crashed against the pebbles, spitting up freshwater spray that twinkled against the warming sun. Propped against a log, a woman with tousled hair read a thick book. Two boys chased waves while their parents, exhaustion moderately camouflaged by sunglasses and floppy hats, sipped from coffee mugs. Was there any better place to be after a thunderstorm?
The girls made a beeline for a fort made of scarred, barren driftwood, decorated with gull feathers by an imaginative mind. Bailey and Grace climbed the driftwood and jumped into a pit inside the fort. I thought to say something about slivers but changed my mind.
The beach was deceitfully fascinating, and the morning sped away like the scudding clouds left over from the storm. We filled our pockets with pretty rocks and studied tiny pieces of driftwood shaped like queer animals. A large, polished piece of bedrock was anchored on the south end of the beach, and the girls climbed atop and screamed when a crashing wave sprayed cold, clean droplets in their blond hair. Grace, nearly soaked, was incorrigible. She discovered a perfectly round hole carved in the middle of the exposed beach bedrock, curving downward to emerge as a smaller hole at ground level. She jumped inside, crawled to the exit hole, and dug to make it bigger. I snapped a picture of her scurrying out of the hole like a woodchuck. Pretty soon, she had attracted other ruddy faces to crawl in and out of the rock.
Returning to our campsite, Bailey sat at the picnic table and dutifully made PB and Js while I put together thin-shafted poles and erected the tent. Rays of light created spots of warmth along the picnic table, and I found a glowing space in which to eat my sandwich and close my eyes. Pretty soon I heard a zipper open on the tent and two lithe girls slipped inside, ostensibly for some sisterly roughhousing. After a few moments of tumbling and guffaws, there was silence. I opened my eyes and set about reading a three-day-old Wall Street Journal. I crumpled the stock listings, tucked the wad against a chunk of hard maple, and touched a match to it.
The campground was an afternoon mural of Americans at play. A church group of mostly boys crowded around a campfire and sang songs. Several twenty-something girls with thin, gauzy skirts propped their kayaks against an aging Toyota Camry with a rusty front panel. A man wearing a marine corps hat frowned while examining a dent in his fifth-wheel trailer. A couple astraddle a three-wheeled motorcycle rode through the campground, stopping to snap pictures of the surf and never-ending blue lake. We were too tired that night to cook the American campfire dessert—s'mores—and crawled into our sleeping bags under a cool, starry sky.
The next morning, we were back at the beach. I spied three middle-aged men standing awkwardly against a boulder; one wore a ponytail, another was dressed in Dockers. They seemed together in a familiar way, but their attention was elsewhere. The ponytailed guy took a vial out of his pocket and walked toward the water. When a wave crashed, he tipped the vial and fine dust floated away in the breeze. The Dockers man put his arm on the shoulder of the ponytailed man. They spent the whole morning at the rock, smoking cigarettes and staring into the blue horizon.
We went for a hike. The beach was a tumble of exposed bedrock, some formations looking like model pirate ships in silhouette, but soon the gravel narrowed and an outcrop of jagged rock faced us. The girls scrambled up a well-used trail, and then I saw Grace climbing, hand over hand, up the final short rock wall. I was about to yell my customary warning, but she had summited and Bailey was on her heels. They raised their arms, the Lake Superior wind whipping their hair, and I breathed two words: their Everest.
The evening meal was brats with bright yellow mustard and lily white buns, potato chips, baked beans out of a can. We wore fleece jackets around the campfire. The nip in the air caught my breath, and I put another piece of maple on the roaring fire. We toasted marshmallows but again were almost too tired to enjoy the blackened sugar mixed with chocolate and sweet, molasses-y crackers.
We crawled, single file, into the tent. I thought: perhaps I should tell them ghost stories or play a harmonica. Maybe I should insist on everyone reading a chapter from their book. Instead, I took out a laptop computer and unsheathed a copy of the Addams Family television show. While the monitor's warm glow filled the tent and Gomez and Morticia paraded through their marvelous house, I imagined John Muir rolling in his grave.
No matter. We were sleeping on the ground tonight. We had breathed deep of nature and felt the spray from Earth's greatest lake and walked among fine floral arrangements. Minutes passed, and I noticed two pairs of closed eyes. The tent was dark now, and a breeze tousled the primeval trees. From somewhere I heard the gentle surf.