It was warm when we left the house...
“Why don't we just have a fire in the backyard? Then we could sleep in our bed afterward,” Eric suggested. I shrugged, trying to come up with a good reason to sleep on the cold, hard ground instead of our nice warm bed. Recalling a Facebook post about exercising, and how nobody ever regrets a workout, I responded that there was no way we would look back on this weekend in the middle of the winter and regret staying inside on the last nice weekend of summer. Instead, we would regret NOTgoing camping, I assured him. And with that, he was convinced. So, at 5:30 pm, with the sun still shining down on us, we loaded up the car with all of the essentials.
Sorry for the ingratitude, Mom...
The “essentials” has a much different meaning now than it did when I was a kid. I loved camping with my parents, but I remember scoffing at the amount of stuff my parents tucked into the van to camp for a week. Snobbishly, I looked down on their air mattresses and their fold-up food-prep table (which they used to prepare the meals I was eating). I was a true camper, I told myself. All I needed was a change of clothes, and the pocket knife my grandfather had given me. With that, I was confident I could whittle a bow and arrow if I needed to. My brothers and I ran around with no shoes on and acted like we were born in the wilderness. Naturally, my parents always brought an assortment of snacks and so all I needed the knife for was to sharpen my marshmallow stick, but in my head I was pretty much Mowgli from the Jungle Book.
It's a bit different now. We easily filled the trunk with our two-person sleeping bag alone, which when rolled up nice and tight is still about twice the size of our dog, who was occupying the entirety of the backseat (much the same way as three children and their essentials might, to be fair to my parents.) We needed two bags of food and ice to keep the ketchup, mustard, and relish cold (my favorite thing about hotdogs is the condiments), several armloads of wood, all four of our pillows (we each need a minimum of two), and flannel pajamas. Plus, there are all the little things that don't take up a lot of space in the car, but take up a ton of room in my mind as I pack: toilet paper, a lighter, extra socks, and a pocket knife.
At least one of us could survive an apocalypse...
We drove out to Eric's favorite campsite in Franklin Falls, a beautiful little spot right on the river. I fell in love with it as soon as I saw the stone steps leading down to it. I'm a sucker for natural stone steps, even though I can never quite capture what it is that enthralls me about them on a camera. After spending a few frustrating moments trying to photograph them anyway, I got around to helping Eric set up the tent. He then promptly decided we didn't have enough wood, and set off to find a dead tree. I, meanwhile, decided to walk our dog Elsie around the campsite. Elsie is an amazingly adorable, highly energetic dog who loves humans and despises other dogs. Therefore, we have to keep her on a leash, even when we're in the middle of the woods, on the off chance that somebody else with a dog might decide to come to this same portion of the middle of the woods.
After a few minutes of her pulling me around while I tried to take pictures of the sunset (not an easy feat with a dog leash in one hand), I heard a crack and whipped my head around in time to see the top of a dead tree tip forward and fall below the treeline a hundred yards or so away. Shortly after that, Eric returned to the campsite carrying most of the tree on his shoulders. Watching him smash the tree to campfire sized proportions by throwing it repeatedly against a rock, I realized that if anybody could survive in the woods without somebody sensibly packing snacks for them, it was definitely Eric, not me.
Maybe he had a good point about bed...
It was about that moment, feeling absurdly grateful for every aspect of my life when I realized there was nothing to sit on. No picnic table, or even strategically placed logs at this campsite. Wondering how my parents managed to fit all of the camping necessities in their family van, I ran back up to the road to call our friends who were stopping out a little later to ask them to bring our camp chairs from the garage. They kindly obliged and the four of us spent a few happy hours eating hot dogs (with all the condiments) and s'mores. We played fetch with Elsie and took some time to admire the moon, while it grew steadily colder.
Finally it was about bedtime, and our friends intelligently went home to their warm bed, while we crawled into our two-person sleeping bag wearing all of the layers we brought. For the first time, I wished for an air mattress. The ground was hard and I could feel the cold seeping up through the layers of clothing into my bones. I thought of my childhood best friend, Hailey, who brought her two-year-old daughter camping last spring when it was this cold and probably colder, and decided she is crazy. I know there are people who camp in the winter, and they are most definitely crazy too.
Whatever it is that a person should own to camp when it's this cold, we didn't pack it. Probably, it would have taken another car trip to be prepared for this. My nose was cold, and I wondered how cold it had to be to get frostbite. I worried that Elsie might be cold and tried to convince her to get into our sleeping bag with us. She obliged me long enough for me to get comfortable, and then wriggled out again.
Then, what sounded like a mob of people arrived at the campsite just above us at the top of the steps and began the loud task of splitting wood. I wondered briefly if they were ax murderers who would come kill us in our sleep. I quickly dismissed this thought when I remembered that we live in Saranac Lake. However, there was still the chance that they might sneak down to our site and steal the cheese danishes that I had packed for breakfast. Eager to dispel my concern for this possibility, Elsie began barking excitedly and I knew there would be no sneaking around here. It was actually a relief to think that somebody else was crazy enough to camp when it was this temperature. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, except Elise had finally realized nobody was coming to play with her, and began dropping her ball on my head to entice me to play fetch. It was then that I began to see the benefits of having a fire in our backyard and sleeping in our bed.
Finally I warmed up enough to sleep, and eventually Elsie stopped trying to stand on our heads. I awoke feeling content, as Eric climbed out of the tent. It's hard to sleep in when you're in a tent, but it was still too cold to be up and about. We had planned on lounging around at the campsite all morning, maybe reading or playing cards, but we quickly realized we were not prepared. With freezing fingers, we packed up the tent as quickly as possible. We just barely had time to admire the fog on the river before we started to shiver. We carried our giant sleeping bag and four pillows past the other campsite, which appeared not to contain a mob, but actually only two or three people, and loaded up the car again. We instead spent the morning lounging around the living room, and to be honest, when I look back on this weekend from the middle of the winter, when we're tucked away on the couch under a blanket against the cold, I don't think I'll have any regrets about either part of it.
As I finish writing this, I ask Eric if he is still down for our earlier plans to climb Baker to see the Super Blood Moon Eclipse tonight. He has just finished band practice and is a little tired. I can tell he is having second thoughts about climbing a mountain in the freezing cold. Hmm, how can I convince him? “Eric,” I begin, “when you look back on this night...”
Fall camping can be a cool experience (literally and figuratively!). Next time we will know to pack the appropriate gear - check out some of our great local shops for insider tips on the essentials you should bring on your next adventure. And, if you'd rather hike during the day and climb into a cozy bed at night, we have plenty of great lodging opportunities available! The leaves are just starting to peak, it's one of the coolest times to visit the Saranac Lake Region.