Car campers with backpacks spice up backcountry trip
A wise person once told me every backpacker enjoys a different wilderness experience, and it's best to respect those differences. Some knock off 30 miles in a day, and others hike five or 10, stopping for half an hour at every overlook. Some hike...
A wise person once told me every backpacker enjoys a different wilderness experience, and it's best to respect those differences. Some knock off 30 miles in a day, and others hike five or 10, stopping for half an hour at every overlook. Some hike for intimacy; others seek solitude in solo hikes.
A Memorial Day trip confronted me with a new sort of wild experience: campground campers wearing packs. I'm still struggling with how it fits every other backcountry approach.
Our party included me, my wife Sandy, and my brother-in-law Mark, who was visiting from out of state. This was Mark's first backpacking experience, so I chose a section of the Superior Hiking Trail with moderate terrain and big payoffs at overlooks. (I'll withhold the exact location to protect identities.) I also picked short hikes for each day.
Starting at noon, we day hiked in the direction opposite our intended route to a nearby peak. Then we returned to the parking lot, a three-mile round trip, for lunch. As we finished eating, a truck pulled up, and the driver rolled down his window to ask where he was.
"Ah," I thought. "Day hikers."
I answered and was surprised when he and his companion, now joined by others piling out of a van, started pulling out backpacks. One was an orange external frame job from the 1970s.
Thinking we might meet them down the trail, we wished them well and headed down the trail.
The hike was near-perfect. Gorgeous terrain, cooperative weather and a trail littered with moose and deer sign made for a delightful day. Hiking at a moderate pace, we reached our campsite early, and when my two companions gamely suggested pushing on, I was happy to oblige.
A mile or so later, a deer walked to within 30 feet of us, stopped, considered us for a moment, then bounded away.
As we approached the next campsite, four miles in from the parking lot, splashing water in a nearby pond caught my attention. In many trips on the Superior Hiking Trail, I had seen moose sign, but never until then an actual moose. Warily munching on the other side of the pond, it tolerated our admiration.
Of two campsites on the pond, the better one was filled, so we took the larger. For a leisurely hour, we made camp, placing tents on the best patches, which happened to be near the campfire ring. As we prepared to filter water, two of the group from the parking lot walked into camp.
The other site being filled, I volunteered to share. After all, "you meet a better class of people on hiking trails," I had said earlier. And it was a busy holiday.
As we filtered water, our intrepid friends started making camp. Soon, three more 40-somethings filtered in, one by one, making five in all. The large site seemed smaller. They pitched tents behind us, away from the common area.
That's when the entertainment began. Clearly beginners, their talk of 60-pound packs floated our way. For the five of them, four tents were erected, and no ordinary tents, either: One was a massive five-man tent, complete with aluminum poles. One hiker, afraid of rain, spread an enormous ground cloth, set up a backpacking tent and then strung three tarps over it.
Mark heard one camper mention a portable television and swears he heard a weather report coming from that tent later. Their clothes -- jeans and cotton sweatshirts -- were precisely wrong for potentially wet backcountry.
As we cooked supper on our Whisperlite, they broke out their food, whining when we explained the fire ban. One had packed in several pounds of pasta, while others had equivalent loads of ground beef and mushrooms. Another -- I swear I am not making this up -- had some expensive meal-in-a-box that, when a string was pulled, cooked itself. White smoke poured out a hole in the top.
They got their meals underway with two camp stoves.
Sandy says that when Mark and I went to hang our food bag, our campmates laughed. She explained -- "the bears up here have big noses" -- and got wide-eyed looks in response.
So when they finished eating, they tossed excess food and cooking water next to Mark's tent, then left their still-dirty dishes sitting by the fire ring while they went to hang food bags. Still, the bear-attractant dishes remained there, next to Mark's tent, the rest of the night.
The three of us crammed into a tent to chat for a few minutes, while the adventurous newbies went -- again, I swear this is true -- to attach their packs to a tree for fear of bears.
We separated and bedded down around 9 p.m. Shortly, the Mighty Five returned. We had worried that they would be loud and maybe start drinking, and upon returning, the assault began. One of them broke out a popcorn popper, with which he promptly scorched some popcorn.
Another said, "Would anyone like to meet my friend?"
"Who's your friend?" asked another.
"His name is Jose. Jose Cuervo," said the first. "He's strapped to a tree over there."
At that point, Mark told me later, he was ready to pack out in the dark.
They plotted their next day. They debated their favorite drinks. One suggesting throwing excess gear in a ravine. Finally, before "Jose" got out of hand, the most experienced and friendly of their group pointed out that "those kids" were probably trying to sleep.
So, after stomping around the site like elephants and randomly slashing 4-zillion-candlepower lanterns (which possibly were leftovers from night games at Yankee Stadium) into every corner of the wilderness, they dispersed to their tents.
There, they munched on packaged cookies (still not clear on the bear thing), giggled, shuffled cards and had deep conversations about divorces.
At least no one packed in a slot machine.
We made comments to each other, not so subtly hinting to any listeners that we had shared our campsite and were now trying to sleep. There were no listeners. Finally, during a renewed outburst around 1 a.m., I asked the noisiest tenter 36 inches from my head to please be quiet, and she obliged.
Breaking camp at 5 a.m., we opted to skip cooking breakfast and eat a cold meal down the trail. More splashing at the pond alerted us to two more moose feeding. A short walk located a third, probably a calf, behind some brush.
The Mighty Five slept through it all, which was right. Not because I worried over interrupting their sleep, but because they had not earned the privilege of watching those majestic creatures.
The sane member of their group rolled out of his tent as we were about to leave and greeted us warmly. Turning to his companion, he asked if she had trouble sleeping the previous night. I nearly choked on a granola bar.
Walking out, we laughed at their packs, strapped for reasons I can't guess to a tree with some sort of shrink wrap.
We finished the route we'd planned, and, being ahead of schedule, cut our trip a night short to avoid more rowdy midnight fun.
Not that I'm complaining. With backpacking, as with other kinds of travel, the misadventures are worse at the time than when you laugh at the stories later. The scenery, wildlife and company conspired to overcome our misinformed campmates and create one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever had.
While it's easy to ridicule, I also remember my own miscues, past and present: bad decisions, huge loads, forgotten gear, silly clothing choices. Sharing campsites without stressing a preference for quiet.
We learn. I'm sure the Mighty Five will do better next time around, and I only hope respect for night sounds and others' wilderness experiences will be among the improvements.
I hope they learn campground camping is different than sleeping in the backcountry, where every whisper and splash of water carries on the night air.