I’ve officially graduated from camping school. No more hand-holding, no more clinics on campfire cooking or tent erection. We’re going solo now.
Our second, immensely more successful camping trip with the Texas Outdoor Family program last fall at beautiful Huntsville State Park emboldened me to try something that only six months ago would have seemed crazy reckless: camping without Papa Bear. A few weeks ago Papa Bear decided rather at the last minute to fly East with Baby Bear to visit his family. The special occasion was a too-rare stateside visit by his brother, now living an expat life in Ireland. I agreed to stay home and keep Sister Bear in school during the 6-day trip. Since Baby Bear was going to get all kinds of loving from Papa Bear’s family, and I dreaded trying to keep a five-year-old entertained at home by myself over the weekend, I started looking around for something special for me and Sister Bear to do together.
After a brief internet search I discovered a well-kept secret less than an hour from my house. Lake Houston Wilderness Park used to be part of the Texas State Park system until it was given over to the city to maintain. It’s large for a city park but on the smaller side as state parks go and has only two dozen campsites. I reasoned that if disaster struck or we hated the park we could be home in 45 minutes. So, despite Sister Bear’s cold, off we went for some girls-only camping. No men or baby sisters allowed!
The day was getting long when we arrived on Friday evening. As the friendly ranger chatted on about the park and the activities scheduled for the weekend all I could think was didn’t practice tent set-up in dark; must pitch tent before nightfall. I let slip that this was the first time we had gone camping without my husband. Perhaps my eagerness to get to the site and get set up was interpreted as anxiety about being spouseless because we were visited no less than three times in the next two hours by the ranger and the camp host making sure we were OK. I chose to be grateful that people were looking out for us rather than feel patronized as a solo woman who couldn’t watch out for herself. Camp set-up went as smoothly as I had visualized and before long we were enjoying our pre-packed sandwiches in the dusk.
Sometime during the night a new visitor arrived and managed to set up camp in total darkness with little ruckus. Only the next morning when I espied our neighbor for the first time was my pride at my own meager accomplishment of the night before completely extinguished. The man in the next campsite had set up an enormous tent, canopy, camp table and assorted other paraphernalia, in the dark, with only one arm. When I saw that empty shirt sleeve I was reminded of the quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. “In the dark with one arm” is my new mantra whenever I think something I’m about to do is hard.
About Lake Houston Wilderness Park
We stayed in Camp Ironwood loop which had only 8 sites yet is large enough to give everyone plenty of breathing room even at full capacity. Despite the perfect weather half the sites were empty. The loop has basic amenities including a central water and washing station and a dining pavilion with electrical outlets. Tents can be pitched on raised sand beds, which is apparently common in Texas where rain can ruin an outing very quickly. In dry weather this just results in sand getting everywhere. The whole camp area has only one central bathroom facility, and we were as far away from it as possible. Which wasn’t really all that far.
Red on Yellow, Kill a Fellow
After a low-key breakfast Sister Bear and I set off to explore the trails. One doesn’t really “hike” this part of Texas as it is incredibly flat. So let’s call it a nature walk along the Magnolia and Peach Creek trails. We made it to the nature discovery center in time for the lecture on venomous snakes. Lake Houston is home to four different species of venomous snakes: copperhead, cottonmouth, rattlesnake and, my favorite, coral snake. Despite one erroneous sign there are no poisonous snakes in the park. I never appreciated that these two words are not synonymous. Venomous creatures make you sick if they bite or sting you; poisonous things make you sick if you eat them. The ranger had models of each snake as well as some harmless species that look like the venomous ones. For example, the milk snake is tri-color with red, black and yellow bands like the coral snake but the sequence of bands allows you to distinguish them.This is captured in a memorable mnemonic:
Red on yellow, kill a fellow; [coral]
Red on black, friend to Jack [milk]
After the presentation we viewed the live snake exhibit, which included some of the native venomous snakes. Very cool.
The discovery center has a lot to hold one’s attention. And Sister Bear liked it, too. One room was full of insect specimens native to the park, another with mammals, a third with amphibians. We ended up going twice because there was enough to merit a return trip.
After the excitement of the snake demo had worn off Sister Bear’s energy and interest in camping started to flag. Her mild cold drained some of her normally excessive energy and she started to lobby for us to go home on Saturday afternoon. I was having a great time, enjoying the perfect weather (overcast and 70 F) and utter peace of being in a quiet place outdoors. Salvation came in the form of a young girl and her dad two sites over. I am beginning to appreciate–and not take personally–how much children need the company of their peers. These two girls became effectively inseparable for the next couple of hours, coloring and chatting away while I made nice with Dad and his parents who joined them for the day. I learned a lot from Dad about minimalist camping. While he was car camping this time, he has extensive experience backpacking and most of his gear was that of a backpacker. It got me thinking about how much one really needs to get along in a campground. The contrast between his minimalist style and our most recent camping trip (about which more soon) would prove to be extreme. By the time they broke camp later that afternoon and left we were over the hump and decided to stick it out for the second night.
Night, night, we love the night
One thing I love about camping is being outside after dark. We learned during one of our fall outings to turn off the headlamps and let our eyes adjust to the darkness. Sister Bear was a little intimidated to walk from the bathroom along the unlit road back to the campsite. So I did what I tend to do to get through a tough moment: made up a silly song. More of a chant, really. It goes a little something like this:
Night. night, we love the night
We don’t even need a flashlight
Night, night, we love the night
This is how we walk in the dark
This beat won’t win me a Grammy but it worked like a charm. We also made up a song as we were walking through the woods:
We’re going camping in the woods
We’re having so much fun
We’re going camping in the woods
We’re picking up pine cones
All in all, we had a great time. Since we’re still so new to this I’m tracking “firsts”. Here are some for this trip:
- First camping trip of more than one night with a child
- First camping trip without a spouse
- First time at Lake Houston Park
- First time touching a milk snake
These may not sound like much but since I’m starting from no experience camping with kids, they seem significant. Even if somebody else can do all that and more with a single arm in the dark.