The first gusts, rumbles and flashes pulsed through our family tent’s flimsy nylon walls late one Saturday night in August, in the campground at Maplewood State Park in Pelican Rapids. My wife, 5-year-old daughter and I were snuggled in our sleeping bags when I was shaken awake.
“Jim, go get Ben!” my wife whispered loudly.
To back up, let me explain that our exuberant son, Ben, just 1 at the time, thrived on early morning light when camping. That meant denying the remainder of the family that last hour or so of rest before 6:30 a.m. Our solution was “Ben’s Tent,” a smaller enclosure that held his portable crib, anchored next to our larger tent, not more than 2 inches distant.
I untangled from my toasty sleeping bag and unzipped the tent flap, plunging into darkness punctuated by brilliant flashes and a torrential downpour. Struggling to unzip the fly on Ben’s tent with water cascading down my neck, I thrust my torso inside, trying to keep the puddle from forming a lake beneath his crib.
He was sound asleep.
Knowing this news would not pacify my wife, I urgently plucked my offspring out of bed, diving through the rain and into our tent, where we were all now alert.
Thus are forged precious memories of camping in Minnesota.
To be sure, not all camping outings are spiced with misadventures. Some are graced with speechless beauty, such as the night along the shore of Lake Superior in a cart-in site at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Our campfire popped and murmured, bright against the lake and woods. Then, peeking above the watery horizon, the almost-full moon climbed among the stars. Delaying bedtime for our children, we lingered a little longer in the glow of the flickering flames and the rippling reflection of the moon.
As a Minnesota resident since 1982, I’ve enjoyed camping trips around the state on family vacations as well as on research trips for my travel and outdoors writing-photography business.
I have written and photographed two all-season guide books about the Minnesota and Wisconsin outdoors. And I’ve written and photographed scores of articles about camping, canoeing, hiking and biking. As part of that process and in the years since, I have visited each of Minnesota’s state parks at least once, pitching my tent in many of them. In some years, this has meant one camping trip per week during summer and several spring or autumn weekend outings.
The beauty of camping on Minnesota’s public lands is the variety of landscapes. Whether just for family fun or for research, I’ve enjoyed the vastness of the prairie in Blue Mounds State Park (southwestern Minnesota) and the closeness of the forest at Bear Head Lake State Park (northeast). One of my favorite water sites is at the Rock Lake Campground in Pillsbury State Forest. I’ve also been lulled to sleep by the St. Croix River while camping in a canoe site.
Though camping destinations are important, so is the process of the camping lifestyle. Certainly, it’s the anecdotes and shared moments of camping that linger in memory, sometimes even more than place.
There was a father-son camping trip to Itasca State Park with a brother-in-law and our collective young men, when we were treated to a vibrant spectacle of nature. Settled in across the campground road from Lake Itasca, we sat mesmerized while a lumbering snapping turtle ambled out of the lake, crossed the road and headed for the tree not 12 feet from our picnic table. There she turned her backside to the tree, scraped out a hollow depression and laid her eggs.
The mood was broken later when we heard rustling and scuffling on the picnic table. There, in our flashlight beams, a well-fed raccoon had flipped the latch on our cooler and was pigging out on our bread and sandwich meat. Because experience often follows a sad tale, we learned to keep our coolers in the vehicles ever after.
It seems that most of our family’s love of camping grew along with our children, their cousins and friends. Now that our children are grown, my wife and I still enjoy meals over the campfire and conversations under the stars. And the occasional bout of fickle weather just adds to the overall camping gestalt.
That our family looks back and laughs at moments gentle or touchy is testament to the lure of camping in Minnesota. Rain or shine, insects or warm breeze, we have treasured our trips to campgrounds around the state.
Of course, coming home means dealing with dirty, wet clothes and vacuuming the vestiges of the campsite from the car. Yet the extra work has always been worth it, especially when a youngster announces “Next time we go camping ... ”
Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoors writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn. You can see his work at www.candidperceptions.com.