Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Geode State Park: The Joys of Off-Season Camping

Cold weather camp--with lots of sun.
"You just spendin' the night?" the ranger asked yesterday when I arrived at Geode State Park in SE Iowa.

"No, I'll be staying at least two days, probably longer," I replied, and then the ranger provided details of the winter set-up of the campground--one active water spigot at the campground's entrance, electricity available at the campsites, and the vault toilet location. 

"You'll most likely be the only camper for your stay," he added, and in my mind I thought, "Yay!"

Camping in the winter season is an experience in solitude, something that is much more elusive during the active summer season. My main perception of the campground right now is one of stillness, just that, a cessation of activity. I packed up and headed out this week because the weather will be warmer--in the 30-60 range--wanting to enjoy maybe some of the last milder late-fall weather before winter arrives. Also, I'm having a tooth replaced soon, and I'm not sure how intrepid I'll feel during the multi-stage process. 

Cedar Creek, the source of Lake Geode
Lake Geode
The experience of stillness is enhanced by the mild breezes and the sunshine today, and I'm looking forward to some exploratory bike riding later on today and tomorrow. There is a multi-use trail that circles Lake Geode, so today I plan to find the trail and gain some familiarity to the area prior to tomorrow's 7.4 mile ride around the lake. The ranger mentioned he wouldn't attempt the trail with a 10-speed, but I assured him I had a bike with 2-inch wide tires. Even so, the ride will consist of about half riding and half walking, based on my early reconnaissance. 

Scouting the trail
The main purpose of this trip, though, is to rest and rejuvenate, making sure I focus on sleep, meditation, simple food, and exercise. Last year, once the ice and snow hit in January, we were locked in for at least a couple of months until the spring thaw. Even with roads cleared and temperatures a bit warmer, campgrounds were still snowed in and inaccessible. I hope this year is different, and camping is possible off and on during most of the winter. Next spring I hope to camp in the primitive section here at Geode SP with my Airstream Basecamp, using my Zamp 230-watt solar panel suitcase for power. That should be more secluded, even during the busy season. 

The ride tomorrow will probably be half riding and half pushing.
It's wonderful to be in a fully-developed, modern campground and still experience solitude. The trees in the forest surrounding the campground lean in toward the campground. The sleeping sycamores among the campsites cast an aura of stillness and silence. The gravel parking spots and the paved roads, the green picnic tables and the metal stumps of the electric hook-ups fade into the background, disappear beneath the sky. I'm tempted to say that the silence of nature embraces the campground when it's empty, but that silence is always present. We just get distracted by the human activity during the busy season--RVs pulling out or backing in, dogs and children noisily playing. The silence and stillness between all those sounds and sights goes unnoticed. 

I am the only human being in this campground. I gladly share it with the deer and sparrows. Perhaps I will become as still as the sycamores with their white and gray trunks, their faded beige leaves. With some luck and perseverance, perhaps that is in my nature.

Subscribe--Follow by Email

* indicates required

Saturday, November 20, 2021

A Day Ride on My Bicycle

I was lucky that I hit the last warm day of the year with the time to ride the sixteen-mile bicycle loop trail that circles my home town. Having some experience with bicycling and with cold-weather bicycling, I dressed in layers, including a lightweight wool undershirt, and headed off.

I don't know how it happened, but this was the only time in the entire year that I've ridden the loop trail. Well, actually, I do know that city maintenance has closed parts of the trail for quite some time because of rebuilding the city water drainage system. Beyond that, at the beginning of this month, I did ride about two thirds of the trail prior to meeting my grandchildren at school and walking them home. Missing a whole year without riding the loop, though? That was an unacceptable trend I was determined to rectify.

The ride would take close to three hours, depending on how many times I stopped to snap photos. Also, of course, my stamina would be a factor. I hadn't been riding regularly, so even if I took it easy, I imagined that my legs would probably start feeling the miles on some of the steeper trail hills as the ride progressed. To make the trip more enjoyable, I packed a lunch, including leftover hot winter squash soup, which I'd made the day before for lunch. Hot soup, apple, cheese, crackers, energy bar, and water. Layered up with my clothes. I was ready to go!

The first quarter of the trail was unchanged, the section from my home along the city's two small lakes, past a golf course, and down a hill to a city park. One of the nice things about a familiar ride is those old, friendly sights, but also the pleasure of new sights is real, of noticing the small details and changes, such as how the fall season had carpeted portions of the trail with leaves and how the county had added a new prairie and walking trail to abut the loop trail. 

It always takes me a while on a day ride to get out of my head and to settle into the routine of just being with my body and its physical motion. I'm thinking about this and thinking about that, and then after a while, I just settle into the physical routine and allow my attention to be on the ride, the sights and smells and sounds. I didn't stop at the quarter mark at Chautauqua Park but continued on through the Lamson Woods State Preserve section of the trail, which had been shut down with drainage construction. It was rehabilitated, although there were sections along the road where trees had been removed and new grass planted to cover where drain pipes had been buried. Most of the area was untouched, though, included the ponds used during waterfowl migration. 

Stopping for a couple of times for water, I engaged the section of the trail that skirted Interstate Highway 34, a series of long hills with some fun downhill runs and uphill slogs. This is probably the noisiest section of the trail because of the interstate noise, but in some ways it is the most remote part of the trail, even with the traffic, which is busy speeding along, fenced off with a tall steel fence to keep the deer away from the traffic. I go my way and the cars and trucks go theirs. This is the most open section of the trail with more sky and fewer trees, and in the spring there are quite a few wildflowers that decorate the path of the trail. 

Witham Woods
During this section I pass the county hospital and stop at a bench for a rest, water, and half a protein bar. I'm enjoying myself but notice that my legs are getting a bit weak, nothing major but just an awareness that the muscle tone is sheering off and that the steepest hills are not as much fun as at the beginning of the ride. I end up walking up the last steep section to Witham Woods, a former tree farm and nursery that is now a part of the county park system. This is where I eat my lunch, taking a twenty-minute break. The hot soup is a real treat, and since I had blended the squash soup, I could just drink it and didn't even have to use a  spoon. 

The last segment of the trip home wanders through more city vistas--business and residential areas--and ends with a rails-to-trails segment that passes along the south section of the subdivision where I live. There I meet a neighbor who is walking his dog. He's impressed that I've ridden the entire loop, and I make a point of not mentioning my less-than-tiptop physical condition. After all, it was an easy ride, even if I could be in better shape. I walk with my neighbor for a while, chatting about this and that, and then I hop back on the bike and make my way home. 

It was a good ride, and I am reminded of why I take my folding bike along when I camp with my trailer. Bicycling is a good complement to hiking. Hiking takes me to places that I cannot reach on a bicycle either because the trail is not conducive or because bicycles (and usually also horses and snowmobiles) are not allowed on certain trails. Bicycling, though, allows me to travel longer distances more quickly, and it also allows me to include roads as a part of my daily travel and exercise. 

Montague Allston folding bicycle from an earlier trip
I've bought a folding bicycle that I take with me when I camp with my Airstream Basecamp. I'm considering buying an add-on rear bumper to the trailer that will allow me to bring along my non-folding bicycle if I want to or if both my wife and I are bicycling. I like the options and consider bicycling a part of my camping experience. After all those years of teaching school inside the classroom, I enjoy the extended physicality of a nice day ride on my bicycle. It's a pleasure to experience my body doing the work of getting the bicycle down the road--and doing it well. I'm old enough to appreciate the gift of still being able to enjoy physical pleasures such as bicycle riding, and so I intend to continue to get on my bike and get out of my head. This sixteen-mile day ride was not only a pleasure; it was also in its way a resolution to do this more often in the upcoming year. Whether on my bicycle at home or when out camping, being able to increase my health and happiness is something well worth doing.

Subscribe--Follow by Email

* indicates required

Sunday, November 14, 2021

A Basecamp for Fall Hiking

Early morning after the rain
After a night of rain and wind, dawn eases into a day of bright, crisp skies, the still air permeated with the earthy smells of leaf duff while fall colors carpet the trails with reds, yellows, and browns. Autumn is a beautiful time to hike, and Lacey-Keosauqua State Park in southeast Iowa provides some excellent hiking opportunities--a two-mile hike around the lake, unmarked trails above the lake that lead off onto the shoulders of the hills around the lake, and the River Trail hike that skirts the Des Moines River. I basecamped at the state park's campground for four nights, hiking every day and enjoying the beauty of the fall weather.

Lacey-Keosauqua State Park is close to home, and I've camped here many times. Although there are road-bicycling opportunities, the trails are for hiking only; therefore, this trip I left my folding Montague Allston at home because I wanted more time among the trees and on the trails. Especially after a rain, walking the fall trails is a pleasure. I can walk in silence because the wet leaves don't crunch with each footstep, and in that silence the small sounds of forest life are amplified. I feel myself merging with the sounds, pausing to be part of the silence and then moving along the trails that follow old deer paths, keeping to an even elevation that laterally follow the ridge lines which conserves energy, minimizing climbs and descents. 

A Basecamp for my old bones
Lichen and leaves on a stone bridge
My attention unconsciously narrows, and I find myself framing smaller images when I choose to photograph something, a single tree or stone bridge, lichen and leaves, a ribbon of river slicing across the vision. It's good to be alone, although it would have been equally enjoyable to share my hiking time with my wife as my companion--a different hike but also unifying. As it happened, I was hiking alone, yet not alone. It's difficult to describe, but I felt at home, even though I wasn't at home. I had traveled to this state park to spend time camping in my new Airstream Basecamp and hiking through the woods, and I was doing this, remembering the trails and re-discovering what I had forgotten. 

My brother passed away three quarters of a year ago, and I thought of how he would have enjoyed the walk around the lake. He would have enjoyed being out among the oaks and maples; he would have enjoyed sharing the moment with me when a buck leaped across the trail and up the hill, full-muscled with the fall rut season, its antlers gleaming pale among the darker fall colors. Mostly, though, I just walked and then stopped for a time, walked again and stopped again, enjoying each moment and allowing myself to ease into each moment--and maybe even forgetting time and just being in the woods, as simple as sunshine on a green leaf.

Earlier Keosauqua times with the "Green Goddess"
Sitting by the campfire every night, I read by "Kindle light" or with my headlamp from a paper book. For three of the four nights I enjoyed the early darkness by enjoying the fire, eating a dinner snack of saltine crackers and almond butter along with an apple. The fourth night was windy, so I basecamped it inside my trailer, cozy but lacking the flickering reassurance and the smoky musk of the fire. This trip I also had decided to cook more, so for lunches I whipped up baking powder biscuits, open-faced sandwiches, and baked vegetables. I used the Basecamp's kitchen more, accustoming myself to cooking inside and reassuring myself that it was possible to do so and not make a mess. I did cook outside some on an aluminum table I set up next to the trailer, utilizing its outdoor, 20-amp outlet to plug in a toaster oven and Instant Pot. Mostly I used these inside, though, making sure, of course, that the Instant Pot was vented outside because I was keeping an eye on the condensation level. I found that the Airstream Basecamp, larger than the tiny, standy trailer I camped in last year, was more comfortable, providing more room and amenities, even while winterized. That doesn't mean, of course, that I wasn't happy as a clam when out camping with our first trailer, an RTTC Polar Bear. Both provided a warm, comfortable haven from which I could take off for a day of hiking and then return to relax and gather my strength for the next day.

Just a walk through the woods
Being a loving and responsible member of my family, sometimes I find myself worrying, feeling the burden of these perilous, pandemic times with their health and economic challenges. I feel physically every hard knock my family takes, teeter on every precipice they have to negotiate. Being out in the woods and moving, hiking up the rises and carefully down descents slippery with leaves glistening with rainfall from the night before, just being more in the active moment helps me find a more stable perspective. I realize one situation I'm worrying about won't come to a decision point for another six weeks, that some decisions aren't mine to make. The best approach to many challenges is to act when the moment is right and to not dwell on negative possibilities prior to the cusp of that moment. I think hiking in the woods helps remind me of this. Nature reminds me that pivotal moments exist within larger rhythms and cycles, and that worrying about those pivotal moments doesn't hurry them along; the time to act is when the time is ripe. We have to learn to enjoy each moment and maybe to come to realize and live the ultimate truth--that we tend to superimpose "moments" upon cosmic reality, that we our plans should make life simpler, not more complex. We should make plans and then put them aside until the time of action arrives.

Watching the river flow, Ely Ford, LKSP
I'm trying to understand why I enjoy camping in the woods, why this state park draws me with its simple joys. The irony is that if I think too much about why I like to camp, I'm missing the point: thinking about being in the moment isn't being in the moment! My "moment of being" right now, though, is a writing moment, not a hiking moment. I'm at home, next to my wood stove that is crackling quietly as the fire cools. It's windy outside and dawn still awaits. The whipping moan of the wind wakes me early, and so I write in the quiet of the night, dawn a future moment in time, my reality right now the dark wind outside and my flow of thoughts and words. 

This is my reality right now, my remembrance of the fall woods and the joy of being well and hiking on a brisk fall day. My moments of serenity and light become like a string of pearls, unified into one single life, one of many lives and many shining moments. Camping in the "basecamp" of my body, I sit beside a campfire, night having arrived. Brilliant is the light, unfathomable is the darkness. Let the fire die down. I'll add more wood while it lasts, happy and warm in the moment.

Subscribe--Follow by Email

* indicates required

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Winterized Camping Is Old-school Camping

Last night before bed, I brushed my teeth and then went outside my Airstream Basecamp to rinse my mouth and my toothbrush. It was an old-school camping routine, one that I had adopted when camping with my standy tiny trailer that had no plumbing. Spit outside after brushing my teeth. Wake up in the morning and crack the ice in the water bucket outside, then rinse my face. Sit by the fire in the evening and read with a headlamp. Those are good memories, and my last three days of camping at Lake Darling State Park just reinforced those good memories and the practical, simple camping practices I learned while tiny trailer camping. 

This week brought the first frosts of the year with temperatures in the mid-20s, so prior to this trip I winterized the Basecamp, draining tanks and flushing water lines with RV anti-freeze. It was my first time winterizing the Basecamp (or any RV), so I suppose I'll have to wait till next spring to find out if I did everything correctly. However, now that the rig is winterized, it has become in a way a larger, more grand version of my little RTTC Polar Bear--a small trailer that required many camping necessities to be done outside or, if inside, in a modified manner. Winter temperatures also necessitate some acknowledgement of condensation factors, which especially means being careful with cooking. I enjoyed my old-school camping trip, though, and appreciated how the little Airstream Basecamp (as opposed to a tiny trailer) was easily adapted to a simpler style of winterized camping. The transformation can be described with just a few significant points of change.

  • No running water. Flush toilet, shower, and kitchen sink are all now shut down. Our toilet is now a form of military, dry-bag toilet, such as I reviewed with the Cleanwaste Portable Toilet in an earlier article. When camping, my wife and I bring our own filtered drinking water from home, so that hasn't changed. As for water for bathing and dishwashing, we have a bucket and make use of the faucts at campgrounds.
  • Heating. Winterizing had no effect on the Basecamp's efficient Truma furnace, other than the fact that the water heater is drained and isolated from anti-freeze. There still is that winter camping experience of finding that magic balance point between too hot and too cold, especially with sleeping. Also, the Basecamp's thermostat on the wall near the door is significantly at variance with the actual temperature in the camper. I usually have to set it somewhere between 10-15 degrees cooler than the actual temperature I want. Last night, for instance, I slept with the thermostat set at 45 degrees.
  • Propane cook stove. The Dometic propane gas stove works just fine; however, I am aware that burning propane creates moisture as a by-product, which makes me sometimes choose to cook outside. Also, since the camper in more buttoned up in colder weather, smells tend to linger longer. 
  • A cozy campfire. Summer campfires, at least in Iowa, are often just symbolic and something I skip. When it's in the 80s and it's humid, I don't need a campfire unless it's a smoky one that keeps away the mosquitoes. Cold-weather camping, though, really warms the heart regarding the idea of having a campfire--and that's probably because a winter campfire literally warms the heart! The campfire becomes a place to enjoy the heat of the burning wood while also enjoying the beauty of the cold weather. Sometimes that a bit of a paradox because the side toward the fire is a bit too hot and the side away from the fire is a bit too cold. A fire keeps us outside for a longer time when the weather has turned cold. 
Winterized camping in my modern Airstream Basecamp has that old school vibe--more outside time for camp chores and routines, but with the inside of the camper available when I just need a break and a little comfortable time. As for when I winterize, I chose to do so early. Forecasts indicate I probably could have waited until late November this year if I were willing to turn on tank heaters and to keep the camper warm inside, even when parked at home. That's why I recently had a 30-amp RV outlet wired for my garage and driveway area. However, a lot of campers who don't winterize early are traveling south, and the cold weather is a temporary inconvenience. For me here in Iowa, the certainty is that it's now frosting, then it's going to get cold--and then it's going to get damn cold and stay that way for several months. Rather than play freeze-the-pipes roulette, I just winterized and got it over with. What I've lost in convenience, I've gained by skipping the worry.

At this point, I can camp for as long as the roads are safe, as long as I'm careful about managing condensation in the cold weather. (See the article "Minimizing Condensation in a Teardrop or Tiny Trailer") What I've learned from reading online posts from other small trailer owners is that your trailer doesn't have to be tiny to have a condensation issue. Fortunately, condensation remedies are science-based and fairly straightforward. Usually sometime in the winter, though, we have an Iowa combination ice-and-snow storm which dumps its slippery precipitation and then keeps it frozen for weeks to months. After such a storm, even if the roads are cleared, campsites are locked up with the snow and ice, last year for at least a couple of months.

Until then, my little trailer is a tiny trailer mansion--with its own room for the toilet, with a kitchen, and with a built-in furnace. Sometimes I just walk around in my trailer, thinking to myself, "Look, I can walk around, not just one step forward and one step back!" This will be our first fall and winter season of camping with the Basecamp, and I'm looking forward to it.

Subscribe--Follow by Email

* indicates required

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Invasion of the Stink Bugs

We were in spaceship Kepler of the Airstream Basecamp fleet, stationed in the Wildcat Den State Park quadrant when the invasion occurred. These micro-sentients cleverly disguise their spaceships as tiny, shield-shaped stink bugs. They fly, they crawl, they swarm--they invade. 

Homes can be invaded, and through our experience, so can camping trailers. After our invasion, I researched the stink bug. While there are over five thousand species of stink bug in the world, the current villain is the brown marmorated variety ("When Twenty-six Thousand Stink Bugs Invade Your Home"). Airstream, the royalty of travel trailers, is not so royal that the stink bugs are reluctant to invade, and our sixteen-foot Basecamp we found especially vulnerable. Here's how it all went down not in a galaxy far, far away but in a state campground a little over an hour away. 

Folding bike secured, rear door screen rolled up
Our Airstream Basecamp is a tiny, 16-foot toy hauler travel trailer. I've traveled with a folding bicycle secured in the trailer's walkway, and kayak's are also stored inside by some. The rear door has a snapped screen to keep out bugs when the door is open. My wife and I have found that the snap screen works well for flying insects and that we can use the screen at night to keep out mosquitoes. However, the stink bug invasion taught us that insects that crawl (although stink bugs also fly) can find ingress by just cozying up to the screen and then finding a small space between the screen and wall; they just keep on edging toward the warmth and then find their way inside.

I'm sure we threw out at least a hundred of the stink bugs while camping, and now even two weeks later I'm still finding a few of the bugs as I clean out and refurbish the trailer for our next trip. Yesterday I winterized the water system and found another five bugs hiding beneath the seat cushions. I threw them outside and then later wondered, am I just seeding my yard for bigger crop of stink bugs for next year? 

A nice moment of the park trail
Our big realization was that if we had not been primitive camping, we could have closed the camper and switched on the air conditioner. Wildcat Den only has a small, primitive campground, though, so we had to deal with the stink bugs on a one-by-one (or handful-by-handful) basis. It definitely wasn't what we had planned! It was an odd experience going to sleep, wondering if one of the bugs was going to drop on your face during the night. Nothing like the heebie-jeebies as a foundation for a good night's sleep!

The trail has some unique vistas for Iowa
The ridge trail down to the mill
It was an unusual camping experience for the weekend. We had to deal with the unusually excessive heat. There was the invasion of the stink bugs. Also, on our Saturday hike, we left the trail and walked back to camp on the hot asphalt road because we were told that ahead of us on the return walk, a hiker had collapsed from dehydration, and there were about thirty emergency rescue personnel and hikers creating a bottleneck on the trail. We chose to walk the road to allow for social distancing. 

I suppose every camper has its unique construction challenges. For the Airstream Basecamp, the rear screen definitely has its limitations--especially for keeping out crawling insects who are attracted to warmth. Our experience wasn't exactly biblical in terms of our suffering, but we did spend a lot of time engaged in a weird parody of "catch and release" that many anglers practice. We definitely weren't telling those stink bugs we tossed outside, "Now you go off and grow up and get bigger. Then maybe we'll catch you and have you for supper!"

Subscribe--Follow by Email

* indicates required