Thursday, July 29, 2021

Camping in the Not-so-deep Woods, an Urban Experience

Illiniwek Forest Preserve, Illinois
I awake on the eighth morning of my Mississippi River camping trip to birds singing and rich river smells drifting into my camper from my open side and back doors. The light is soft, the sun not yet having breached the horizon. Out my window, I see the muted, rippling reflections of the Mississippi's current as it flows downstream from the locks and dam just up the river. Night still puddles within the leaves of the trees. I am not camping in the deep woods, though, perhaps not even in the not-so-deep woods, although there is a pocket of deeper woods across the road--or highway, I should say. This is my first experience of urban camping, and you know what? It's surprisingly enjoyable.

The trilling morning song of the birds is punctuated by a steady orchestra of traffic sounds: the brash bray of a motorcycle, the deep growl of trucks, the whine of car tires on pavement. After a while the traffic noise ceases to intrude; after a while the urban sounds are just a cacophony that drifts to background chatter. A new and recognizable sound emerges in this urban orchestration--a Canadian Pacific locomotive pulling its train past the campground, the brass of its horn and the tympani of its wheels on the tracks. The deeper bass of a barge horn floats across the river, and now that I am listening for the urban-morning sounds, the steady drone of RV air conditioners add to the morning's urban symphony. Yes, indeed, welcome to camping in the not-so-deep woods!

To pinpoint my experience, I am camping at the Illiniwek Forest Preserve on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, near Moline in the Quad Cities area, across the river from Iowa. This forest preserve consists of 174 acres of woods and river frontage, including a campground. With hiking and biking trails, being linked to the Great River Trail, having both modern and primitive camping, and picnicking and a boat ramp, the preserve has something for pretty much anyone wanting some outdoor experience. This morning my wife and I watched a pleasure yacht leave the river's lock and head downstream. Yesterday evening we walked the shoreline road and saw a half dozen anglers happily fishing. One guy with a grin held up a sack o' catfish when we asked him how the fishing had been. A steady flow of bicyclists on the river trail require us to keep an eye out for riders so focused on keeping their pace that they get a little crazy. It's a hot summer July day, and this urban forest preserve is definitely fulfilling its mission: "to connect the community to nature through land preservation and recreation as well as administering educational opportunities."

Finishing up my third day here at the preserve campground, I ask myself, "How enjoyable is this urban camping experience?" I mean, last night before going to sleep, I looked out the window and saw a police car stopped on the campground road, talking to somebody. On the other hand, yesterday we also saw three children blissfully riding their bikes around and around the loop, just as happy as wrens flitting from branch to branch. I think this is one of those "Is the glass half empty or half full?" moments. The wooded forest preserve is just across the road, and the hilly woods are deep and lush and beautiful--once you get across the road, dodging 55 mph traffic. The traffic on the trails is regulated, one-way travel--one direction three days a week, the opposite four days a week, this probably mostly due to bicycle traffic and the attempt to lessen collisions. 

A pocket of wild at Illiniwek Forest Preserve
With 2.6 million monthly users, the website Treehugger emphasizes "Sustainability for all." The website's article on urban camping mentions a variety of forms of urban camping, from protest "camp-ins" to stealth camping to sanctioned events and spaces. Urban "camping" could include both the homeless and the houseless--those who are living on the streets or those who are living along the streets (in camping rigs). I'm focusing on two other aspects the article mentions: camping to connect with nature, and "urban campers look[ing] for a place to get away even when they don't have the time to travel to get away." Urban camping, really, is an extension of the philosophy that green zones should be a part of cities. Urban campgrounds provide the opportunity for some to interact with nature for more than an afternoon or a day. In a sense, urban campers are like those opossum, coyotes, squirrels, deer, and raccoons that live in fringe zones of wilderness in cities. The animals move back and forth between two environments, living in the transition zone. Urban campers don't experience the best (or most extreme) of both environments, primeval nature or posh hotels; they do, however, have a blended taste of both worlds, and that is a unique experience. Is it a form of glamping to be camping and to have a museum or theater or a fine restaurant nearby? The urban camping experience is a unique opportunity . . . or a great incentive to move on to more wild climes. You could very well see eagles fishing the Mississippi here at Illiniwek Forest Preserve, but you won't see wild bison grazing, unless the Buffalo Bridge Foundation has its way about the life of an I-80 bridge.

Here in Iowa, and I believe this to be true for much of the United States, the land has been "civilized" by human beings. Some scientists suggest that our modern era be named the Anthropocene Epoch, which a Britannica entry describes as "characterized as the time in which the collective activities of human beings (Homo sapiens) began to substantially alter Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans, and systems of nutrient cycling," the last meaning how biological life (matter) cycles and recycles in a sustainable manner. I think our "pockets" of nature, even if they are tiny pockets like here in the Midwest, are important reminders of how the world must be to maintain its sustainability, how the earth should be so it doesn't erode away, how the water should be so it is drinkable, how the air should be so it can be breathed healthily. People need--and the planet needs--the deep woods to be healthy, but the not-so-deep woods are also needed in this Anthropocene Epoch, both as reminders and as sustainers of life, as reminders of the "default" setting of the laws of nature. And it's also important to remember that when we consider nature's default settings in terms of geological time, it's not essential (to the laws of nature) that human beings be included in that resetting to reestablish balance and sustainability. Just ask the dinosaurs. 

Trying out solar panels as an Iowa state park
To experience the laws of nature swinging along on their own without the cosmetics of humankind--that's one reason why I bought a solar package option for my Airstream Basecamp. With the solar option, I can still use my trailer and many of its options of convenience, yet get a bit deeper into the woods . . . or maybe that's not accurate. I won't get any deeper into the woods; I'll still be in a small pocket of nature unadorned by humanity. However, that pocket will be a bit deeper, a bit more wild, a bit more reminiscent of the primeval. Why not just go backpacking? Why not just take off into the Alaskan or Canadian wild? I don't have a completely satisfactory answer for those questions, just an honest one. I have a "getting-older" physiology, I have a family and responsibilities, and having bicycle camped a bit, I've discovered that I'm not extremely motivated to experience "roughing it," or at least not much or not for long. My blog isn't called Green Goddess Glamping for nothing. The name isn't just about a camper we once owned. The name also refers to the comfortable, stress-free integration of camping with nature, of recognizing nature within us by experiencing and celebrating nature outside of ourselves. For me, camping in Midwest primitive campgrounds is an opportunity to intensify my contact with nature, as the Treehugger article referenced earlier observed, but not having to travel far away for the experience. Right now for me it would seem unnatural to leave behind wife, kids, and grandkids so that I could have a grand experience of untrammeled nature, even though my wife and I have invested in a fine piece of equipment for doing so (pause while I glance out my window at my camper in the driveway). My wife has also recently affirmed that the time is coming, but in the meantime, thanks to the foresightful people who have established these pockets of nature within the fabric of our society, pockets of nature that allow me to get away from it all . . . sorta.

My wife is working today online, outside this morning and inside this humid afternoon, and she expressed exactly what I'm feeling: "Hey, I can look up from my work and see the river." For many people, that's what urban camping is, an opportunity to look up from the workaday experience and see the sky, the water, to stand upon earth in the shade of a sycamore. It's a chance to connect with nature. Is it Denali National Park or the Pacific Crest Trail? No, and it's not even Iowa's Pikes Peak State Park, where I was camping a little over a week ago and had the chance to see the beautiful Bridal Veil waterfall, which was only a quarter-mile hike from camp. I'm camping in this little pocket of nature-left-alone, surrounded by the Quad Cities with a population of almost 400,000 people. My glass is half full, though. My little travel trailer is comfortable, the views are interesting and varied, and my wife Sandy has driven up to spend three days with me, an added treat on my seventeen-night Mississippi River camping tour. If I were alone, I'd be spending every morning on my bicycle, exploring the Great River Trail. Yesterday Sandy and I hiked some on the preserve trails, and once again I was impressed at how little distance one must travel from the landscaping of humankind in order to feel the over-arching, quiet yet powerful omnipresence of natural law. Green zones are good for the environment and good for our souls. 

Would I prefer camping in the deep woods rather than the not-so-deep woods? Yes, indeed! Just the other day I shared with Sandy some images of the Grand Tetons. Wouldn't it be great to go there? And one day we will. The deep woods are infused with the deep silence of nature--and are, of course, never completely silent or still on the surface, thanks to blue jays squawking or the scrabbling climb of a squirrel up a tree. Even with its casual noises, though, the deep woods exude that deep, abiding being of existence, the sense that nature is singing and dancing to its own song, and that it is our song, too, and would we please join the dance, our dance? The answer is yes. Even in an urban campground, we can hear the song of existence. If we cannot hear it, it's because we have forgotten how to listen, or because we've become distracted. Even the urban woods help remind us of our legacy, of our birthright, of our true nature. My glass is half full, and the nectar is sweet.

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