Admittedly, I have little experience with camping. Well, I guess I should say that I have almost no experience. Prior to my most recent vacation, my whole life’s worth of camping was just a single, one-day excursion to Jay Cooke State Park with my wife, Jill, before we were married.
I don’t have a problem with the outdoors; I like being outside hiking, biking and partaking in various other activities. However, when those activities are done, I like to take showers at the end of the day and fall asleep in a nice, comfortable bed.
I had those two requirements in mind when I lined up a four-day camping trip for the first week in August near the Bayfield, Wisconsin area.
It was a Christmas and 2-year wedding anniversary present I had given to my wife this past holiday season. She’s a veteran camper who has been to the Boundary Waters numerous times and even the mountains in Colorado. Both of those locations have no showers or comfy, squishy beds, I hear.
Our campground was by Little Sand Bay, near the Apostle Island National Lakeshore. The area seemed gorgeous on the Internet: It looked like there were miles of pristine beaches, the campground had separate RV and tent-only (the type of camping we’d be doing) sites, and — the best part to me — it had showers.
The beach was beautiful and not heavily used, which was nice, but as soon as we pulled into our campsite that Friday evening, I could see the disapproving look on my wife’s face. For one thing, the campground was absolutely packed; I don’t think there was a single site not being used. We found out later that there was a 2-mile swim from Bayfield to Madeline Island planned for the next day, and many of the campers staying at the site were in town for that event.
The next problem: The tent-only campsites were far too close together. I could have probably spit into our neighbor’s fire pit while standing right by ours.
These were disappointments, for sure, but I had heard Bayfield and surrounding areas were beautiful, and we hadn’t planned to spend much time at the campsite, anyway.
So I parked the car and opened the back passenger door, and what I deemed to be a bad omen happened almost immediately: A jug of drinking water we’d packed back there rolled out, hit the ground and broke.
I thought to myself, “Well, that’s not the greatest thing ever, but at least we have this comfortable, queen-sized Sleep Number air mattress we borrowed from my parents to put in the tent. I’ll at least sleep well.”
Once we got the tent set up, we blew up the air mattress by plugging it into a DC to AC converter we had in the car, and then we ran into another problem: The mattress was too big to fit into the four-person tent.
This was another frustrating development, and we just stared at the huge mattress for a while before Jill suggested we deflate it, put in into the tent and then inflate it.
This worked, thankfully, so we were able to sleep at the campsite that night, sans fire, because I couldn’t find where to purchase firewood, and the park rangers were gone for the day.
I was worried about the rest of the trip. We were going to board a ferry with our bikes and head over to Madeline Island the next day to bike to Big Bay State Park. With the way the trip started, I figured my bike would get a flat tire, or, worst case scenario, the ferry would sink.
Neither of those things happened, and we ended up having a great day on Madeline Island and in Bayfield.
We were even able to purchase firewood at the campsite and start a fire we used to cook some food that night.
Things were looking brighter.
The next day’s highlight was a sea kayak excursion I had lined up a few weeks prior to the trip. We, along with a group of other tourists, took a guided tour in tandem kayaks out to the sea caves near Meyers Beach on Lake Superior.
This trip turned out to be absolutely fabulous, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone. We got to see the see caves up close, paddle through a few, and Lake Superior looked like glass as the sun dipped low on the horizon line on our way back to shore that evening. I’d never seen the lake so calm.
The only negative aspect of that trip was the lifejacket I had to wear. It fit fine, but it smelled like an entire college football team had been taking turns wearing it during two-a-day, late-summer practices before I donned the flotation device.
I really smelled like other people’s funk after we were done, so I was pretty excited to take a shower when we got back to the campsite.
I’d found out the previous night that visitors to the campsite had to pay for the showers — $2 in quarters got you four minutes of water.
That’s not a lot of time to get clean, so I’d taken to putting shampoo in my hair and pre-lathering up with some body wash before starting the shower so I’d have the optimal amount of water with which to clean myself.
This turned out to be a mistake that night, as the shower I had selected malfunctioned, ate my quarters and refused to turn on the water.
Thoroughly disheartened, I walked back to our campsite, shampoo in my hair and body wash drying on my skin, and got two more dollars to use in a different shower I knew was working.
Things had been going so well since that first night, but here was another bump in the road.
After I got back from taking a shower in a stall that actually dispensed water, we watched our campfire burn down.
I started thinking about a sign I had read earlier in the day on the ranger station about Sand Island, which we could see from the beach near out campsite, being closed to camping because of a high volume of bears roaming about that were not afraid of people.
After the shower incident, I was almost certain a bear would eat me in my sleep, which, I guess, would have been the low point of the trip.
But I was not devoured by a large black bear in my sleep, and the rest of the trip went off without a hitch.
I’m even considering camping again with my wife, albeit with a smaller air mattress that fits better in the tent. Not too small of a mattress, though — a man has to have a few luxuries when he’s fighting to survive in the wilderness.