Escape the Urban: To Be a Boy in the Woods

24 Apr

I have four sons, aged 13,8, 5 and 2. I could follow strict impartial and impersonal journalistic guidelines and pretend they didn’t exist, that I travel from one outdoor adventure to the next free and clear of responsibilities or constraints. But in truth, they impact every trip and event I undertake. Day care and school schedules, not the weather, dictate outings, so I find myself playing dad on sunny days and biking in the rain and cold. Similarly, when planning a recon to Allegany State Park to scout a July-issue piece for a print publication, not only must I time-travel to imagine the height of warm summer green while enduring April sleet on unbudded brown, I lug four boys along, stir-crazy on their Easter break, while Mom stayed home in a warm quiet house and toiled under her own end-of-the-semester deadlines.

In deference to that same mother, I rented us a cabin in the southern Quaker Area of Allegany, choosing an isolated spot that, according to the meager map, was near a creek and out of the way. I normally like to hike in away from roads and noise and tent camp, bringing only what I can fit in my ample backpack. This approach works well with adults, and I have taken one son at a time (once they are hold enough to at least carry water and a change of clothes) on such trips, but it would fall apart quickly with four boys, one still in diapers. So my initial plan was to set up a tent next to our Swagger Wagon, enduring the back ache of a blowup mattress while still having sippy cups and plenty of food and wipes handy. This idea fell apart when Mom checked the weather forecast, however, and declared that her children would require significantly more shelter if I insisted on subjecting them to polar conditions. The cabin was a compromise that ended with me promising that no lips would ever turn blue, nor any shiver be endured at night.

As it was, I should not have worried for the crowds. I was expecting lighter traffic during a shoulder season. What I got was post-apocalyptic desolation. It is a bit unnerving, The Road style, to be the only vehicle and only family not in the wilderness, but in an expansive multi-road camping area with public restrooms and infrastructure for hundreds in the summer. The grey sky pressed down from overhead, sparse bits of freezing rain fell, and an ill wind blew as we played alone at the jungle-gym at the nearby public park, and then walked down the center of the wide asphalt street back to our cabin. Fortunately, two more vans arrived the next night, and we exited the Stephen King novel before the zombies attacked.

My eight year old son described our rented cabin as a wooden tent. This ungenerous description was not wholly accurate. While only one room, it had a wide porch over looking a swollen rushing stream, and contained four cots, a table and two benches, and two stoves: a wood-fired one for heat and a capable propane fueled kitchen stove for cooking. The box stove, a Vogelzang Model BX26E (Vogelzang of Holland, MI- Since 1927, approximately when the our stove was manufactured), seemed to make no dent in the chill until I went back outside into the dank night. The sleeping cots were metal frames with thin prison mattresses, of a type I was well acquainted with from years deployed in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Despite no electricity or insulation of any kind, overall the cabin felt surprisingly livable and spacious with four boisterous souls eating Spaghetti O’s and Dinty Moore, playing endless rounds of Uno, and giggling in sleeping bags long into the night while I snuck out to the van to catch the updated score of the Sabres game.

Over the course of our trip, my boys survived all of the plagues of the childhood camping experience, in sufficient quantity and amplitude so that they will inflict the same on their own children. Those trials, in no particular order, are universal and well known: eating dinner out of a can, enduring the farts and snoring of an older brother in the cot next to yours, sleeping with a knit hat on, throwing up in a plastic bag in the back of the van while driving on twisting mountain roads, constipation from refusal to poop in a smelly public park bathroom, falling out of bed disorientated onto a cold strange floor in total darkness in the middle of the night. I am proud to report my four sons met each hardship, and persevered.

In truth, however, our three days at Allegany consisted of more than avoiding a grisly horror-flick fate and cabin fever, or enduring childhood rites of passage. We hiked hills and wooded dells. We explored bear caves and snake holes, and mistook one for the other. We laughed at the funny faces on the stuffed beavers and bears in the small natural history museum at the main administration lodge in the Red House area. We climbed rocks at least as tall as ourselves. We skipped stones on a flat lake. We fell asleep to the sound of nothing but a running brook and wind in the nearby branches. And for the greatest treat of all, we pee-ed on a tree, or (gasp), directly into the creek outside our cabin door, making bubbles we could watch flowing downstream, over a small waterfall, and out of sight around a bend.

One Response to “Escape the Urban: To Be a Boy in the Woods”

  1. Ethan April 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    nice… I’m aiming to take Phin on some hikes this summer, the better to prep him for some hike-in/hike-out camping action on down the road.

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