Last weekend I plunged enthusiastically into my one predictable tradition: the annual camping trip with my high school buddies.
Though we are now spread across many hundreds of miles, we’ve been at this for approximately 12 years, and we always plan for the better part of four days and three nights in the wilderness, or at least the edge of it.
There are usually five of us, give or take one or two who show up late and/or leave early or flake out entirely, and we head to the same spot almost every year. We hike about a mile into the woods and set up camp between the river and the trail.
Sometimes other people camp in the area, but they usually stay close to the parking lot with their screaming kids and barking dogs and don’t bother hiking in very far to spend the night. We prefer to get away from people, though there are usually several groups of hikers who walk by our site from time to time, and we always wave.
The camp trip is a time for us to catch up on what everyone has been up to, to sit around and socialize, to do a short hike or two, to swim and sometimes fish in the river, to cook over an open fire and on our various camp stoves, and to drink plenty of cold beer.
The cold beer is usually the biggest challenge of the entire annual tradition, which I suppose has its roots in our teenage excursions into the woods of our hometown for bonfires and underage drinking.
Our trips no longer involve broken teeth on non-twist-off bottles of imports, smashed bottles against tree trunks or high speed drunken chases through darkened woods in competition for the last beer. Now in our 30s, we still keep an eye out for the authorities, but we go somewhere relatively safe and quiet, and now we’re the ones meticulously picking up our trash and the trash that others leave behind.
The challenge the beer presents is of course one of refrigeration and transport: how does one effectively move large quantities of ice-cold beer to a campsite approximately a mile into the woods? Traditionally, we have carried multiple huge coolers packed with beer and ice and foodstuffs into the woods, a masochistic practice if there ever was one.
I have carried one massive cooler filled with two cases of beer and ice in both hands across my chest and down the trail more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve also shared the burden of these impossible coolers with a buddy plenty of times as well. The burning torture inflicted on the arms and shoulders can reduce a grown man to a quaking mess on the verge of tears, but ah, the glory of a cold beer in the woods is seldom replicated.
Two years ago I had had enough. I came across an invention that seemed to be the perfect solution: an all-terrain dolly. The metal dolly was painted bright yellow and featured rubber hand grips and oversize, knobby mud tires. This had to be the answer! As I prepared to hike into the camp spot last year, I strapped the cooler onto the bottom of the dolly with bungee cords and attached the rest of my gear: tent, sleeping bag and mat, folding chairs, etc, to the top of the dolly above the cooler.
Despite the all-terrain moniker, the dolly wobbled and crashed through the woods on roots and rocks and was generally an all-terrain pain in the ass. Things kept popping loose from the straps as the entire load was jostled from one side to the other and the narrow dolly clanged its clumsy way along the path. Clearly this was not the answer.
I am somewhat ashamed at my own slow intellect when I realize that it took all of us about a dozen years to realize what may have been obvious to anyone reading this post: we were camping between a trail and a river. Why not float the coolers and gear down in a canoe? I cannot explain why it never occurred to us until last year’s all-terrain dolly debacle, but this year was different, better, and set a precedent, despite multiple capsizes.
This year one of my pals brought his canoe, and everything changed. We converged on the river with three full coolers; one contained a five-gallon soda keg of home-brewed India Pale Ale, a luscious blend of hops and malt that was a real luxury to enjoy in the woods.
This keg was on ice and connected to a large pressurized bottle of Co2 for carbonation. The other two coolers contained ice, beer and food. We also stacked the canoe with an assortment of bags—some designed to be waterproof, others not so much—and we headed on our way with paddles and lifejackets, just in case.
I weighed a bit less than my buddy and thus sat up front as we began our short journey downriver. The boat was sitting very low in the river, and we were a bit concerned about taking on water, but not enough to slow us down, as we cut a quick path through the relatively calm waters, until we hit the rapids, yelled out ideas rapid-fire about which way to turn or paddle, were swept sideways against a huge boulder in the middle of the river, and promptly dumped over with the contents of the canoe.
Since the river was so shallow, we were able to get our footing and grab the boat before everything fell out, though we took on enough water that getting it out was going to be impossible with all the weight of the luggage. We laughed and made it to the shoreline of our usual campsite without sinking, where we unloaded everything and tapped the keg.
We spent the next three days and nights in the usual ways, lounging, visiting, hiking, swimming, drinking, cooking, sleeping, etc, but the food was much better this time, as we had brought our own special concoctions to cook over the fire and share with the group, including steak fajitas, curry chicken, spicy cashew chicken, beef with broccoli, homemade breakfast sausages, bacon and hard boiled eggs.
We also stocked the usual instant noodles, granola bars, beef jerky, trail-mix, coffee, tea, and Gatorade. We took the canoe out for fun a couple more times and tipped over a couple more times too, as we challenged an increasingly rough set of rapids, but we never felt truly in danger and made it back, sometimes having to trudge against the current through the rapids, knocking our shins against the rocks and dragging the boat behind us. Some of us caught a few fish, but nothing worth dining on.
On a hike back out of the woods on the morning of our fourth day, I dropped a heavy load of gear on a wooden bridge and declared my intention to take a break. My friend accompanying me turned to look at me and was promptly stung in the leg by an angry hornet.
I looked down simultaneously and noticed one of my folding camp chairs, teetering on the edge of the bridge, then flopping over the side. My friend started to run from the bridge and pointed out that we had chosen the worst stopping place possible: immediately over a hornet’s nest. They were now swarming around the hive, and my chair was right underneath them. I snuck in, grabbed the chair, and ran in the opposite direction, somehow making it out of the woods without a sting.
What a great trip. Can’t wait for next year.
Post-script: Here's what happened four years later.