My first real camping trip was a guided journey to the wilderness area surrounding the Oswegatchie River. Earning my freshman college Phys-Ed credits by taking a vacation sounded like a sweet deal to me. All I had to do was spend a couple days camping out to fulfill the PE requirement for my first semester. What a fine adventure!
We left the Finger Lakes on a Friday morning for a two-night outing in the Adirondacks, over 200 miles northeast. Our convey consisted of a couple bus-length vans filled with rugged, outdoorsy college kids (not really), a whole pile of gear, and a trailer loaded with canoes. If I remember correctly our group included three professors, over a dozen guys, and one girl. (How brave was she?)
This was the tail end of the seventies, and most of us smoked. We probably smoked all the way up there, riding inside those vans. (Can you imagine the air quality?) Only one of us thought to bring enough cigarettes to last the entire weekend, but that's getting ahead of the story. Before we returned to the campus we'd learn all about underestimating our provisions.
It was early October. Fall in New York can be gorgeous, or it can be miserable, and sometimes both. We had plenty of sun in the forecast, but a shortage of warmth. Pretty typical. Our camping guides, a trio of weather-hardened outdoorsmen with teaching credentials, assured us we'd be warm enough on the first leg of our sojourn. They were right about that.
A very long drive:
After endless miles on I-81 we finally arrived at the only usable public entry point to the river. A rustic but heavenly general store marked our last sight of civilization. Some of us bought candy and soft drinks; others grabbed an extra pack of Marlboro's. At this point we were still getting acquainted, laughing and joking and sneaking glances at the lone female of the pack.
Next our caravan followed a one-lane "road" deep into the forest. We could have jogged alongside the vans, given the highest speed the lane allowed. I doubt we traveled more than ten miles, but it felt like fifty. Eventually the mighty Oswegatchie appeared at the edge of a clearing. There was just enough room to park the vehicles and unload all those canoes. We dragged the little boats and our half-ton of gear to the water's edge and pushed off on the first leg of our big adventure.
We reach the river:
Maybe we appreciated the splendor of that winding river mountain preserve on a crisp fall day. I doubt it, though; we were all pretty busy rowing like galley slaves. Our nervous chatter, marked by occasional laughter, echoed in the trees that surrounded us as we paddled deeper and deeper into the big woods. The Oswegatchie slithers and winds in a seemingly endless series of oxbows. Sometimes those of us leading could see the tail end of our canoe train through the screen of trees and brush. All of us wondered if we'd make it to camp before dark. We weren't the least bit cold, not yet.
We arrive at camp:
Eventually, after ten or twenty hours of hard labor (a slight exaggeration), we reached a clearing by the river. We staggered to shore, dragging our watercraft and assessing our accommodations. We had lean-to's! Some hard-working men, left unemployed by the ravages of The Great Depression, had built us a couple of solid dirt-floored shelters. Our professors had brought a tent for the grown-ups.
We probably had hot dogs for dinner. That memory eludes me completely. Did we make the girl do the cooking? I hope not. We did find out, once we were a thousand miles from home, that her boyfriend was along for the trip. So much for whatever romantic ideas the rest of us had. We finished the last of our hoarded snacks before the sundown, too. It was going to be a long weekend.
By now I'm sure you realize that once the sun had set the temperature began to plummet. We were mostly small-city kids; what did we know about cold in the mountains? The usual cure for sudden chill involves sharing body heat. That wasn't going to work. We slept in our flannel shirts and jeans, shivering with our cheap sleeping bags pulled up over our heads. The heat from the evening's campfire didn't reach our open-fronted shelters at all.
The beautiful fall sun returned in the morning, of course. Our uncontrollable shivering subsided once we'd ingested some breakfast. Too bad all the life-giving chocolate bars were gone. As soon as the dishes were done (the girl? No, we all pitched in, didn't we?), our tour guides led us on a fifty mile hike in the hills. (Close enough.) That warmed us up. We all knew it would get dark again sooner or later, though.
What happened after that?
It's funny, but I don't remember much of anything after that. Perhaps we hiked far enough to exhaust us all by nightfall, so that we could sleep blissfully unaware of the numbing cold. The only other detail I can recall is that the one guy who'd been smart enough to bring a whole carton of Marlboro's was treated like a minor deity. I'm also sure that all that smoking didn't help our hypothermia one bit.
We must have reversed our river journey and returned to the launching point sometime on Sunday morning. I remember the sound of the little bell on the door to the general store. Maybe I was asleep until we walked back into the rousing aroma of beef jerky, Hershey bars, and burnt coffee. I'll bet we dropped a couple hundred dollars in that store before we got back into the vans for the long drive home.
I'm pretty sure we had the time of our lives.
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I'll publish more First Camping Trip stories here in the coming weeks. We have three or four qued up right now. Want to have your first trip story considered for publication here? Leave a comment that links back to you. ~Jim
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