Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Early spring camping at Buckhorn State Park

At some point during a humdrum day of work about two weeks ago, my fella and I got to talking about camping. During the last year or so, we'd begun taking our first excursions to state parks for mountain biking and hiking, and had decided that we wanted to check out the various campsites offered there, too. So as we discussed the good turn the weather was finally taking, I looked at my calendar, saw that an upcoming weekend was free, and suggested we break in ourselves and the season with a camping trip.

My fella agreed, and, flipping through a very handy guidebook for tent camping in Wisconsin, fell upon the backpacking sites up at Buckhorn State Park. We made our reservations, gathered our gear, shopped for food, and then loaded up the van this past Friday evening to head north for the park.

We reserved site #7, recommended as a great place for "solitude lovers", which is one of several backpack sites where you park and then hike a good mile or so in to your spot. Buckhorn is a great place for a sort of beginners backpack camping experience, with large hand carts provided so that campers can haul in a bit more gear than just what could be carried on your back. We rolled into the park just after dark and the ranger station was already closed, but they'd left our reservation instructions taped to the window.

Anxious to get to the site and pitch our tent (there were some ominous looking clouds blowing in overhead), we went to get our hand cart, only to face a moment of deep dread when we discovered that it was locked up. After some consternation and searching, we discovered the combination to our cart written inside the reservation envelope and were on our way. The hike in through the woods seemed longer that first night, probably due to anxiousness and lack of light. Still, after a brief interlude where a tarp was lost to the trees, we made it in and managed to pitch our tent despite high winds. Even in the dark, I could see that our site was right on the shore of Castle Rock Lake, with a two-to-three foot drop down to the water.

On our second trip back to the car to get food, we bumped into another group of campers who were on their way in. It was a group of guys, probably college-aged, carrying a few packs of beer and their gear by hand. They asked us how we'd gotten our hand cart, and we explained the combination on the slip of reservation paper, which they'd apparently completely neglected to pick up. We set them on the right path, and they promised to "keep the noise down" - something we weren't exactly holding out hope for, judging by the number of guys and the copious amounts of liquor. Still, their campsite was separated from ours by woods and a marshy inlet, so perhaps it wouldn't be too bad.

A dinner of PB&J sandwiches in our bellies, we headed back to camp. Uninterested in the challenge of starting a fire that late at night and in such high winds, we decided to hit the hay. I only heard a few whoops from the neighbors that night, and was able to sleep without much trouble.

The next morning we awoke to very chilly air, clouds and drizzle. It took some doing to convince myself to leave the warm confines of the sleeping bag, but my bladder eventually compelled me to start the day. We set about rigging up some sort of covering for the picnic table (each campsite comes equipped with one such table, plus a nice wooden bench and a fire pit) so that we could cook over our little Coleman stove. The fella has recently taught himself the fine art of knot tying, and was able to secure a pretty decent (if not terribly asthetically pleasing) lean-to of tarp. We ate a breakfast of granola and yogurt, plus hot tea, before heading back out to the ranger station to acquire firewood.

There are all sorts of hiking trails, a place to rent canoes, and fishing ponds throughout the park, but we were too focused on keeping warm and feeding ourselves to find time to enjoy much of that. Something to go back and do, though, once the weather is a bit nicer. Instead, I set about keeping a fire going while my fella brewed more tea. Finally, in the early afternoon, the rain stopped and slowly but surely the sun came out. By late afternoon, it was blissfully sunny and mostly clear (if still cool), so we passed the time reading books around the fire. Sometimes not doing much of anything is the best vacation.

That evening we attempted a cooked meal, consisting of tortillas with rice, beans, cheese and lettuce. We realized too late that we'd forgotten any kind of strainer, so made due with somewhat watery rice. Even so, hungry as we were, it all tasted delicious. Or, at least, it felt delicious. Sometimes you're too hungry to care. Then s'mores for dessert (how could we not?) and bed.

It may be worth noting that, throughout the entire day, we were privy to the emphatic bellowing of boys in the neighboring camp, who sounded like they were engaged in some sort of epic beanbag throwing tournament. I'm pretty sure I saw a beer bong, too. Normally, I could give a rats ass about that sort of entertainment, but why trek all the way out there to do it?

Anyway, Sunday morning broke sunny and cool, lulling us into a false sense of complacency. After breakfast, the winds picked up again, making it deeply unpleasant to remain on the shore as we were. We set about striking camp and hauling everything back to the car, noting that once we were in the woods, the day was extremely pleasant. We lingered along the trail, photographing strange, curled and fuzzy fern stalks and examining the various "bait trees" set up by the park to test for the presence of the dreaded emerald ash borer (none yet, thankfully).

By just after noon, we were packed and ready to take our leave. And though I'm sad we didn't get the chance to really explore the park, I'm glad we took the time to take the trip. Buckhorn seems like a beautiful park, with lots of things to do and explore, and the campsites (at least ours) are top-notch. They have easier to access sites, too, as well as a handicap-accessible cabin for rent. I highly recommend checking it out, if you get the chance.


George H. said...

Great that you and yours have joined the state park cult. Wildcat Mountain should be near the top of your list.

Emily said...

George - We've been up to Wildcat once before (a friend has a cabin nearby that he let us use) and definitely plan to go back. It's gorgeous.

The Lost Albatross