Friday, July 9, 2010

Ode to Rock Island

Camping. Since humankind first moved into towns and cities, the seemingly instinctive desire to return to the wilderness has driven us to everything from the epic treks of the explorers to the backyard tent-outs of suburban children.

I'm no different. While I have a great appreciation for the many comfortable amenities of modern life, there's a part of me that yearns to prepare and cook my meals in the great outdoors, sleep on the ground, live off the grid. And so I, like countless other Americans, set out for the campground - looking for even a small taste of the lost rustic existence of my ancestors.

...well, with the addition of waterproof fabrics and propane stoves, anyway.

A short while ago I headed north with four good friends and The Fella for a place I'd never before visited but is, as it turns out, just a short drive and some ferry-hopping away. Rock Island. A state park set off the tip of tourist-famous Door County, Wisconsin, it's one of those rare, relatively close-by places a person can go for something a little more serious than the "family camping" experience found in most other parks.

It's 912 acres of incredibly rocky soil, pine forests, beautifully blue-green water, no cars, no bikes, and no electricity. You have to take the ferry from Door County to Washington Island, and then the much smaller Karfi ferry from Washington Island to Rock Island, to make it over. That alone seems to weed out the more casual campers.

Once there, you need to be able to carry all of your equipment on your back or, if you're lucky, on one of the very few handcarts available at the landing, all the way to whatever campsite you've reserved. We'd booked two sites on the southeastern side of the island - one that overlooked a small rocky bluff down to the water, where we set up for cooking and loafing, and another that was more set back and sheltered, where we pitched our tents.

There are a couple of backpacking sites that are much further removed from everything else and would take a more serious and thoughtful packing effort to occupy. (Actually, I'm keen to try one of them out next time we make the trip.)

You see, even once you get all of your gear to your site, both firewood and drinking water have to be hauled in from the one spot on the island where you can get them. Firewood is sold from a shelter near the boat landing from only 4:30 - 5:30 p.m. each day, and the only potable water pump is nearby. Getting and hauling these things quickly becomes a crucial daily routine, forcing you to plan all other activities around them.

That's OK, because when staying on Rock Island, time is definitely on your side. Since there's no electricity, there's no television or telephones or internet. Which is precisely one of the main reasons I loved it.

But Emily, you may ask, you're a total internet nerd! How could you handle not being plugged in for a whole five days?

Quite frankly, I've never had issues going off grid. Once I'm away from the distraction of the web, I really don't miss it. Instead, I'm more than content to focus on the world around me and the essential tasks required to stay alive and comfortable.

I really like building good campfires (to the point that, minus one crucial sanity gene, I might otherwise have become a bit of a pyromaniac). I adore cooking meals over them. I enjoy the challenge of putting together a sturdy, weather resistant campsite. I like waking up with the sun in the morning and under the unpolluted stars at night.

Of course, it rained off and on while we were there and made the whole waking-with-the-sun thing a little difficult, but otherwise Rock Island is a great place to do all of those things.

Plus! 10 miles of hiking trails, several rocky beaches and one white sand beach, an over century-old restored lighthouse, rock carvings, wild strawberry patches, and a few good lawn games available at the main boat house (we opted for a bocce ball deathmatch).

And just a few snakes.

*It's worth noting, too, that said boat house and most of the structures on the island were built by inventor, businessman, and rare book enthusiast Chester Thordarson, who used to own the place--because that's what rich folk do. Own islands. Thankfully these rich folk took pretty good care of the place and then the state bought it from the family in 1965, giving us the fabulous park in return.

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