Storm Clouds and Thunderbolts, Glorify the Lord 1
– an adventure, camping in the forest
June 6 to 10, 2016
“Now let’s see what you have forgotten,” said a text message from Heather.
“I forgot that I don’t bend down readily any more! Fooff !” was my reply.
I had been setting up my tent and other equipment at one of my favourite campsites, in Riding Mountain National Park, far from home. Bending over and hammering tent pegs into the ground was reminding me of an uncomfortable truth: I have reached the age of seventy-five, and am now certifiably an old geezer.
Despite my advancing years, however, I still love being outdoors, tenting. And I haven’t had a camping trip since October 2012! With all my commitments and appointments, not to mention various pleasure trips with Heather, I have come to realize that if I do not set aside a week well in advance, and let nothing interfere with it, I might never enjoy a camping trip again.
So, about two months ago, I marked off the first full week in June in my online public itinerary, labelling it, “Short Camping Trip.” Of course, with planning so far in advance, I could not be certain about the weather, and while hoping for the best, I knew that I would just have to accept whatever comes, whether rain or shine.
Now and again I would check Internet weather sites, and when forecasts for my chosen week began to appear, it looked like I was going to be in luck: sunshine and mild temperatures were indicated in the region of the campsite, for every day from Monday to Friday.
That is, until about two days before the trip was to begin! Suddenly little icons of lightning and thunder began to appear in online weather forecasts for at least the Tuesday and Thursday of my camping adventure. Well, so be it. It is unlikely that I’ll get another chance this year. Anyway, I’m not afraid of a thunderstorm or two!
So, I set out on Monday as planned. The three-hour drive from Winnipeg to the park was accomplished under bright sun, and, to my great delight, the actual campsite that I have used several times in the past was available. Indeed, there were plenty of places that I could have pitched my tent, because hardly anyone else was in that part of the park.
While it is an official campground, capable of accomodating sizeable motor homes, it is off the beaten track, and “unserviced.” Sites are simply clearings in the forest, each with a fireplace and a picnic table. There is no electricity, and water must be carried from a central location – which is also the only place a toilet can be found.
That toilet figures in the first adventure of the week.
Elderly though I may be, I got my camp all set up, made some dinner, and about 9:00 PM, exhausted, I decided to get ready for bed. A visit to the toilet building was in order.
I walked down the path, past a couple of other campsites (all unoccupied), past a clearing where park naturalists sometimes give lectures, until I came to the toilet structure, where I did what I came to do.
Even though it was almost 10:00 PM, Riding Mountain is pretty far north, and the sun had only just set. There was still plenty of light in the sky – and in the forest. I decided to return to my campsite the long way – by following the road, rather than the path along which I had come.
Park vehicles can drive right up to the toilet building, so I walked along their access and came out onto the road. Almost immediately I saw something, dimly, about fifty metres away. Was it a person? It was standing, stock still, a dark form on two legs... wait a minute... as it shifted slightly, I could now see four legs. Whatever it was, it was as tall as a human; and it knew I was there.
Moose? Elk? – wildlife in the campground
Discretion is the better part of valour, right? I decided to retrace my steps, and go back to my campsite along the path.
But at one point, the path intersects a branch of the road, and as I crossed that intersection, there was the creature again, now quite close at hand! Enough light fell on it that I could see it clearly; and it was big, and brown, with large ears that twitched, focussing on me. It looked like a moose, albeit a smallish one, or perhaps an elk. However, both moose and elk have antlers – at least the males do – and this one didn’t, so it was either a female, or a juvenile. I supposed the latter.
Well, whatever it was, it could see me clearly. If it charged, there was nothing much I could do. So, slowly I pulled out my camera, and took a picture.
Whereupon it decided that it would rather munch some nearby leaves than waste time looking at me. So, after making sure that I got a good image, I continued to my campsite, crawled into my tent, and settled down for the night.
Frost and Cold...I have an air mattress. I also have two sleeping bags – one of them built to withstand Arctic conditions. I also have a “fleece” sheet, and a thermal sheet – which is a thin film of reflective plastic often used by paramedics to keep water rescue victims warm. So, although the day had been on the cool side, I did not think that I would be uncomfortable in my tent.
But, as I lay there, I began to realize that it had grown seriously cold outside. With only my nose out from under all my coverings, I simply could not warm up. My feet began to feel like blocks of ice. And my legs.
Of course, I had gone to bed pretty much the way I do at home, without wearing a lot of clothing.
At 2:00 AM, I inched out of the sleeping bag, and wriggled my way into some sweat pants. The tent is small, and no one but an infant can stand up inside it; so one wriggles into and out of clothing by lying on the mattress. I also found, and put on, a pair of work socks. Which more or less did the trick, and eventually I fell into an uncomfortable sleep. By no means warm, but at least no longer ice cold.
I woke up to loud and glorious birdsong. I am not a bird watcher, and cannot identify species by their calls, but I was certain that four or even five different types of birds were in the treetops overhead singing their hearts out. It was wonderful.
But lying there, with sunshine filtering through the fabric of the tent, I realized that the coldest part of me was underneath my body, not over, where several layers of covering were doing a great job. It turns out that, while an air mattress may be comfortable in the way it supports you, it is, after all, just a great big bag of air. And after a full night in the cold outdoors, it becomes a bag of very cold air that, with the weight of your body pressing down on it, slowly leaches the warmth out of you.
I unzipped the sleeping bag (Wow! It is cold!! 2 ) and wriggled into my day clothes.
It turns out that there is another consequence of old age that I must now face, if I am to continue camping in a one-person ground tent: it is no longer easy for me to get into and out of the thing! That zippered door is small, and very low to the ground. An old geezer doesn’t just hop out and leap into a standing position – no, he does not. The process of getting to my feet was accomplished only with considerable huffing and puffing, grunting and groaning.
It was, however, done, and in due course I was making a delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs.
Rube GoldbergA cartoonist, engineer, and inventor who became famous when I was a child, delighted in drawing, and sometimes even building, highly complex machines that did the simplest and silliest of things. His name, Rube Goldberg, became synonymous 3 with goofy and or hair-brained contraptions. My camping setup sometimes seems to draw inspiration from Rube.
Consider, for example, my solution to cold nights that I proceeded to put together after breakfast. First I re-inflated the air mattress (it had softened, because the air inside it had contracted in the cold). Then I placed my “thermal sheet” on it. I figured that the thin, reflective plastic would insulate me from the freezing air inside the mattress. On top of the thermal sheet went the “main” sleeping bag, over which went a fleece sheet, and on top of that, the “secondary” sleeping bag. This surely qualifies as a “Rube Goldberg” arrangement, but I figured it should do the trick.
The day turned out to be quite mild, and sunny. In other years I would have attempted to do a nine kilometre hiking trail that the park has constructed around Moon Lake, but this time, when I went part way along the trail, it was unpleasantly muddy, with almost bog-like sections – probably due to the very recent melt of the winter’s snow. So, instead of hiking, I just walked down to the boat launch and stayed a while, watching a loon that was fishing some distance offshore.
Actually, it was nice to just hang around the campground all day, listening to the birds, and watching the clouds scud across the sky.
I realized, though, that my being able to see the clouds from my campsite was a bit odd. There are some large trees around the clearing, whose upper branches should have filled the air above me, obscuring the sky. Why is there so much light in the clearing? Only now did I look, and realize that three of those trees are dead. Their heavy trunks rise upward, but where the canopy should begin, there is nothing but bare and blackened branches.
no wonder there was sun in the clearing
That could be dangerous. A strong wind might bring any one of those trees down, smashing into the tent and crushing the person inside...
A park ranger came by, trimming some of the tall grass in the vacant campsites, and I pointed out the dead trees to her. She made a note, and said that, yes, they posed a risk, and should be taken down.
Should I move my whole setup to another campsite? I really didn’t have the energy for it... so I decided to stay put and hope for the best.
Oh, and I should mention mosquitoes. When I arrived in the park, a couple of them immediately began to circle around me, but I brushed them off, and was not too bothered after that. Frankly, it was too cold for them, especially that night.
But in the morning, when I was reaching into the tent to make my ‘Rube Goldberg’ bed, I noticed that several mosquitoes darted into the tent with me.
The thing to do, I decided, was to burn an insecticide coil 4 in there, closing the zippered door, and thus killing every bug that had snuck in. If I did this early enough in the day, I could take the coil out long before bed, so that the smell – and the insects – would be gone by the time I was ready for bed.
That night I crawled into my ‘Rube Goldberg’ bed fully expecting a deep, warm, and bug-free sleep...
The bed was certainly warm, although the plastic thermal sheet between me and the air mattress made crinkling sounds with every move of my body. And, whenever I shifted my position, my sleeping bag slid on the plastic surface. No matter, I got ready to drift off.
But, within minutes of closing my eyes, there was a high-pitched buzz by my ear. I turned on the flashlight, saw the bug, and killed it.
“How did you get in!” I mused to the now deceased critter. “Must’ve been when I came in to bed.”
I lay back.
Another one. On goes the light again. An observer outside the tent would have seen the tent fabric bump out here and there, as I tried frantically to kill the thing, and missed. Again, and again.
This happened three or four more times. Lie back, begin to drift off, then the whine of a bug, and me lunging about trying to kill it. Including one bug that, when I managed to get it, spread a little splotch of blood on the tent wall... my blood... it had succeeded in biting me before meeting its end.
Slowly I began to itch here and there.
And, when I tried to lie back in my bed, after the latest round of bug-killing, I found that I couldn’t. My sleeping bag was all tangled up. With me flopping around, it had slipped back and forth on the thermal film beneath, until it was a jumbled heap. I had to squirm my way out of it altogether, straighten it out, and squirm back in. Then...
Soon the sleeping bag was all tangled up under me again, as I churned about, killing bugs.
All the while, the wind had been picking up outside. Normally there is no wind at night. The forest is silent. But not this night. Leaves were rustling, and I could hear branches waving about. Some wind gusts sounded like they were really strong, too, and getting stronger!
Did I just hear a distinct “cre-e-e-eak” from the dead tree towering over my tent? The whooosh of the wind was now too loud for me to be certain.
Suddenly, camping was not very much fun. Lying there in the dark, with the wind howling in the treetops, I thought, “Maybe this is a sign that I should just pack up and go home. In fact, maybe my camping days are done. If I were to call it quits first thing in the morning, I could be packed up and on my way, with everything nice and dry, before the rains that were forecast should begin.” Visions of selling my equipment began to float at the back of my mind.
At about 4 AM, I dealt with the bed problem. I put the fleece sheet underneath, between me and the mattress – it had grip, and the sleeping bag would not slip and slide on it. And I put the plastic thermal sheet over the top of everything. Which proved to be the right setup. I killed about five more mosquitoes, then settled back into the bed. The wind seemed to be dying down, and somehow, finally, I managed to enter into a deep sleep.
Then it started to rain. Which must have been what that wild wind had been bringing in.
“So much for packing up while things are dry!” said I to myself, and went back to sleep.
I awoke around 8 AM, wormed my way into some rain gear, then climbed out of the tent in a shower of water. I splashed the few steps over to my dining shelter.
My camping setup includes a large, screened tent, that sits over the campsite’s picnic table. It’s good for keeping bugs out, but rain does drip into it through the screening on the sides. However, I also have in my supplies a giant plastic sheet, that I now put over the entire tent, rendering things inside quite habitable. But, talk about “Rube Goldberg” contraptions...!
I made breakfast, and was soon seated, quite dry, in my plastic-covered shelter.
There would be no packing up. The tents and the plastic sheeting were now sopping wet. The weather forecast, when I accessed it on my smartphone, said that there would be storms, on and off, over the next thirty-six hours. Only Friday – the day I had originally planned to return home – would be continuously sunny and hot, sufficiently so to dry off my stuff properly.
A Spirit BearDuring a lull in the rain, I decided to drive to the park’s main townsite, about thirty kilometres away. I needed some anti-itch ointment for mosquito bites. I also needed some camp stove fuel, but my main reason for the journey was that I wanted to show a park naturalist my photo of the large creature I had encountered on my first night. Was it moose, or elk? Male or female? Young, or mature?
At the park’s Visitor Centre, a very competent young woman told me that the animal in my photo was a moose; a two-year old male (“See those bumps on its forehead? Those are the antlers, just starting to form.”). Delighted with this information, I did my shopping, and began the journey back to my campsite.
Coming down a long hill, I saw something big and black moving in the grass beside the road. There was no other traffic, so I slowed the car to a crawl, and pulled up beside a black bear. She was nibbling something in the grass.
I say “she” with confidence, because beside her and around her, three bear cubs were playing. And, to my great interest, one of the cubs was blonde! I would call it an “albino,” except that its fur was not at all white, but rather it was almost golden!
Being safely in a car, I was delighted to be so close to this extraordinary little family, none of whom paid me the slightest attention. Once more, out came the camera. The cubs were quite small, so in the tall grass, only their backs and ears can be seen in my pictures, but they are definitely little bears.
Later, some friends who have studed native customs and spiritual practices told me that I had been granted, in that blonde one, an encounter with a “spirit bear,” whose appearance in the park would be greeted by any Indigenous shaman as a sign of blessing and good fortune.
A black bear and one of her cubs
A ‘Spirit Bear?’
More MooseThis camping trip certainly turned out to be one of notable animal encounters. That same night, at dusk, during another lull in the rain, I set out for the toilet building. Suddenly I saw, just relaxing on the path ahead of me, what was definitely a baby moose – at most, a couple of months old.
Moose cow and calf
Its ears went up, and its head turned in my direction. Then, beside it, I could just make out in the twilight, something seriously big: an adult moose, its mother.
The most dangerous type of moose, I’ve been told, is a mother with her young.
I stood stock still. The calf’s ears twitched.
And I pulled out my camera. The resulting images are really quite dark, but one can definitely see the calf, and the mother’s snout and ears in the bush nearby.
Slowly and deliberately I turned and walked back to my campsite. We will leave unspoken what had to be done about my aborted trip to the toilet.
My bed was warm, and my sleeping bag did not slip, slide, or tangle itself into uselessness. With the ointment for bite-itches at my side, I dispatched a couple of mosquitoes, and slipped into a deep and comfortable sleep.
BANG!! Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled away into the hills. Thick, drenching rain poured down upon the campsite. After having slept for hours, I was already half-awake, and had been listening to the thunderstorm getting nearer and nearer. Now it was right overhead. But no trees fell – not even a branch. Inside the tent, it was comfortable and dry. I drifted back to sleep.
When I finally did get up, and hurried over to my ‘Rube Goldberg’ dining shelter, the rain was so heavy that it splashed under the edge of the plastic tarpaulin. I had to open a large umbrella and put it sideways against the edge of the shelter, to keep my legs and feet from being soaked.
Then, at about 11:00 AM, the world was transformed. The rain stopped, the clouds went away, a bright sun shone through the glistening leaves, and the air temperature became almost tropical. It became a beautiful summer day.
The next day, when it finally came time to pack up and go home, all my equipment was completely dry. Despite the rain, the mosquitoes, and the sleepless nights at the beginning of the campout, I had spent many heppy hours in the forest. And the animal encounters were exciting and memorable.
I was even a little more physically fit than I had been when I arrived. Tearing down the campsite was not nearly as exhausting as setting it up had been. As I put everything into the car, a voice in my head said, “This is not your last campout; you will do it again, and it will be grand.”
1 The title of this narrative comes from a song of praise, called the Benedicite Omnia Opera, found in the Book of Common Prayer, and in ancient texts of the Biblical book of Daniel. It is a hymn that urges all elements of nature to give praise to God.
2 I found out later that the temperature had gone down to around 4°C (39°F) during the night. Not freezing, but seriously chilly.
4 You’ve probably seen them: green spiral coils made of pyrethrum paste, which, when lit with a match, smoke away slowly, and all insects within several metres are soon killed.
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