Visit To A Jungle Essay Contest

We are happy to announce the winner of our first annual Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest! The winner is Julia Ruelle. Julia (age 16) is a sophomore at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

Thank you to the over 70 high school authors who competed in this contest. The essays are inspiring, well-written, and impressive. In short, it was amazingly stiff competition. We hope this contest inspired young writers to get outdoors, seek adventure, and love the Boundary Waters.

Julia Ruelle's Winning Essay

It’s the start of the school year: everyone is sullen for being forced to sit still all day and teachers try in vain to pull us out of our school-induced slumber with a myriad of get-to-know-you activities. As I fill out yet another form with questions I am tired of answering, I come to the question asking me to list my favorite activities. I pause for a moment, wondering which activities to include this time: running, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, sledding, ice skating, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, camping, gardening, walking, hiking, biking, hammocking, or exploring. As a shortcut and with a melancholy glance at the sun shining through the window, I settle with writing, “being outside”.

Though such get-to-know-you forms are rarely very honest, one fact always holds true to me: I love being outside. In the summer, a typical day usually starts with running with the cross country team as the sun rises, paddling with a friend in the afternoon, and an evening walk with Rio, our faithful seven year old rescue dog, around a small lake of the over 10,000 our state is known for. For the past 5 years, Rio and my family have been lucky to have a change in scenery to the beautiful, pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for about four days each summer. These days are when I feel most connected to my soul and surroundings and most at home, with no social media or material concerns to distract me from the purity of the air in my lungs, dirt beneath my feet, and the sounds of birds, water, and all things natural in my ears. My love for these lands has caused me to be involved with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters movement, regularly donating and wearing the logo on shirts, stickers, and pins as frequently as possible. All my classmates know of this passion of mine, as I take any opportunity to educate my peers about the threat the proposed Twin Metals mine poses to the pristine waters so unique to the Boundary Waters and the many watersheds it affects.

Though Jerry Vandiver, a country singer with an album or two about the Boundary Waters area, sings that “winter is for...pull[ing] out the map” and “plan[ning] a new route” while keeping close to the warmth of the fireplace, to me, the snow and sub-zero temperatures of Minnesota winters make venturing outside even more exciting! I joined the cross country ski team last year and immediately regretted not having tried it earlier. Skiing taught me to love winter and pray for more snow, instead of begrudging it. Though I grew up loving to ice skate at the park across the street, learning to ski ignited a desire to be outside everyday, even when the cold was biting.

Unfortunately, this winter has been a little different. Around Thanksgiving, I started experiencing exhaustion, headaches, and nausea at rates I had never before had to withstand. As doctors didn’t perceive any viruses to be concerned about, we wrote it off as migraines and I continued to participate in life as usual, going to school and ski practices everyday. However, after trying to fight through it for two weeks, I ended up in Urgent Care one night and scheduled an appointment with my doctor three days later. During those three days, I slept pretty much all day and barely ate, thanks to debilitating headaches and nausea. Arriving at the doctor’s appointment, I threw up in the waiting room and the nurses deemed my low body temperature and slow heart rate alarming enough to rush me to the emergency room in an ambulance. At the end of that day, they still didn’t have any answers as to what was causing it all. However, the next day, my doctor suggested getting an MRI and I squeezed into their last slot of the day. Halfway through the MRI, my parents were rushed into a special room and my doctors got in contact with the radiologist and a neurologist. All in all, the verdict was that there was a mass in my brain causing pressure build up, also known as hydrocephalus. I required an endoscopic third ventriculostomy, which is essentially a tube put into my head to allow the fluids to flow, and a biopsy to find out what it was. So there I was, getting brain surgery, which is definitely not the curveball most expect during sophomore year. The biopsy revealed that I had a rare brain tumor called a germinoma, luckily with a high cure rate. Obviously, this has changed my life completely and kept me from doing most normal teen things. But, the worst part was not being allowed to run, ski, skate, or do anything that had the potential of making me fall until the surgeons deemed me ready. Still, I made it my priority to be outside at least once a day, usually taking short walks.  Getting outside even when I felt unable to do most other things has been a type of therapy for me. Breathing fresh air and feeling the cold on my face refreshed me and made me feel better, at least for a little while, every time.

After six weeks of limited activity, the Friday I got the OK to do any activity I wished began the best weekend since the diagnosis. In the afternoon, I went snowshoeing on a trail through the cattails. At night, I ice skated with friends. The next morning, I cross country skied on a frozen creek. On Sunday, I ran for the first time since the diagnosis and though it was incredibly slow-paced, the feeling of fighting through the burn and completing an entire loop of my go-to trail can only be understood by those who have experienced the phenomenon of a runner’s high. Better yet was the soreness that almost kept me from making it down the stairs Monday morning. I had been sore many times due to the chemotherapy, but this pain was something I had caused myself by working hard and, in a weird way, made me very proud of myself.

Reading the announcement of this essay contest in the paper this Thursday, I could hardly withhold my excitement! I danced around the house, imagining the essay I would write and how much fun it would be to share my favorite place with my friends. Though I am such a lover of the BWCA, most of my friends have never experienced its hypnotic serenity and I’ve always wanted to share it with them, but not wanted to have to bring my parents along. This contest has the potential of granting me this wish. In addition, I am lucky to have a short treatment plan of chemotherapy and radiation that will be wrapped up in early May with no physical restrictions. This enables me to be perfectly ready for a summer trip to the greatest place on Earth with my closest friends.

As I reviewed the details of the contest, I found something additional that links me to this mission: Joseph [one of the contest judges]. Hi! I read that you were diagnosed with leukemia at 13 years old and I imagine you and I share many similar experiences. Other than just the typical cancer similarities, I wonder if you share the experience of growing a little sick of your parents. I know, it might seem impossible to them, but after being surrounded and worried about almost exclusively by my parents for the last couple months, I’m very ready to escape their concern for a little while. Of course, I have always and will always love and appreciate them for their constant love and support, but distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? My desire to spend a couple days deep in the wilderness, sharing unique experiences with my closest friends, has increased greatly in the last couple months.

As a long-time lover of the outdoors and the Boundary Waters and a recent parent-escape hopeful, I would cherish this opportunity to navigate the lakes and portages I’m so fond of with my friends. I know my dreams will soon be filled with mornings looking out over the water, long days of paddling, dinners laughing beside the campfire, and nights sleeping with only a tent between me and a sky full of stars. I pray these dreams will be made a reality.

Thanks for your interest in Ely Outfitting Company’s Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest! The deadline for the 2018 contest has passed. Please check back here for details of the 2019 essay contest.

The contest is for high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors interested in the chance to win a fully outfitted five-day canoe-camping adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with two or three of their friends - and no parents allowed.

Please carefully read all the information on this page before submitting an essay, and consider talking about the idea with your parents to ensure they’ll give you and your friends the thumbs up to do this trip if you win.

Essay Prompt

In 1,000 to 1,500 words, answer this question: Why do you want to go on a parent-free BWCA Wilderness canoe-camping adventure with your friends?

Grand Prize is a Completely Outfitted BWCA Wilderness Canoe-Camping Adventure

Ely Outfitting Company will outfit the winning writer’s group with our complete outfitting package. This means you’ll explore the Wilderness with the best gear used by the most savvy Wilderness travelers. The package includes ultralight Kevlar canoes, backcountry tents, sleeping bags, specialized trail meals, navigation maps and much more! We are also providing an emergency communication device for this self-guided trip.

Why We’re Hosting this Contest

The Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest is a celebration of unstructured time outside. It’s a chance to prove that young people can safely challenge themselves in the outdoors and return more confident leaders and self-reliant individuals.

Recent studies show that young people today spend as little as four to seven minutes outside each day - less time outside than prison inmates. A culture of fear and bubble-wrapped experiences is infringing on young people’s abilities to have free ranging outdoor experiences. Time in front of a screen is replacing time around a stream and this new reality is leading to health issues including increased anxiety, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. This is our response and attempt to buck the trend.

We want this country’s next generation to take the reins of schools, businesses, and branches of government with a developed connection and appreciation for public lands and, in particular, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

All Entrants Receive Cool Stuff

In addition to one grand prize winner, Ely Outfitting Company is randomly giving away assorted prizes like water bottles, stickers, shirts, and hats throughout the duration of the contest. Enter early to increase your chances of winning some prizes! Winning something through one of our random prize giveaways won’t affect your chance of winning the free trip.

Everyone who enters will also receive a coupon good for $50 off a complete outfitting package during the 2018 season. We hope that, if you don’t win a free trip, this coupon will help make it easier to still get out and explore the BWCA.

Safety is Our Top Priority

The Boundary Waters is a uniquely accessible Wilderness with routing options appropriate for people of all abilities and skill levels.

We want to ensure the winning trip is set for success. Ely Outfitting Company will help the group prepare for the adventure. We’ll help select an appropriate route based on previous experiences, abilities, and interests. Once in Ely, we’ll review your outfitting package in detail, and go over canoeing, portaging, navigating and camping skills. To ensure adequate time to provide a full pre-trip orientation, we require all trip participants to arrive at our shop the afternoon before launching their trip. We strongly recommend all trip participants spend at least one day canoeing together before arriving in Ely.

Judging Criteria

A panel of judges will select the contest winner. The winning essay will be selected based on the following criteria:

10% - Spelling, grammar, and overall flow. Essays should not have spelling errors, sloppy grammar, or incomplete/incoherent sentences.

35% - Originality of idea and content. Essays should be rooted in an original idea that reflects the writer’s personality and ambition. If, for example, a writer is excited about making this a fishing trip consider expanding on how a fishing trip shapes/defines a friendship or what differentiates a wilderness fishing trip from one in the city or on a populated lake.

35% - Individual voice. Essays should reflect a writer’s personal style and voice. Essays should give the judging panel a sense of who the writer is in a fun to read and well thought out essay.  Write from the heart with open and honest prose.

20% - Tone and thoughtfulness. An essay’s tone and thoughtfulness should reinforce the notion that the writer is responsible enough to venture safely into the Wilderness without adult supervision.

*BWCA experience and canoeing experience are not required, and are not a judging criteria.

Judging Panel

  • Joseph Goldstein
    16-year-old who has explored the BWCA every summer (and several winters!) since age 7. When diagnosed with Leukemia at age 13, he made it his goal to protect the Boundary Waters from the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining.
  • Jason Zabokrtsky
    Founder, Ely Outfitting Company. Wilderness guide, outfitter, and mega-BWCA enthusiast.
  • Amy Freeman
    2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year; author of the newly released book, “A Year in the Wilderness,” about spending 366 consecutive days in the BWCA; Wilderness guide.
  • Kemia Sarraf, M.D., M.P.H.
    Founder of Generation Healthy Kids; advocate for youth engaging the outdoors.
  • Wendy Lindsay
    Successful northwoods entrepreneur; owner of the Pebble Spa in Ely, MN; celebrated her high school graduation with a 2-week BWCA trip with 7 of her friends.

What to do if Your Parents Aren’t Game

We realize not all parents may think their teen kids are ready for a wilderness canoe trip without adults along. When discussing this opportunity with your parents, you may want to discuss the following:

  1. The BWCA has over a thousand lakes and about 70 entry points to choose from. We can help ensure the winning group has a route that matches their previous experiences and skill level. This may mean a relatively short route with travel on smaller lakes that are not as wind prone or a route that doesn’t require moving to a different campsite every night. We will go over the planned route in detail with the group and provide information about our favorite campsites, as well as any rapids, waterfalls, or especially difficult portages. Note that this is a flatwater trip. All rapids and waterfalls have portages around them, and portages must always be used.
  2. We will provide an orientation that covers important information about safety, campsite selection, paddling technique, and wilderness navigation. We will also discuss how to properly store your food to minimize bear encounters and what to do in the event of extreme weather.
  3. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is America’s most popular Wilderness area with Forest Service rangers paddling through the region to check permits and offer assistance if needed. Rangers and fellow travelers offer an additional safety net to your own common sense and know-how.
  4. The winning group’s outfitting will include an emergency communication device. In the extremely unlikely event that an emergency should occur, the device can be used to notify interested parties and receive assistance.
  5. Ensure your parents that you will wear your lifejacket whenever canoeing and swimming. It’s a safety requirement of this contest, and always a wise idea.

If your parents still aren’t willing to sign off on this trip, consider other ways of doing a wilderness trip. We can provide you and your family with expert trip planning assistance, outfitting, and guide services.

Contest Rules

  1. Contest is open to current sophomores, juniors, and seniors in high school.
  2. Essays must include the entrant’s name, grade in school, phone number, mailing address, and email address.
  3. Submit your contact info and essay using our online form. Note that bold, underline, and italics text will be converted to plain text.
  4. Deadline for receipt of entries is 11:59pm on February 11.
  5. The writer of the winning essay will be contacted by phone and then publicly announced on March 6, 2018.
  6. Limit of one essay per person. All essays must be original work by entrant.
  7. All essays become the property of Ely Outfitting Company which reserves the right to print and display essays.
  8. Any essay entered in this contest cannot be entered in future contests.
  9. The determination of the judges is final.

Grand Prize Requirements

  1. No parents are allowed to be on-trail with the winning author’s BWCA canoe-camping trip. All trip participants must be 15, 16, 17, or 18 years old at the start of the trip.
  2. Trip participation is limited to a maximum of three or four people, including the winning author. We have chosen a minimum group size of three people (including the winning author) for safety reasons.
  3. All trip participants must submit a completed and signed liability waiver within two weeks of the winner being notified. Trip participants under 18 years old will need a parent or legal guardian to complete a liability waiver. If this deadline is not met, the second place essay will be awarded the trip and have ten days for all trip participants to sign the liability waiver.
  4. The winning group must submit their desired launch date at the same time that they submit their release of liability waiver.
  5. Trip participants agree to provide photos from their trip to Ely Outfitting Company.
  6. All trip participants, regardless of their age, must agree to wear a lifejacket whenever they are canoeing or swimming while on their trip; and all portage trails must be used.
  7. Winning trip participants are responsible for their own transportation between their home and Ely, MN, before and after their wilderness canoe trip writers share their fondest camping memories in this month’s writing contest. Read on and vote for your favorite.

Camping is one activity many look forward to in the summertime. There’s nothing quite like spending a night under a blanket of stars, sitting around a cozy campfire with good company. As the summer nears an end, we thought it would be fun to ask writers to share their most memorable camping adventures — from confrontations with bears to cross-country road trips, these stories are bound to get you in the wilderness one last time before September. Read and vote for your favorite below, we’ll announce the winner at the end of the month.

Update: We’d like to congratulate Mark T. for winning this month’s contest!

  1. My Life-Changing Junior High Camping Trip  – George C.
  2. Game Boy > Camping – Tim S.
  3. Inadvertent Camping on Our Camping Trip – Dylan N.
  4. Falling from Grace: A Lesson Learned at Mount Pocono – David C.
  5. Camping Reimagined – Mark T.
  6. Why I’ll Never Go Camping With You –  Theodore B.
  7. Surf’s Up (and Sometimes Down) – Ceejay T.
  8. Three Friends No Water No Food and Nowhere to Sleep – Monica V.
  9. In Manhattan There Are No Bears – Mary B.
  10. Things That Go Bump in the Night – Joanna E.
[polldaddy poll=8242529]

My Life-Changing Junior High Camping Trip

George C.

Camping trips are a great way to experience nature and the great outdoors. The thought of packing bags with traditional camping gear easily gets my blood racing regardless of the time of year. There’s something about the nature of camping accessories that distinguishes these expeditions from the usual non-camping trips. It is not every day that one sleeps in a tent and wakes up surrounded by trees and creepy crawling little neighbors, either on lakeside or at the foot of a mountain. Each area of wilderness has its distinct aroma that swiftly reminds you that this is not your bedroom. I can never get enough of such amazing experiences.

Profound Impression

My first and best camping trip happened when I was still in junior high as a boy scout. The experience left a profound impression that would shape my life decades later. Armed with ropes and bush survival skills imparted to us just before departure we ventured into a conservancy area where we did not pitch any tents. Instead, the entire team demarcated spaces on the ground using stones to distinguish each member’s personal space. We were clad in the original khaki shorts, button-up shirts and broad-brimmed hats of the late ’80s.

Team Spirit

Apart from maintaining the cleanliness of one’s designated personal area, we generally worked as a team. We gathered firewood and lit fires by rubbing sticks taken from surrounding trees. The entire team took turns to prepare food in the aluminum camping pots we had borrowed from our parents. Led by a few teachers, we were a group of little city boys determined to survive the harsh African wilderness with very little to protect us from the elements. We let nothing stop us from enjoying the moonlit-but-eerie nights in the open after having left nervous but proud mothers at home.

Sunrise in the Wilderness

Mornings greeted us with the bright sunlight that initially shone on our campsite as streaks of light struggling to bypass the maze of trees blocking its way. This remained the case until mid-mornings when it would rise right above the site with a bemused but glowing appearance. The afternoons were spent exploring the conservancy, cooking, eating, cleaning and going through our scouting drills. Learning to tie various types of knots with ropes took a new dimension as we discovered practical uses of our skills in the bush. Despite spending only two nights at the campsite, everyone left with the general feeling of having connected with nature in the most profound way.

Game Boy > Camping

Tim S.

Camping has always been a favorite activity of mine, but like most campers, I’ve experienced my fair share of scary camping experiences. One such experience occurred over a decade ago when I was still young. I hadn’t gone camping much, only one other time. I was not so much scared at the thought of camping but disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to play my Game Boy for a week. My parents had described it as a “welcome break” from technology, while I just thought of it as the sole event stopping me from reaching the next level in Mario.

Despite this, as we took the hour-long journey to the campsite, I slowly grew interested in the idea and looked forward to experiencing the wilderness in all its glory. I actually ended up having quite a lot of fun. Swimming in the lake, hiking — even gathering wood for the campfire — camping didn’t seem so bad after all. Then came the point when I had to use the bathroom. Of course, in the “civilized world,” getting rid of your bodily “unpleasantness” was simply a matter of going to the bathroom and doing what needed to be done. I had gotten so used to the luxuries of automatic toilets and running water that surviving without them seemed unthinkable. I walked into what my parents called the “bathroom” and saw nothing but a hole. I looked at the hole and back at my parents utterly aghast, wondering how I was going to use this thing. They explained and left me to my own devices. After doing the deed, I had never felt more dirty in my life and was desperately in need of a bath, or at least an extensive visit to the lake. The deed was done though, and I had survived the worst. Or so I thought.

The day had ended and it was time to go to sleep. As I sat in the shoddily built tent, I noticed some strange noises in the tent. Of course, my parents were in the other tent, and I was stuck with whatever beast the wilderness had decided to bestow on me. I didn’t know what to do,  but remembered a book about wolves that explained that they barked to scare off their attackers.

Panicking, I “barked” as best as I could until my parents ran into the tent. I then saw the wild beast and it turned out to be nothing more than a squirrel rummaging through our things. I had enough though, enough of the so-called “bathrooms” and enough of these monsters terrorizing me in my sleep. I wanted to go home.

Inadvertent Camping on Our Camping Trip

Dylan N.

It was the summer of 2012 and I had just gotten over a case of walking pneumonia. As the three-week regimen of antibiotics neared its end, my girlfriend and I departed on our cross-country trip to Oakland, California over the objections of my mom (“you’re still sick, honey”), my dad (“the car will never make it”), and her ballet teachers (“do you know what two weeks of break will do to your form?”). The first stop was Tanya’s childhood home in Vermont, where we picked up a tent — unused for years — and two tattered sleeping bags. As we set up the tent that first night I finally disclosed that I had never been camping before, but I said I would follow instructions and we set off with confidence. The car was a 2000 Subaru Outback that my brother had learned to drive on before handing it over to me for my teenage experiments.

I’d blown the bass when I was seventeen so our listening choices were limited — Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and few others made the cut. Our plan was to camp every night, but we made it to Buffalo the first night and decided it was too dark. We stayed in a motel. Day two, we got lost and ended up outside Elkhart, Indiana, with no campgrounds desired or apparent. It was day three that Tanya started coughing and getting headaches. On day four we found ourselves at an emergency medical clinic outside Janesville, Wisconsin. It appeared she had caught my pneumonia. I drove while she took pills and slept. On day seven, we were insistent that we would finally camp. We had all this gear — sickness or no, we were going to experience the joy of the outdoors. So up Wyoming’s Big Horn mountains we went. The Subaru had other plans, though.

It refused to pass 25 miles per hour, groaning the whole way. Cars honked to pass. I’d try to pull over to a non-existent shoulder along the winding mountain roads. It was 10 p.m. by the time we got to our campsite and there was no motel for dozens of miles, So, Tanya, still pneumatic, and I, simply incompetent, attempted our camping adventure. We couldn’t start a fire until we lit a tin of emergency cooking oil on fire with a lighter. The can opener was broken, so we sawed open a can of beans with a knife and tried to avoid eating the shards of floating tin. We got the tent set up under the lights of the untrustworthy Subaru. We shivered through the night, unprepared for the mountainous cold.

The next morning, we got in the car and, while eating eggs at a diner an hour later, we agreed that we’d stick to motels until we got to California.

Falling from Grace: A Lesson Learned at Mount Pocono

David C.

I don’t run as much as I used to. I used to run every morning, before daybreak, six miles through the Pennsylvania countryside, luxuriating in the solitude, enjoying a world with a population of one. I used to like lapping up the miles, feeling the seasons change right to my bones, breathing in the black, moisture-saturated loam of the forest floor under my feet. All of that changed on June 6, 1989. This was my third week-long camping excursion to Mount Pocono, a pleasant two-hour drive from my home in West Chester.My buddies and I chose Mount Pocono because of the awesome running trails. My favorite was a 10K which began and ended on Manor Drive, rising some 500 feet past the aptly-named Summit Avenue and Cliff Road.

No wristwatch with me in my tent that morning — just my well-tempered biological clock, its mechanism honed by years of use, which told me “time to get up — time to run.” By the time I’d laced up my Nike’s and ached through the usual, obligatory stretching, a chorus of crows had already started up, heralding those first rays splitting through the crisp morning air, inviting me to a celebration of my own physicality. I distinctly recall thinking, “crows — sounds like an omen.”

Best time on the trail was 51 minutes and I was determined that morning to beat it. Hubris? Maybe. I didn’t care. There was something outside of me, some unseen energy pushing my feet faster than they’d ever moved before, something pitting me against the ticking of my stopwatch, a relentless, primordial pounding which pushed me relentlessly up the side of the mountain. They say you never remember what happened just before an accident. They’re right.

I came to on the side of the cliff. The first thing I saw in the hazy light was some yellow moss clinging to the trunk of a pine. The second thing I saw was blood. It was running down my arm, settling with wanton disregard on the now glistening leaves of a may apple. My head hurt and it was wet, dripping. I reached up to find the source. When I touched skull instead of hair, I knew I was in trouble. I looked around. There, not far from the trunk of the pine, was a piece of my scalp, just lying there. I looked up the mountain to see the trail above me, an impossible ascent, 75 feet separating me from any hope of rescue. I pulled myself up a few feet, then slipped back down. Over and over, the same ritual.“No one is here to help you — you idiot,” I told myself.

Now or never. With one final burst of improbable adrenalin, I got some momentum. I made it back to the trail after what seemed an eternity and was eventually rescued by another runner. When the surgeon in the emergency room told me more about compound skull fractures than I’d ever wanted to know, I resolved that I’d heal and that this wouldn’t affect my running. But it did.

I still like to run, still get up before the sun rises, still camp with the same group of friends at Mount Pocono most summers. I even visit that trail off Manor Road. But I don’t run there anymore. And, when the crows speak, I listen.

Camping Reimagined

Mark T.

Being a dad is something I never imagined and it has shaken everything I thought I knew about myself. I loved camping as a kid, every part of it. From the highway rumble across state lines, sometimes into Canada, to the primeval forest destinations in the total absence of any form of civilization. We didn’t camp next to a bunch of RVs around a state park pavilion. We camped in the serious wild. My boy is the exact opposite. He doesn’t see the point of camping without an iPad mini. He wants race cars and star ships in his sleeping bag. To him, it doesn’t count as a campfire without strawberry-flavored marshmallows. There’s another thing that parenthood has taught me which I never was very good at: compromise.

My wife and I have reimagined camping to make it a positive experience for him without a ton of power-struggle wrangling about what camping is supposed to be. I’ll always have my childhood memories of camping, which I loved. Now, this is for him. As I write this, I’ve just returned from one-day camping trip and I’m planning the next. Instead of clearing out all of our schedules for a communications-dark, cross-country wilderness campaign, camping for us now means a day grilling on the beach and home by dusk.

Our boy helps up pack up the tent, prep the grill, select the snacks and pick out a modest amount of toys. In fact, he has become much more cooperative and generous as he sees how it benefits him in other areas. Perhaps we all do. Our day camping expeditions combine some of the coolest aspects from my idea of camping, like exploring the raw power of nature, with his, like running around outside with toys that make noise. This fall, he’s graciously agreed to join us on what we now now call “night camping.”

This involves mud and fire, sleeping on the ground, the cries of animals in the night, steep climbs and deafening silence. It’s a very different experience, but there’s no reason we can’t both have our own ideas about what a play day is all about.

Why I’ll Never Go Camping With You

Theodore B.

It always puzzles my friends when I freak out at the first mention of camping. They start talking about taking a trip into the mountains and living off the land for a weekend and I’m recoiling in fear and angst. Of course, if they knew why I hated camping so much, they’d understand. It happened when I was 12-years-old and living in in suburban Kansas City.

I had just moved to town and joined Boy Scouts to make some friends, which worked nicely. I even got a merit badge on my first day. But my thoughts on Boy Scouts changed the first time I took a camping trip. It wasn’t an exotic trip, just a jaunt to the Kansas City Zoo, where we were to stay overnight. But that cold October night was the end of my camping career, as I woke up in my makeshift tent in a puddle of water. Now, I’ll admit, I’m not the most hands-on of people, as I almost broke my thumbs about 10 times making a wooden bird house to get an earlier merit badge. But I was pretty sure that I constructed a good enough tent for a dry night’s sleep. However, torrential rains poured down on the Kansas City Zoo on the night of my camping trip. Because I can sleep through anything (I’ve slept through a 4.4 magnitude earthquake before) I didn’t notice that water was leaking under the tent and accumulating around my sleeping bag — at least consciously.

My subconscious sure as heck knew what was going on, as I had a dream where I was drowning in the middle of the ocean, causing me to abruptly wake up. Except it wasn’t exactly a dream. As I woke up, I noticed I was surrounded by water. I wasn’t submerged by any means, but my sleeping bag was all that was keeping me from being completely immersed in a pool of water. I understandably panicked, jumped up and uprooted my tent from its moorings. It was still raining hard and now I had to find a dry place to sleep. So I folded up the tent quickly to move somewhere else. The rain, which had been falling for hours, made the ground muddy and slick, which I noticed as I slipped and fell twice — first on my back, then on my face.

Covered in mud, drenched and angry, I finally found a dry spot under the tree and fell asleep, only to be the butt of jokes in the morning when I woke up due to my mud-covered clothes and face. So now you know why I don’t like camping. So please, stop asking me to go.

Surf’s Up (and Sometimes Down)

Ceejay T.

One can never go wrong with the sun and sea for a summer camp. With this in mind, me and my three best friends ventured on a surfing camp in a sea haven called Baler, in the province of Aurora located in the northern region of the Philippines. Leaving at midnight in an old Hyundai family van to escape city traffic, and, after six hours of 230-kilometer rough road adventure, we arrived at the Aliya Surf Camp located in the town’s famed Sabang Beach. We chose bunk-bed style accommodation which still offers modernity with air-conditioning, cable TV, Wi-Fi and hot showers.

The Camp Life

Our three-day camp life consisted of home-cooked breakfasts courtesy of our talented cook, Loring, who whipped up gastronomic miracles from large cans of Hormel corned beef sautéed with gigantic onions, local pan de sal bread, wads of all-yolk scrambled eggs, and potfuls of steaming black coffee, the perfect nourishment to send us off on dawn patrol. After morning surf sessions, we headed to the beach picnic park where our hot packed meals await. Hammocks, tents and trailer cars dotted the beach grounds not a few miles away. The rest of the day would be spent making friends, surf-skating (if one has the equipment), photography for the profound souls and more daring surfing adventures in the late afternoons, when the waves are more aggressive and perfect for practicing 360-degree maneuvers on long-awaited A-frame waves.

Surf’s Up

My surfing coach was a young and handsome locale, Danilo, whose appreciation of my basic skills (at least I’m no surf Barney), patience for my misplaced surfing amp and aggro, in addition to commitment to correcting old habits (jerking my knee that foils a deck stand or reversing on a perfectly good curve spot), made me admire and pity him at the same time. An improvement was called for, not to get decent ROI from my camp investment (time, money, effort) but to compensate the travails of this young man in making a surfing protégé out of an awkward rubber duck. After three days of mostly rain-drenched tutorials, I proved to be the stubborn one and by the end of the session, I turned into the free-spirited, respectable surfer chick that we both envisioned, never mind my fuchsia rashguard with shameless Billabong splashed over it.

Though I’m far from being a photogenic muller or a fierce locked-inner, I definitely conquered fresh waves with my improved bailing and occasional charging which served me well off the beach. I use them in cramped public transport and to ward off attention from workplace volunteer-seekers. Amazing what three days of serious surf camp can do.

Three Friends, No Water, No Food and Nowhere to Sleep

Monica V.

Some might say that spending a couple of days with two close friends in the middle of the nature is the best vacation someone can have, right? Well, it is true and it’s even more exciting when you don’t plan. It was on a Thursday night when two other friends and I decided to embark into the adventure of our lives — a weekend mountain getaway. We hit the road the following morning with little luggage and a list with a couple of landmarks to visit and trails to explore. There were so many things to do and see that a weekend seemed only a fraction of what we needed.

Everything was going smoothly and according to the (nonexistent) plan. We had managed to improvise and do everything that we wanted to do, mainly guided by locals and knowledge. On the last day we took the road less traveled, guided only by our thirst of adventure. Our plan was to “conquer” a mountain peak and to reach a cave with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. The hike would take us deep into the forest, only were the wild beasts would dare to go, on a road that according to locals will take 10 hours. So, what could go wrong, right? Well, a few hours in, it became apparent that we were lost in the middle of the woods with nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and nowhere to sleep.

Going back was not a viable choice since it was close to sunset, so we decided to camp for the night and head back to the city the next day. Camping was not so bad. We were lucky enough to find a hollow in the ground where we sheltered and we spent the night telling camp stories. We each took turns in telling funny and scary ghost stories.

We went from “The Killer in the Backseat,” “Humans Can Lick, Too,” “Buried alive,” “The Hook-man” to “Bride-and-Seek” and my favorite “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.”

The night passed quickly, with us sleeping in turns. The next morning, we decided to go back a little and check the marks on the trees again because we were even more determined to “conquer” the peak. Our efforts paid off and we reached our destination. The trip was amazing, camping was a more rewarding experience, and now we are closer than ever, due to the adventure. Or maybe due to the camp stories? Since then, I took a class on how to survive into the wild and I’ve learned new tricks.

In Manhattan There Are No Bears

Mary B.

I’m a New Yorker. To say that I don’t like the outdoors would be an understatement. I mean, I don’t mind a picnic in Central Park or having a cocktail on the Highline on a warm summer’s eve. But activities like that are a far cry from actually attempting to exist in nature. Sleeping under the stars sounds romantic, sure, until you actually find yourself covered in bugs and sweat and mud and stretched out over a bed of rocks, unable to close your eyes for a single moment without something poking through the thin sleeping bag or biting at your skin and jarring you awake. I think camping is one of the most extreme forms of masochism that humans have ever invented.

The only time I’ve ever ended up on a camping trip was when my two best friends, Karen and Chloe, coerced me to go hiking upstate with them.

“It’s so beautiful in the mountains!” Karen cheered.

“It’s fall! We’ll get to hike through the foliage!” Chloe chimed in.

Their eyes lit up as they spoke.

“We can bring red wine and a guitar and play songs around a campfire!” they both said, almost in unison.

The way they painted the setting, it didn’t sound so bad. I figured I would be with my favorite people and it would be a chance to get out of New York for a little while, something all New Yorkers yearn to do on a near-daily basis. Fast-forward to us wandering through a woodsy trail in New Paltz with our backpacks strapped on, thirsty as hell and riddled with mosquito bites. We were on our way back downhill from a four-hour hike up into the hills and I was ready to collapse, fuel up with water and have a good meal. We made our way back to the car just before the sky started to drizzle. As we were nearing the end of the path, we heard a rustle in the woods. I froze.

“What the hell was that?” Chloe murmured.

We looked ahead and saw a furry black mass crawling on all fours out into the path. The sun had begun to set and a chilly breeze whipped my hair over my eyes. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears.

“You guys…is that…a bear?” Karen whispered through clenched teeth.

All three of us were huddled together in the center of the path. I nodded. Chloe turned around slowly and began walking back the way we came.

“It’s okay,” I said, trying to remember my wilderness survival skills from Brownie camp 20 years prior.

“We just have to back off, slowly. Don’t make any sudden moves or loud noises.”

We both started inching back on the path and then turned together and walked toward Chloe, who was already quite a bit ahead of us. I couldn’t bring myself to look back, but I could have sworn I heard paws scuffling right behind me, cracking twigs and clawing at loose berries the entire way. When we reached the end of the path, which had another exit to the park, I transitioned into a full-on dead sprint and didn’t stop until I reached the car in the empty parking lot. Karen and Chloe were right behind me.

“Holy crap!” someone yelled.

“Did we just see a bear five feet away from us?!” I yelled back.

“That actually happened?”

We all jumped in the car and shut the doors quickly. Outside the lot was empty, and the sky was starting to turn dark. The camp ranger station was shut tight and the wind was howling through the trees.

“There’s no way in hell I’m sleeping outside tonight,” Chloe said.

“Me neither,” I quickly agreed, hoping this meant we were going to hightail it back to Manhattan and civilization immediately.

Karen turned around to look at me in the backseat of their SUV.

“Well, that seat folds down. We could just lay the sleeping bags out the long way and try to sleep back there.”

“All three of us?” I said, looking around at the available space. It seemed like it would have been tight for just one.

“Well, it’s that or pitch a tent and risk a bear attack,” Chloe said, turning to peer back at me too.

We all sat in silence for a minute before a sharp crack of thunder shook the car, and the sky opened up and started pouring buckets of rain. Karen started laughing hysterically as the rain washed over the car in sheets.

“This is hilarious,” she cried.

“What else could go wrong?”

“Please don’t say that,” I begged her.

They crawled in the back with me, and the three of us set up our sleeping bags and opened a bottle of wine, huddled together in the muggy car.

“At least the rain will keep the bear away,” Karen said to no one in particular.

“I have to pee,” Chloe said.

“I think there are mosquitoes in here,” I said, swatting at my neck with my free hand and trying not to spill my wine.

And that’s how we spent the next 10 hours, sitting and listening to the rain inside a locked SUV in a parking lot in New Paltz, sleeping with one eye open until the sun rose. We were able to step outside and stretch our achy bodies before getting back on the road for our trip back to New York, which I promised I would never consider leaving for the wilderness ever again.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Joanna E.

I love wildlife, as long as said wildlife is not a raccoon. I’m not terribly fond of skunks, but at least skunks have the decency to be cute, as long as you’re downwind by several yards. Did I mention that I abhor raccoons? They’re not cute. I have evidence to prove otherwise.

For example, one evening we had bedded down after a nice fire. My children were snuggled up with me in one tent. My spouse and dog were crammed into a two-man tent nearby. As night wore on and the campsite fell to silence, the forest awoke. More specifically, the raccoons, who descended upon our campsite like Midwesterners at a barbecue joint. I had foolishly forgotten to store the dog food, which was devoured amid snarls, growls and screams worthy of “The Walking Dead.”

I sat in my tent, terrified, as the angry horde feasted. Ten feet away, my dog of 100+ pounds slept, her snores harmonizing with those of my husband. In the morning, the dog ambled from the tent, expecting to find her dinner. When she found an empty bowl instead, she turned her accusing eyes to me.

“Some watchdog,” I told her.

Thankfully, the raccoons never managed to get inside the tent. In college, I went camping with my future husband in New Mexico for Spring Break. We were heading back home but had stopped in Texas for the night after the car had broken down. I had gone to sleep in my tent after eating a late dinner. Several hours later, I awoke disoriented, believing that I was at home. The brush of soft fur over my forearm led me to feel, just for a moment, that I was in bed and that my cat had woken me. Horror dawned as I remembered where I was and that my cat was 600 miles away.

The pitter-pat of little feet on the ground tarp, however, told me that I was not alone. The telltale musk accompanying the creature’s passing indicated that it was a skunk, and it was looking for the exit. The little animal made another pass around my body. In a panic, I sat up and unzipped the tent, ushering the creature and his pungent aroma out of the tent, which in fact was brand-new and belonged to my future sister-in-law. (Try living that one down.) Though the skunk was good-natured enough not to unleash his natural defenses in my direction, I’ve never figured out how he got in the tent in the first place. I’ll probably continue camping for the rest of my life. I’ll probably even enjoy it, as long as there are no raccoons.

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