Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stuff I think about in tents

Sometimes it seems that I've spent half my life in a tent. Lying in a farmer's field on fire assignments, trying to ignore the hacking fire coughs of the sleepless. Listening to the tide come in and whisper something I can't catch on a nameless island in Southeast Alaska. Perched above treeline at a sapphire lake in the Rockies, arms aching from a day of chopping trees out of the trail.

It's hard to lie to yourself in a tent, easy to be afraid. I lie awake and listen to the sounds of the forest. Bears, heading from day beds to salmon streams. The howl of a wolf. Thunder, muttering low. The walls seem flimsy, not much to keep the night out. I wonder about wind, snags, tide, lightning. There are other times when the tent is a perfect nest, all conditions aligning for a deep slumber.

In Alaska it was hard to find a good tent spot. We tried to camp on islands as much as possible, to avoid bears, even though this meant paddling long distances for water. Often the island interiors were hummocky and boggy, unsuitable for camping. Last year Barth showed me a beach leveling trick that worked great. Land on a pebbly beach. Grab a thick piece of driftwood and drag it across the surface until you have created a flat spot. Voila, the ultimate leave no trace spot: the high winter storm tide will erase all signs.

Here camping is a bit more straightforward, but still a challenge. I scan the trees to determine their stability. I want a lake view, with morning sun, but I don't want my fellow campers to be too close. In many of the lakes the Forest Service has imposed a capricious quarter mile setback. The effect is a row of tents perched on a bench above a lake like cougars, the occupants observing you as you saunter down to the lake in the evenings. But I must toe the company line so I choose a dusty spot in the approved location. There must also be good bear hanging trees lest I provide my fellow campers with evening entertainment as I attempt to hoist my bear bag in trees too small or large. I choose my home for the evening carefully.

I have five tents, each with their own purpose. There's the car camping REI dome, not great in a rainstorm. My fire tent, a big Eureka. A little one person, frail in wind but lightweight. A Big Agnes, sort of big enough for two people. And a tent that has been with me since 1990, a TadPole. I love unrolling them, shaking out the bits of sand and dirt from previous trips. I love thinking about where they have been.

So stuff I think about in tents: Bears. How cold it might get. What I'll do tomorrow. What I did today. If I have to get up and go to the bathroom. How lucky I am.


  1. I always think about whether it's worth getting up to pee in the middle of the night. I battle with myself for at least 20 minutes before inevitably getting up.

  2. We went camping in Northern California. We were in the tent when about 2am a black bear wanted to make it three. My girlfriend screamed and I can not hear for some time later. The bear died about 100 yards down the slope. Maybe a heart attack, loud noises, something odd. The ranger tried to give us hell, didn't take. We left early.


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