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April 2005

Oy, Wilderness: First-Time New York Campers

Three days. Two nights. Five New Yorkers who had never slept outdoors. And a leader who has some issues with map and compass. What could go wrong?

The rain beat down, the dark got darker, and the Duraflame fire continued to gutter and burn through the downpour, and I sat in a nylon shelter with Robbin and Missy and told psycho-killer-in-the-woods stories, which I personally believe are as central to the total wilderness experience as fiber-filled sleeping bags and padded hipbelts. I started with the Horrible Scraping on the Roof of the Car, followed up with the Hook in the Door. I switched gears with The Backbreaker of Minocqua, then built slowly and inexorably toward the I Want My Liver closer, the one where I turn on the headlamp at low beam and scary angle. Now this was camping. We screamed, we laughed, we gobbled the rapidly diminishing chocolate cache.

And then I heard something terrifying. I heard it through the patter of rain, which had slowed to a drizzle. Harsh, cranky grumbling from Steve and Jack.

I had planned a dinner of grilled chicken, rice, and vegetables; a hot, wonderful end to a day of effort and new experiences. I had even stuffed a bottle of olive oil in Jack’s pack when he wasn’t looking. But it was still raining. I didn’t see how we could cook tonight. And the gang was hungry. I rushed to the food bag, grabbed the next day’s lunch (individually wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and mint chocolate chip cookies). “Enjoy dinner!” I exclaimed, throwing the plastic bags into tents. “Keep your spirits up.”

Twenty minutes later, the rain stopped.

From the tents they shuffled, cookie crumbs skittering down their rain shells, jelly smeared on their scowling faces. They huddled around the Duraflame, to which we added real logs. They stared at the fire. I studied their faces. It had been a long, exhausting day, I said, filled with adventure, marred by some setbacks, but as a group we had overcome it. Silence. I took that as a good sign.

In retrospect, I see now, it might have been a mistake to have brought the cool camping stool. And perhaps my packing instructions should have been more specific than “don’t forget fleece.” It was bitterly frigid. I sat comfortably on the stool in my long pants, long underwear, sweater, jacket, windshell, and stocking cap, while the group squatted, stood, and perched awkwardly on Jack’s rock seats, shivering underneath one or two layers, continuing to scowl.

Jack broke the silence. “Hey, Captain Cook, thanks for telling us to be sure to bring shorts. Don’t know what I’d do without my shorts.”

I ignored him and suggested that everyone move closer to the flames.

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