Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 8:34 PM on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Lessons from happy camper

Efficiency, discipline — not to mention how to start a fire — among the life skills that emerge from enjoying life outdoors


Michael Armstrong

The first summer I lived in Alaska, I spent seven weeks camping out in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge working on an archaeological dig. Having grown up in Florida, I worried that I couldn't hack living outdoors in the remote Alaska wilderness. My boss, Curt Wilson, talked about a woman from New York who had freaked out the summer before on the dig and had to be sent home after a week.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. I've been camping since I was 4. While a bit colder and more rustic, living outdoors in the Arctic wasn't anything dramatically different than what I had done before. Parents, if you want to raise your kids right and give them the life skills to handle natural disasters, an understanding of nature, an appreciation for civil society and how to start a fire with one match, take your children camping.

I got a love for camping from both parents. Mom loves to tell the story of how she, her brothers and my grandparents camped along the way from Connecticut to the Pacific Ocean. During the Great Depression, Dad's family spent a year picking and packing fruit, following the crops from Florida to California. They lived in an old travel trailer.

I only have dim memories of my first big camping trip in 1960. Our family loaded up our Oldsmobile Super 88 station wagon and followed Dad's old migrant-worker route from Florida to go visit my Uncle Warren and Aunt Eleanor and my cousins in Santa Barbara, Calif. I remember the great sand dunes in New Mexico, numerous flat tires and pushing my cousin Beth off a log bridge in Yosemite.

It seemed like every road trip my family took, usually up north or to the Midwest to visit relatives, we stretched our budget by camping along the way. Dad built a fiberglass-coated cargo carrier for the roof so we'd have more room in the car. When camping with a family of six, you had to be organized.

Each child had half a suitcase. We each had our own camping pillow, a regular pillow cut in half. We had our own sleeping bags, too, big flannel lined monsters. Our cook gear went into a wicker basket, cutlery stashed in a special roll-up pouch Mom sewed. We cooked on a Coleman gas stove, of course.

And, of course, we had The Tent.

Modern camping gear has come a long way, particularly with tents. The Tent was a green-canvas beast, dark and musty. An interior umbrella-like system of poles kept it up. The poles would slip and slide, and inevitably pinch someone's fingers. If it rained, you didn't dare touch the sides because the water would wick through.

I learned discipline and efficiency on these family camping trips. My older sisters and I had to roll up our own sleeping bags and pack our halves of the suitcase. In setting up camp, we all had our roles. Someone helped Dad with the tent. Someone else helped with the cooking and dish washing. You didn't get out of chores camping, but somehow they seemed more fun.

After my dad went into private practice and we quit taking long road trips in favor of relaxing weeks at the beach, I still went camping. For sleepovers, my buddies and I often camped out in the back yard. In high school I went on a travel seminar with our church camp. In two vans and a station wagon our group drove out west, camping out along the way or sometimes staying at churches. Like our family, we church campers all had our jobs: put up the tent, haul water and wash dishes.

So when I moved to Alaska, of course I continued camping, and not just in the Arctic. I met my wife Jenny camping — another summer archaeological project, this one at the end of Funny River Road across the Kenai River from Sterling. In the forest near the site we lived in a complex of tents. We had a paid cook, but just like in childhood, we archaeological field workers had to do kitchen duty.

Jenny comes from a camping family, too, which is one of the reasons I love her. She grew up spending many weekends with a camping club from her hometown of Decatur, Ill. My mother-in-law Gert drove the Alaska Highway 10 times in her own little motorhome. The summer we got married, Gert parked her LeSharo RV in our driveway and stayed with us. One fall Gert cooked at a hunting camp for Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge.

Last month, Jenny and I took a week off camping around the Kenai before the tourists came. All those pleasant memories came flooding back to me, and I was reminded again of why I love to camp.

We're blessed in Alaska to have well maintained and affordable state and federal campgrounds — free sometimes if you visit in the shoulder season.

I love the atmosphere of a campground. I like how in the morning — the very early morning here — the birds wake you up with their songs. I love the easy pace of the day. I like how at night you can hear the whispers of your neighbors as one by one they go quiet and settle down to sleep. I love the simple basics of life: chop wood, carry water and cook on a Coleman stove. We even camp with our dog, Leia, the perfect camping dog since she sleeps in our tent.

I've had to camp for necessity over the years, for work, and when we moved to Homer, for six weeks as we built our cabin. I'm always glad to return to a soft bed, running water, flush toilets and hot showers. Oh, and computers and a wifi connection, too. But as long as I'm physically able, I'll camp.

I'm just a happy camper.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.