Camp Exercises

The first family camp of the season is always an exercise in what we forgot. This year our long weekend on Orcas Island had a few extra quirks, namely that we brought a boat. We have a new canoe-kayak hybrid beast because my family can’t even be normal when we get a boat. We’ve had only one go of using it before this trip. That began and ended with us nearly swamping it in a rough Lake Washington with my dad at the helm instead of my husband, so hubby was still green on this Orcas trip. I was a veteran, of course, with  my one (nearly very wet) experience.

After the extra half-hour it took to load the canoe on top of the SUV we realized that the access to the back hatch of the truck is blocked, not only by the canoe tie-downs that run from the roof to the bumper, but because the boat itself rests on the door.  No quick ice stop at Safeway. No lunch access on the ferry.



The drive from the ferry to the site is always serene and a few minutes too long. We passed some orange road signs. The first said “Fresh Oil” the second, “Loose Gravel.” It made us alert, but the road didn’t change. No clinking under the car, no shiny on the road. A couple miles up, another pair of signs. Chris read the first sign, speaking it out with a sing-song voice and feigned excitement, “Fresh Oil!” I echoed back enthusiastically, reading the second one, “Loose Gravel!” Fresh Oil, Loose Gravel all along the way. Just signs.

On check-in the camp office told us we could change camp sites if we wanted to. We considered it over lunch and went to check out our reserved site. As we went to move the picnic table into shade, two of the spongy, moss-covered boards pulled off, revealing a sagging remnant of what used to be a table. We sat at it and ate. Our campsite was the last one available when I booked, and we’re situated next to Mr. Texas, with the giant RV and even larger, raucous family, decked out in gear. The only division between our sites is a three-foot hedge of wispy bushes. We’re staring at the side of his house-on-wheels as our entertainment during the meal. Before everyone else finished enjoying the entertainment, I rushed back to the office. Due to a stroke of luck, a cancellation had shifted several arrivals around and we were able to move to a broad, shaded, flat site with a new blonde pine picnic table. Tall trees surrounded and covered us. Tall brush separated us from the neighbors. We settled in. It’s open on one side so only one set of neighbors. We happily bid Mr. Texas adieu.

When we devoured lunch – before we shifted spots, because we were ravenous – I realized our second exercise: no paper towels. The first exercise, Chris relayed once we allowed ourselves to relax on the ferry ride. We were watching the scenery from the outdoor deck when he turned to me and said, “Don’t be mad but we forgot something.” I looked at the level of annoyance on his face to determine the damage. “The paddles. We left the paddles at home.” While loading up in the dark the previous night, he asked me how we had managed to fit them in the back of the truck before, when it was just a canoe ride, not all of our camping gear. He was at work for the boat’s first dip. I made wide, diagonal motions indicating that the paddles had stretched across the whole back of our SUV.

That’s when I said, “We’ll have to figure something else out.” It was the last time either of us thought about the canoe paddles until the ferry ride. So there we were carrying that darned boat on the roof of the truck, and all the life jackets – which pushed us from full to overflowing – for nothing. I let it go and wandered to the ferry railing. There were seals basking on islands as we passed. My camera was ready. I hadn’t forgotten that at least. Remember that, now.

Hoisting the canoe back on the roof of the truck was easier the second time. Maybe it was lunch. We rolled through camp to number 47 and began unpacking again. We remembered tents, sleeping bags, flashlights. The kids even set up their own tent all by themselves. Basics covered, time for a little explore. Strolls on the rocky shore; watching gulls and vultures clean up fish scraps from this morning’s catch. The kids played tetherball while Chris and I wandered and took in the shoreline.

How long until run? 
We took a drive back to town to see if it has changed since last time we were there. Fresh Oil, Loose Gravel, Fresh Oil, Loose Gravel, and you’re there. It’s a beautiful little seaside town with expensive things you don’t need in all the shop windows, and summer reading books, blown glass decorations, metalwork, wood things, and trinket-crap-from-China with the name of the place on it… and not a single public restroom anywhere unless you buy some of those expensive things you don’t need. But I love it. It has great restaurants, beautifully flowered sidewalks with white picket fences, and my favorite view from any seaside town I have visited.



When we’re at home, my eight-year-old is happy to sit in front of screens. Not moving suits his desires fine but that’s only because video games are wildly addictive to sweet, young little minds. I always count the minutes once we’re away, until he quits asking for his DS, a phone to play, a video. Then it happened. We were returning from our jaunt into Eastsound, the quaint, main town on Orcas Island, when he asked if he could get out and walk from the entrance to the campsite rather than ride. We oblidged. He popped out of his seat and broke into a run to race the truck the whole way. He won of course, and my heart soared. Nothing beats that joyful juvenile smile after his body really goes. He ran each time we returned to camp for the rest of the trip. He raced the truck, his brother, me, whoever would race him. He loves to run. I like to let him.

And now we return to the exercises in things we forgot… dinner prep begins. The exercise revealed garlic salt, curry powder, paper towels… did I say that already? Paper towels. How did I spend a full day packing and leave all this stuff behind? So we’re left with noodles, canned salmon, dried cherries… that goes together with… (imagine creative maneuvers and digging through bags, here) …mayo and honey mustard. Not curry and garlic. Sigh. (I spared you the food photos. Thank me later.)

No one complains. We move on. Except I spent several prep moments shaving the broccoli. It was yellowing because I buy organic broccoli now and it stays green for about 8 minutes once out of the store. Because no chemicals. So the broccoli is slightly yellow. Since I only give my family… everything I can possibly manage, I used my camp knife to shave the almost-sprouted top off before cooking the evening’s blessed vegetable. Exercise almost complete for the day.

The 12-year old, Alex and I carried the dirty pans and plates to the community sink outside the bathrooms so we could wash them. I never pack a sponge, not because I don’t want to use one, but because I usually leave the tertiary stuff to chance. Kitchen sink, you know… As a result I always end up washing pans with a paper towel. And  you know where we are with those. But it’s a private campground and my $70 per night for a camp site apparently also afforded me a kitchen sponge to wash dishes. Exercise. And there was warm water in the biffy, so Alex carried cups of it out to wash and rinse with. Almost like home.

Canoeing without paddles
The San Juan Islands sit in the maw of Washington State’s missing corner. At least that’s how I’ve always seen it. Where Puget Sound opens to the straight of Juan de Fuca, right at that opening sits a scattering of islands. Their purity is kept unencumbered only because of their remoteness and relative inaccessibility. Our beloved ferry system (and I am not being sarcastic here: I love our ferries) takes us to only four of the islands in the San Juans. There are 428 to 743 San Juan Islands, depending on the tide. Which suggests the size of some of them, but the ferries take us to some of the largest.

As the heat bleeds off of the day, we attempt the canoe. We’ve been told that if the camp’s rental canoes aren’t in use, we can borrow the paddles but once we load, drive, unload and prepare to set her afloat, we’re told the management has reconsidered. No can do. Full rental required. Chris stomps and pounds fists. They offer half-price for the last hour of the day (though there are only 45 minutes remaining) so we pay, grab the paddles and shove off.

Over the kelp beds, around the point, into an inlet. This sea, the newly named Salish Sea is glassy perfection for the boat’s maiden sea voyage. We paddle. We float. We study the rock formations along the shore and under us in the clear water. Chris takes photos from the dock.

A puffin surfaces nearby with three minnows in his beak. I point it out to the kids and it pauses for both to see before diving for another fish. I trade with Chris at the end of the dock, and catch a few photos of them reflecting as they paddle in the serene, fading day.

Mr. Texas has the largest possible mobile home-thingy on the planet. One more inch in any direction and it wouldn’t be street legal. They would have been our neighbors if we have stayed at campsite 60. They have a full sized charcoal grill that is constantly puffing, piles of bikes, skateboards, helmets and hula hoops, and a row of solar path lights in faux stained glass pattern edging their “property.” Their new neighbors are grilling dogs in the dark at 10:30 pm as I pass by on my way to the bathroom.

Marshmallows, popcorn, fire, sunset, and frog catching. The girls a few campsites over were at the sink after dinner, waiting to wash behind us. They were covered in swamp mud from toes to knees and fingers to elbows. “We’re catching bullfrogs!” The bubbly one said. I asked what they would do if they caught one, “Eat it!… No, I’m kidding.” I like her. But all the kids seem to be trying to catch the darned bullfrogs. Why does everyone need to catch a bullfrog? Poor frogs. Let them sing. They’re trying to make more frogs… so you can catch them.

Late into the evening, we sat together at camp. Our kids reflected the light of our little camp fire with wonder on their faces as popcorn kernels are devoured by the fire’s flame.

The bright spotlight of a full moon lit the campground. The stars were all washed out. Our tiny campfire roasted extra jumbo marshmallows to a perfect golden brown. We fell asleep about 11:30 once the big loud neighbors settled down. It was only 90 minutes after the posted “10 pm to 8 am silent time – STRICTLY ENFORCED”. Good thing it was so highly advertised as strictly enforced because nobody adhered to it, nobody cared. Except us and the bike campers behind us. They were a church group or some other youth group, done with dinner by seven and round their own campfire singing gospel and Johnny Appleseed for us.

The baby seal’s name is Marbles. He was abandoned in the last couple days and has been hanging around the resort boats. I first found him while strolling the docks. He startled me as I came around the end of a large boat. His tiny gray head bobbed in the water and looked up at me. He was snuffling and making puppy noises, sniffing the end of a large boat motor.

Returning from the shore with one kid in each hand, they are relaxed, smiling contentedly, both loving on me, hugging. I feel myself relax completely for the first time. Everyone’s happy, we’re in a pretty place. These are the moments.

I woke at 3 am having to pee so badly that it drove me to dress, shoe, and headlamp. Though once I was out of the tent, I didn’t need the headlamp for the spotlight of a full moon that shone in the southwest sky. A pair of deer startled at my movement and took a few steps, wagging their black tails. I did flip on my headlamp for a second, to make sure they weren’t bears. To m dismay, they were bears!… No, I’m kidding. Then we, the deer and I, each went on our with our own business. Four am: Out of the dead silence, a metal shriek. Startled awake, I was sure a giant tree was about to fall on me, ending my life. My heart stopped cold. I gasped and gained enough consciousness to realize it was not a widow-maker, but the bike neighbors’ U-Haul door flying open at full speed. When I could breathe, I think I swore loud enough for them to hear, Chris echoed me. But I was relieved to be alive. Shuffles, packing. They were gone by five and I drifted back to sleep before the sun broke over the trees. God, I love sleeping in the wilderness… ahem, campground. Almost as quiet as back home.
Canoeing in Moran State Park
It’s not so much that we forgot Chris’s water sandals for canoeing as they broke in Bali and we haven’t put forth the effort to replace them. Exercise dodged.
“That’s an awfully thin shirt.”
“It’s comfortable… I’m camping! It’s hot.”
“Yeah, but you’re not fooling anyone… Just saying.”
I didn’t forget to pack my bra. 
The gay couple two spots over, the ones with the beautiful 14-month-old daughter and the stylish George Foreman style grill, is making dinner and drying their daughter’s tiny red and black watershoes on their tent rain fly at the top. Their campsite is immaculate, in contrast to the group that separates us. I’ve watched them up the beach and down the dock with their happy, waify, double ponytailed girl. She’s quiet, wide-eyed and content to hop barefoot from board to board up the dock, her black ponytails bobbing on each side of her head. With one dad leading and one dad following her, all three seem relaxed and aglow.

We’re out for the day. Fresh Oil, Loose Gravel, Fresh Oil, Loose Gravel and we end up at Moran State Park for some hiking, history, Mt Constitution, and canoeing, if there are… paddles.


Saturday evening Chris and I left the kids at camp for a quick sunset hike. Fresh Oil, Loose Gravel, tiny, empty parking lot, trailhead. We rushed up the hill just sure it was only 20 minutes away. That’s what the office clerk at the camp said. He’d never hiked it. Emphasis on “up.” When we’d been going for 40 minutes, I started to question the destination and whether we would make it before the sun went down. One at a time, we took turns encouraging each other up, around the next turn, running, hiking fast, run-walking, sweating, until finally after almost anhour had passed, we reached a lookout spot. We hauled ourselves up on the rocks and watched. After about 10 minutes, Chris said, “It’s pretty unusual to spend a gorgeous sunset in a place like this and feel like you really have it all to yourself. But this one does.” In the distance one boat went by, one airplane high in the sky. No other people. Just we two, and the islands and the sunset over the Pacific.

I woke up before 5 AM on our last morning, determined to see the coastline and the shore before anything woke up. My camera and I wandered down.Was the baby seal still going to be there? The rest of the camp was still asleep. It was a silent morning. The persistent bullfrog was even sleeping. Once the sun rose a little bit an eagle broke the silence before landing in the top of a tall cedar. I noticed something swimming past the end of the dock. It was an otter. He didn’t notice me so I crept up until he did. Once he saw me move, he paused his manic motion and splashing to see what I was. Several times he poked his head up out of the water, showing his whiskered smile. I startled him enough that he went under the dock, growling and huffing at me from below my feet. I smiled silently. He was three feet long. We played a game for a moment: I tried to catch a picture of him, he tried not to be afraid of me. Neither of us got very far but it was a fun game. After a few moments he got tired of me (seeing that I had no oysters) and swam off. I went over to visit the baby seal. He was still there, still sleeping, so I photographed him and didn’t wake him. Poor little guy.

When the sun rose high enough that most of the color had faded from the horizon and the waves begin to raise on the glassy bay, I turned and headed back up the dock, only then passing the first two people of the day. I asked if the boat with the seal on it was theirs. Nope. The woman said, “I wouldn’t care except it’s a baby.” The man was less than indifferent. I’m sure I could see him hoping he didn’t have to kick a seal off his boat. When I returned to my campsite, all of the tents in every direction were sawing and snoring and growling. The animals.