My dad was a serious hunter and camper. He was in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, he called them the “ski troops” but then they invaded Italy and fought all the way to Germany and war’s end without donning a ski once, and when my sister and I were little kids we were camping in the back yard all the time, using gear he had brought back from the war or a tent his father had used years earlier. When I grew older I had a best friend older than me, Doug Bysiewski, and we would go down back into the fields and forests behind our house and pitch a tent and stay over night, as often as we could, exploring, finding owl nests, poking snapping turtles, messing around the UMass dump, and of course smoking. Once when I was about 10 or 11 there was a huge rainstorm and the tiny creek beside our house which drained into a wide swamp past the corn field, where Doug and I trapped muskrats every winter, flooded, enormously, such that the swamp was flooded, too, reaching all the way to our back yard, so my dad took the little 13 foot cedar canoe his dad, the serious hunter in our family, had built in the 1920s, and Doug and I took the 12 foot Old Town we had, and we pushed off from our back yard and followed the flooded rivers all the way to the Connecticut River ten miles away, passing over fences and losing the channel, wandering through forests, beneath trees. It was a great adventure.
There was nothing to do in Amherst during the summer. Nothing. We kids got into trouble because what else was there to do? UMass was expanding with all these new buildings being built, a gold mine for mischief, rummaging through half built buildings, stealing smudge pots – remember them? – riding our bikes all over hell and gone, seeking excitement. We couldn’t go to work picking tobacco or cucumbers until we were 14, and when the colleges let out Amherst became a ghost town, so Doug and I camped out a lot. My dad taught us how to use an ax, build a fire, make a splint for broken bones, rig a temporary shelter, and the scoutmaster for North Amherst, a great guy, took us troops camping all the time too, on Mount Toby, where one night I woke up to find a porcupine inside the tent.
Back then, before Eastern Mountain Sports or REI, nobody did this, not really, except idiots or kids whose dads had been campers, too, and there didn’t seem to be many of them. I started using my dad’s Army mummy bag when I was 11 and used it through graduate school, it weighed a ton but was warmer than anything. He had these rubber boots, insulated, which I later used winter climbing in New Hampshire in 30 below weather and my feet stayed warm, also Army issue.
In the summer I was 12 I was sent to this camp near Mount Monadnock to get me out of the house and home town trouble, of which I was much drawn to. I carried with me all this old gear, because at this camp we ended the season with a two week long camping trip. It was the main and to me only attraction of the place, otherwise filled with pre-Ivy league boys from New Canaan and Shaker Heights and Greenwich, but it was actually an OK place. You could shoot a .22, which my dad had taught me well, chop wood, navigate with a map in the woods, which were all good, but every Friday we had greasy fish sticks and dead white mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes for lunch and we had to eat it, meaning, every Friday afternoon I got sick.
Eventually the Great Day came when we embarked on our Long camping Trip, which involved an 11 hour drive from New Hampshire all the way to Baxter State Park in Maine, this in an era before the Interstate Highways had been built. We took a huge trailer with canoes and gear and packs and supplies, including the newly invented and marketed dehydrated foods by Bolton, in cardboard boxes. The latest thing, these foods. We split into two groups, and one group paddled about 40 miles of the Penobscot River near Mt. Kathadin and the other group climbed the mountain, and then we switched places. There was some kind of campsite by a bridge over the river we used as our base camp.
The first night out we didn’t make it to the site and had to camp off the road near Millinockett, Maine, hundreds of yards from a huge stinking pulp mill, this was early August, a heat wave, and all of us sweating in our bags breathing in the pulp stink while mosquitoes the size of humming birds devoured us. Remember I was in my dad’s war mummy bag, frying.
The trip was, in memory, great fun, and an adventure, but we had our issues. The river channel was blocked by log jams and we had to beat portages through thick brush for over a mile a few times to get downstream, and there were rapids a little too large for safety, and I don’t think any of the counselors, who were just college kids, knew what they were doing. On the mountain, it rained and blew, but the mountain is dramatic. One year, the second year I went to that camp before finally turning 14 and being able to work and make some money on the farms, we took a bush whack route up Kathadin, from a side with no trails, and that was something.
Back then, there were no 10 essentials, people made fires wherever, you’d find piles of tin cans everywhere you camped, few people were in the woods, and you’d see cigarette butts everywhere.
However, that first year, and the second, too, one thing nearly ruined the entire trip. It was this dehydrated food. The meat was horrible, and the noodles never got soft, everything tasted of plastic and glue, and there was never enough. The premier feature of this food was the Bolton Biscuits, which were these hard scone-shaped biscuits you’d break your teeth against. The second year I prepared for this experience. I packed a full can of Dirty Moore beef stew and I carried that, hidden, all through the trip, every day nursing along one Milky Way Bar for 10 days, and in the 10th and last day, the last night out, I broke out the can of stew and shared it with two other boys at a separate fire. The stew lasted all of four bites each. It was fantastic.
On the way back from those trips, all of us filthy, clothing horrible, we’d get outside the State Park on the way to Millinockett and the long way home and there was a Dairy Queen there and we’d stop and each of us get an enormous cone of smoothie ice cream, twirled into a peak. My God but that ice cream was good.