By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor
A friend of mine works for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. His job is to four-wheel and backpack his way up Colorado mountainsides and clear trails with his chainsaw. On his days off, he posts pictures to Facebook for every 14,000-foot mountain he summits in the Denver area. He’s at 24 and counting.
Another buddy in the Forest Service – coincidentally they’re both named Eric – has fought forest fires on an island in Washington’s Puget Sound. He and his fellow firefighters spend days at a time living in the backcountry working 14- and 16-hour shifts digging trenches and bulldozing fire breaks in the trees. They sleep in tents and eat out of cans and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
I, on the other hand, feel like I live on the opposite end of the high-adventure spectrum. I’ve rarely wandered outside of Michigan and have never left the country. I didn’t go to a university where they offered rock climbing or backcountry canoeing as electives. I regret that I’ve never seen Yellowstone National Park or the Appalachian Mountains but it doesn’t mean I never will.
Even so I’ve still taken some really great camping trips with family and friends and some of my best memories come from time spent in the Pigeon River Country State Forest with the two Erics.
I hiked the Shingle Mill Pathway with Eric Collins – “Colorado Eric” – and another friend Nathan in July 2009. We took our time covering the 12-mile loop.
The first day we stopped at Section Four Pond, an emerald-green sinkhole lake once stocked with trout. We fished for an hour in the hot sun before a thunderstorm rolled in and, for the next 20 minutes, it rained harder than I’ve ever seen before. We took shelter under overhanging branches – I chose to sit in a patch of poison ivy.
Once the storm passed Nathan caught a beautiful little rainbow trout that glimmered in the sunshine like a piece of silver jewelry.
That night, by the fire, Eric unpacked a small Rubbermaid container with all the fixings for three smores. He recited a line from “The Sandlot” as he assembled his sandwich of chocolate and marshmallow.
“First you take the graham,” he said. “You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the mallow. When the mallow’s flaming, you stick it on the chocolate then you cover it with the other end.
“THEN you stuff,” he said, taking a bite. We were rolling laughing with his ridiculously spot-on memory of the 90s movie.
MY FIRST TWO winter camping adventures were shared with Eric Dasso – “Washington Eric” – at Cornwall Flooding in the Pigeon River forest.
On the first trip we spent over an hour chopping through two feet of ice with a hatchet to try and catch a meal of panfish. Our cone-shaped hole tapered to just a couple inches wide when we finally broke through the bottom. Maybe it was all that chopping which scared the fish away but we never even got a bite.
That night our tarp shelter crinkled in the wind so much that we hardly got any sleep.
On the second time out I had a 30-minute lead ahead of Eric snowshoeing through the woods to our campsite. The sun set, it got cold, my sweat froze and I got nervous. My snowshoe caught a hidden branch and I fell. My bag chair, camera tripod and sleeping bag came loose from the straps of my pack and sank into the snow. I was miserable and it was the scariest moment I’ve ever had in the woods.
I collected my things and eventually made it to camp in the dark. I had time to build a fire and dry some of my clothes before Eric finally showed. He had reluctantly followed my tracks into thick tag alders knowing I’d made a wrong turn. Instead of taking the correct route, he pursued me to make sure I was OK.
Now there’s a friend.
THAT’S what these kinds of trips are good for. Whether it’s one night or 10, special bonds form when you spend time together in the outdoors.
Another friend of mine, Alex Code, has climbed rock cliffs in at least six states and met his girlfriend on a month-long canoeing excursion they were leading together in Canada. They had 20-some college freshmen tagging along as they paddled from lake to lake, spending as much time on the water as they did on shore.
He taught one girl, who had never canoed before, how to hold her paddle sideways while portaging over a bog so that it would stop her fall if she were to break through the floating mat of moss.
Another student ran screaming into the woods when the constant swarms of mosquitoes caused him to crack the first night.
He’s spent the night on a rock ledge jutting out from a cliff face and resumed climbing the next day.
Alex told me these stories Saturday while we fished together on Manuka Lake. This was no high-adventure trip, just a short drive and a very short walk onto the ice where we caught a couple bluegill and a bass.
I told him about a five-day hike I took along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula – my longest and greatest backcountry trip ever but a cake-walk compared to his experiences.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said. “I love that place.”
— Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.