Why primitive camp with kids? Why primitive camp?

Several years ago, two mothers asked if we could recommend a good camping spot for them and their four kids. It would have to include paddling.  No other conditions.  And would we join them?

We recommended Nick’s Road campsite off Womack Creek: a very large individual campsite in Tate’s Hell State Forest, 3.75 miles upstream from the Womack Creek Campground landing.   It is very secluded and Womack creek above that site  narrows and then forms two options which can lead to all sorts of adventures for active kids.

They could scream their heads off and no one would hear them (except us).  That campsite has a raised grill, a picnic table and a fire pit. No other amenities.

Fire pits are very important with kids.  Ask most camp savvy kids what words would come to their mind when you say “firepit”.  In most cases you will get  “graham crackers, marshmallows and milk chocolate” or just “some more’s”.   That’s why fire pits are important.  It also conjures up stories: ghost stories for the older kids, just stories for the littler ones.

It was to be a two night camp, but heavy rains were forecast the first night, so we delayed camping till the next night.  However, the kids made the most of it.   The river was high which meant that the upper reaches of the creek beyond the campsite were open for a longer explorations by boat.

One canoe, one stand up paddle board, two sit on top kayaks and four sit-inside kayaks.  Going down the river we were a motley crew: no one was going straight and mid-way there was an exchange of boats: SUP to canoe, to sit on top and variations — every child in a different boat they started out in.

There was enough wood to have both an evening and a morning fire.  Stories were told, some more’s were eaten and no one was concerned about bedtime.  The night was clear and the stars were out — perfect.

As it was, the kids got up earlier than the adults and had already explored the upper reaches of Womack creek.  They were waiting for us to get up so they could announce how many snakes they had seen.  And other wild things.  There was much to see, much to do and, yes, they were starving for breakfast.

It was a great two days of camping and we had that section of Tate’s Hell all to ourselves and the barred owls, the snakes and all the critters seen and unseen.

Just this week we took two grandchildren camping at Wright Lake Campground in the Apalachicola National Forest.   It’s gotten much more traffic since the forest adopted a Recreation.gov reservation system.  We like that people have found this great campground, but wish that they would appreciate the natural light of day and night.

A camper turned on the large camp light over the absent host’s site even before it got dark.  We’ve camped at that campground many times and the host would usually ask us if we preferred it off or on and we would always say off.  This is the first time we have camped where that light was on.  Even though our usual campsites were far away from the host’s site, we preferred the light of nature — that’s why we were camping.   The restrooms were very well lit and we wore headlamps.

This time, however, the light was almost over us.  When dusk turned to night, our fire lit and going,  it seemed we were on a stage — with floodlights on us.  We could barely make out the stars.  So one of us turned the light off.  Within fifteen minutes a troupe of three returned to turn the light on.  The older grand daughter who has a droll sense of humor asked how many people does it take to turn on one switch.

Hard to feel that sense of wonderment of the night sky with its sparkling lights coming from eons of light years away when artificial light masks it all.   We were unable to give our grand kids that sense.  And, the 8 year old wants to be an astronaut.

It reminded me of the camping trip in Tate’s Hell.  Except for our fire and our headlamps which were turned off most of the time, there was night all around us.  The night creatures could continue to hunt in the dark; the stars were oh, so, visible. And, by contrast, the fire looked and felt so great compared to beyond the perimeter when it’s light no longer cast shadows.  We humans are drawn to light and fire, but that does not mean that we should extend artificial lighting beyond our immediate need for safety.  It gave them experience of the night in the woods and the kids loved it.

Next year, we’re camping instead at Tate’s Hell State Forest.  Either on the New River to paddle and camp, or Womack Creek and camp at Nick’s Road campsite. On the New, if the river is at moderate height,  there are lots of sand bars to explore; if the river is low, there are even more exposed sandbars and wading areas.  Of course, regardless, there will be paddling.  Fishing is another option on the waterways of Tate’s Hell SF.

The other good site with kids is Loop Landing on the Crooked River — there is a family of river otters which has a burrow under one of the tree roots near the landing.  There is a family of river otters past Nick’s road campsite, also, but one has to paddle quietly to find them.  In both sites one can hear the barred owls call at night.   For extended stays, $2 day use fee will allow you to use the showers at the Womack Creek campground.

After this week, I am so thankful for the primitive sites in Tate’s Hell State Forest which can still give campers a sense of day and night, of night creatures and day creatures and the sense of wonder which our ancestors many hundreds of years ago must have felt when all they had was a small fire to give light at night, warmth when cold and heat to cook, but which night sky produced a glory of possibilities, including direction to other areas not yet discovered.

The lights at Wright Lake campground did produce something which caught our eyes for a long time:  the light attracted insects; bats flitted around having a feast.  It was good to know that there was an active colony of bats nearby and that they were having dinner at our expense.

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