March 10, 2011, was opening weekend for the campground at Bear Creek Lake State Park
Opening weekend for camping at Bear Creek Lake State Park
My husband and I, married the previous July, decided to get away for an early season camping weekend. As somebody who loves being outside, surrounded by nature, and appreciates all of it, even the parts I don’t like, my husband was surprised to learn that I had never been camping as a kid. Bear Creek Lake was going to be only my second time camping. Even after my first trip the previous fall, I was in love with camping after just one night. Since we couldn’t wait for later in the spring and warmer weather, we opted for Bear Creek Lake since it was just west of Richmond and not in the mountains. We love the mountains and visit them any chance we get, but we are also well aware of how cold it can be at night. It seemed to be safer, and warmer, to stay a little closer to home. I can hear Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons laughing her trademark “Ha!” even now.
A little background about us. We got married on the beach in July of 2010. Almost as soon as we were married, trouble started. My husband was in the Air Force, but that summer he was honorably discharged when budget cuts hit Langley. By the end of August, he was unemployed. We had bought a house the previous February to take advantage of the first time home buyer’s tax credit, and we were counting on his Air Force job. I am a high school teacher and work in one of the lowest paying school systems in the state of Virginia. To top it off, even though I was promised a raise every year, salaries froze shortly after I was hired (in fact, six years after I started teaching, I still haven’t stepped up on the pay scale because it is still frozen). We knew that surviving on my salary alone was going to be difficult. My husband started taking classes at the community college, but he couldn’t take many at one time because school is expensive and we didn’t have the money to spare. We had to save for his classes. A year and a half of unemployment later, he finally got a job working at a grocery store part time for minimum wage. He’s since changed jobs, but the pay hasn’t changed. He’s still working on his degree, but it is slow going because of finances. We have managed to keep the house, provide for ourselves and our beloved pets, but it hasn’t been easy.
That being said, camping is one of our favorite things to do. The price is reasonable and goes towards something we both appreciate and feel is valuable. Saving $30 or $40 for three days away from home is worth far more than the money, and the memories last longer than a dinner out. Camping lets us temporarily escape the financial worries, the stress of being asked to do more at school for less, and the constant worry of the few hours of work my husband gets every week and how little he makes, how much he is wasted with the retail jobs, the only things really available here in Williamsburg. Camping is freedom, a chance to feel like a kid, the chance to appreciate the beauty of our world, the chance to reconnect with each other and ourselves.
So back to Bear Creek Lake. Camping wasn’t intended to be a romantic weekend, though I guess it does have some romantic appeal. Dining by campfire, gazing at the stars, snuggling together to keep warm all sounds very romantic, I’ll give you that. We weren’t struggling to keep our marriage together, and we don’t have any kids we need to temporarily escape from. Camping is bonding time, and Bear Creek Lake was a chance for us to create new memories, memories we found that we would treasure in the coming years when things got tougher than we imagined they would when we were just getting started that March.
We arrived on that Friday afternoon and were the first people at the campground. We had our pick of sites. While they were all good and offered a great view of the lake, we chose the one closest to the water. Unless you have small children, who wouldn’t want to be close to the water? We set up our tent, made our bed, and got a fire going. We cooked dinner on the fire, which was still a new experience to me and something I wasn’t necessarily good at doing yet. It’s called learning and so dinner wasn’t perfect, but it was edible. The temperature was dropping as the sun set and we gazed over the lake.
We knew the temperature was going to hover around freezing all night, which wasn’t much colder than when we had gone camping the previous fall in the mountains. We thought we were prepared. Again, I hear Edna Krabappel laughing.
That romantic campfire became a necessity for warmth as the temperature dropped. I think campfires smell great, most of the time. I love inhaling a whiff of the burning wood, smoke, and fresh air when I pick up a shirt I haven’t washed yet days later. But trying to get close to that romantic campfire because you were freezing didn’t leave just a hint of the scent on clothing. Oh, no, it left a smell strong enough to make you cough. Not that I cared while I was trying to stay warm that night. As the fire died, we got ready for bed and then happily crawled beneath the covers. Our bed consisted of an inflatable mattress (the Air Force left my husband with a bad back), a sleeping bag on the bottom, sheets, a sleeping bag on top, and two comforters. Sounds cozy, no? For extra warmth we could always snuggle really closely together, right? Well, sort of. It was cold. Bitterly cold. Those temperatures around freezing didn’t hover there near the water. They dropped to the upper teens. Our camping equipment was all either wedding gifts or given to us by family members who no longer went camping. None of it was designed for temperatures much below freezing. Add in the wind that night and we were pretty uncomfortable.
We snuggled. Our dog, Lexie, was between us under the covers. Did I mind her intrusion between us? Not at all. Lexie is a Shetland Sheepdog. She looks like a small Lassie, has a double coat of fur designed to keep her warm in cold, wet environments, and was the best heater we could have asked for. Both of us snuggled up more with Lexie than we did with each other. It was cold enough that we kept our faces under the covers, which was less than glamorous. What can I say? While sleeping, farts happen. There were some less than pleasant, though laughter inducing, moments. As the night wore on, we heard other nearby campers get into their cars and start them up for a while. We considered doing the same, but that wasn’t “real” camping. We didn’t come out here to sleep in our car.
We didn’t move that night. We were fully dressed, cuddled together under every bit of spare fabric we had. A trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night, completely normal for me, was not going to happen, no matter how badly either one of us had to go. Moving a toe out of our bubble of warmth was a mistake. Turning over was a risk neither one of us was willing to take. Even Lexie didn’t want to move, which is unusual for her when she sleeps under the covers. I have never longed for the sight of the rising sun as much as I longed for it that night. And slowly, gradually, it began to get light. And with the sun, achingly slowly, came warmth. I eventually couldn’t stand it any longer and I had to get up to use the bathroom. I swear that Lexie’s water bowl still had chunks of ice in it, which meant it was too cold for me to get up and eat breakfast just yet. After a trip to the bathroom, we crawled back into the bed for another few hours of sleep, hoping it got warmer. We did notice that our closest neighbors, a couple we had heard climb into their car in the middle of the night, were completely packed up and gone.
When we got up about two hours later, the temperature was tolerable. My husband went to the camp store to get a half gallon of milk so we could eat cereal for breakfast. When we camp, we don’t bring a cooler, we don’t bring ice or anything that needs to be refrigerated, and we don’t even bring a propane stove to cook on. Milk with our cereal is a rare luxury while camping. It was cold enough, and it wouldn’t be getting much warmer, that I decided we could keep the milk all day and overnight in the lake, Mother Nature’s refrigerator. After breakfast, we packed our book bag and loaded up on water to hit the trails. Though it was still cold out, hiking warmed us up. This trip was one of the few times we’ve ever been hiking and haven’t run into anyone else while out exploring the park. We had the place to ourselves. When we got back to our campsite that afternoon, we saw why. Almost everybody else had left. There were still two campsites that were occupied by a group of Boy Scouts or a church group. Only one or two other sites were still occupied. I guess it takes a certain type of crazy to be willing to endure another freezing cold night in a tent.
Our afternoon and second night were also an adventure. My husband spent the afternoon fishing. I sat in a chair and read, trying to keep Lexie from freaking out every time my husband cast the line. I’ll admit, with the campground so empty, Lexie was not on her leash much of the time, but she wasn’t worried about anyone else, obeys well, doesn’t go after strangers, and was honestly more concerned about our activities than anything else. My husband would throw the line and Lexie would run along the shore, back and forth, back and forth, barking, staring, until he reeled it back in. Then the process would begin again. You can probably guess what eventually happened, right? Lexie fell in. So now it was cold, we had a wet dog who was covered in lake water, and the temperature was beginning to drop again. What to do, what to do? I snuck Lexie into the bathroom and washed her in the shower with my shampoo. The bathroom was empty when I went in there and I was hoping it stayed that way. I was hoping Lexie would behave, even though she hates getting a bath. Well, Lexie kept trying to get away so naturally, water ended up everywhere. Another woman came in and gave me the strangest look because dogs weren’t allowed in the bathroom. I looked at her, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “She fell into the lake. We need her for warmth tonight.” The woman laughed, went about her business, and left. I finished up and took my clean, wet dog back to the tent.
While my husband was building the campfire, I dried Lexie off, dried myself off, and got things set up for dinner. In an effort to keep Lexie in the tent while she was wet, so as to keep her clean, I zipped the door shut. Our tent was old and borrowed. The zipper broke. We could get in and out, but we couldn’t secure the door. Oops. I drove to the camp store and bought a roll of duct tape. It fixes everything, right? Wrong. I taped the flaps shut at the zipper. It looked like the stitching on a football, but didn’t work nearly as well. Our tent had a window we were able to unzip and climb in and out of while we held the door shut with tape. We had to be careful with the window, however, lest we trip coming out and end up in the lake. We were that close to the water. I’ll say it’s a good thing that neither one of us is a drinker, so we didn’t have to worry about an alcohol fueled accident. Dinner was somewhat improved from the night before, as I had learned.
We went to bed earlier, trying to get under the covers before it got colder. We were tired from hiking and a bad night’s sleep the night before. Maybe it didn’t get quite as cold, maybe we were mentally better prepared, but we slept better that night. We still huddled around Lexie, we still didn’t move much, we still kept our faces under the covers, though we reeked of campfire smoke and dealt with the occasional extra gas. The wind was cold, but we knew the stars were up there, we could hear the water lapping behind our heads, we could hear the gentle movement of the leaves, and we could hear and feel each other. We could whisper softly, telling each other stories of our childhoods. We could take comfort in knowing that the other was there. We were warm in our hearts with love for each other, with love and appreciation for the great outdoors. We were satisfied in knowing that this is the stuff memories are made of. No matter what else life would bring us, we would have weekends like this to look back on. When we are old and grey and sitting on the front porch sipping lemonade, this is a weekend we could look back on and say, “Remember that time when we went camping and it was really cold? So cold we’d rather smell our farts under the blankets than stick our noses out for fresh air?”
In truth, even though it was a cold and uncomfortable weekend, it was heaven. I couldn’t imagine not having that experience. There is nobody else I would rather share such experiences with than my husband.
We rose well after sunrise the next morning, warm and comfortable in our weekend bed. The duct tape on our door was an extremely poor substitute for the zipper. If a bear had wanted to get in, he could have walked in like there was nothing there. We might as well have not even tried with the tape. Our flaps were wide open and the whole world could peek inside our cozy tent. Probably a good thing it was cold enough to keep us fully clothed. We ate breakfast and were appreciative of our outdoor refrigerator. We packed up and lingered for a few minutes, soaking in the sights and the memories of the weekend. We were one of the last to leave the campground.
Campground A at Bear Creek Lake State Park
As we drove home and reconnected to the world, we were able to find out just how cold it was that weekend. Our second night was indeed warmer, a balmy 25 degrees. I wouldn’t trade that weekend for the world. It wasn’t super romantic. It was too cold for that. We weren’t struggling in our relationship, so it wasn’t a healing weekend. It was a bonding experience and quite a memorable time. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so closely to my dog and my husband. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold over the course of a night. And despite all the financial struggles we’ve been through since, all the hard things we’ve had to fight our way through, I wouldn’t trade that weekend for all the money in the world.
Memories are worth so much more.