By Gerald Stirbling
A guy I’ve been friends with for 40 years and I were canoe-camping once on the Black River in Arkansas.
Lance was a major in the Army, a West Point grad who was once described as “big as a skinned ox.” He and I hiked the Appalachians in winter, and the High Sierra when he was living in Monterrey Bay.
It rained steadily while we were on the Black, a gentle rain. That would have discouraged most recreational canoeists from spending the night on its shores, but not us. We knew you could wring the water out of a poly sleeping bag, and it would still insulate your body well. We knew that because we’d had to do it, though not on this trip. Like I said, a gentle rain.
We caught trout in the rain by bumping night-crawlers off the rocky bottom of the river. It was worth getting soaked to eat fresh German brown trout cooked over a Svea stove (too wet for a fire, which we never built anyway; a fire is like a dome of light that cuts you off from the night).
We parked it on a gravel bar. As dusk approached, we dined on trout that was alive 20 minutes before we ate them. I don’t recall what we made for a side dish, but it probably came out of a packet with Knorr on the label.
Lance respected my Marine roots, even though I had a pretty weenie job while I was in. He had six foot legs, but in those days I could keep up with him walking through rugged country. My thighs are only 3 ½ inches long. I can fit easily into the back seat of any car. Even a Saturn.
Ennyhoo, the meal was delicious. We capped it off with a cigarette—a real cigarette, Marlboro reds. It continued to rain. We had to smoke them by letting them dangle out of our lips so our hat visors kept them reasonably dry. I’m sure we were drinking something, but can’t recall what, possibly Henry McKenna, a bourbon that adverts itself as as a “table whiskey.” We put away a few bottles of that stuff, Yukon Jack, and a black extremely dry red wine from Chile called Sangre de Toro—bull’s blood. We were good drinkers, regulating our alcohol intake so that we didn’t get sloppy drunk, just happy drunk. One night we drank nothing but liqueurs, each snort a different liqueur. If that didn’t make us puke, nothing would.
We had a tent, which still laid in the canoe in its stuff sack. “Do we really need the tent?” Lance asked, rainwater dripping from the visor of his hat.
Now, sharing a tent with Lance was no picnic. I’d done it a few times before, when conditions warranted that we couldn’t sleep under the stars. We slept out in a snowstorm once. It was delightful. But inside a tent, Lance snored so loudly that the walls and the ceiling of the tent vibrated. I’d wake him up, and he was amenable to the idea of not snoring, but once back asleep (instantaneously), the walls would shake again. We called it the “Laurel and Hardy routine” because his snoring would crank up just as I was drifting off to sleep. When with Lance (and also most of the time I camped) I much preferred sleeping out in the open.
So, we slept out in the rain on rounded igneous stones with only a half-length piece of thin foam between them and our sleeping bags. And we slept out in the rain on rocks. We were in mummy bags and we kept the water out of our faces with our hats. It was no big deal. It was even less of a big deal once we moved some of the bigger rocks and settled in to sleep. I found the experience quite cozy.
Whence comes the moxie to sleep outside in a rainstorm? We were both former servicemen who dealt with far worse things than rain in Missouri in October. We’d both been soaking wet for days at a time on hikes and other excursions. We were serious self-propelled wilderness campers with oodles of experience, and also owned the best equipment we could afford. My sleeping bag was a legendary Holubar Arctic, my go-to when it was cold. It’s particularly good in snow trenches. I still have it!
It was no big deal. We were friends. You can’t get mopey and dopey about conditions over which you have no control if you’re sharing your misery with someone whose natural instinct is to be strong for others. That can make all the difference in the world. The strong have a responsibility to protect the weak. And to be of good cheer.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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