The first few years of fatherhood are glorious. As toddlers and even as little girls, my daughters clung to my every word. I was daddy – the all–knowing, all–capable, and always emotionally close man who led them through this often confusing world. In their eyes, the sun rose and set with me. Then they started growing older.
At 9 and 11, both daughters are rapidly approaching those teenage years fathers dread from the moment our baby girls enter the world. No longer am I the only influence in their lives. Television, friendships, school, and I dare not say – boys, have acted as Copernicus, relating to my daughters that I am not the center of the universe. As this transition from little girls to young ladies occurs, I have found it harder and harder to remain close. Perhaps close isn’t the right word. We remain close. We just don’t seem as continually connected as in their younger years.
But I am not one to give up on a task, especially one as important as shaping my daughters into respectable young ladies who feel reasonably close to their father and are capable of navigating their lives based on sound principles and judgement. My own tenacity compels me to continually foster a loving relationship with my daughters (as well as with my wife and sons). Although I strive to demonstrate this tenacity and commitment daily, one of my most enjoyable opportunities to do so occurs during our annual father–daughter camping trip. No wife. No brothers. Just me, my daughters, and the adventures the three of us find along the shores of lakes, creeks, and rivers or in a sweltering tent in a gnat–infested campground.
For this year’s adventure, I studied several campsites throughout the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia and the surrounding states of Virginia and Maryland. After countless hours reading reviews, I settled for the Antietam Creek Campground. I’ll be publishing a campsite review (click here to read review) in the immediate future so I’ll spare the camp’s details in this post.
On Thursday we reconnoitered the campground, determining needed supplies and which sites were most desirable for our adventures. I was fond of site 20 due to its seclusion, but the girls were adamant that site 4 was best. Not only did it have ample room and convenient Potomac River access, it boasted a rope swing which immediately stole the girls’ attention.
We arrived the next afternoon around 2pm, just as the heat was most insufferable. With temperatures in the mid 90s and humidity reminiscent of a well–hydrated sauna, we began sweating as we opened the doors of our Honda SUV. With sweat–drenched t–shirts, we walked to the grounds to find site 4 available (20 was already taken, but I had already succumbed to my daughters’ pleads, “Site 4, daddy, pleeeeease.”) We quickly pitched our tent, paid for our site, and congratulated ourselves for securing the most desirable site of the campground.
As we carried our gear from the Honda to the campsite, every inch of skin became covered with sweat, making the work nearly unbearable. To make matters worse, the campsite (as well as every expanse of grassland or forest in the region) was infested with gnats. I don’t mean a few gnats occasionally making your acquaintance. I mean infested. Thousands upon thousands of these flying nuisances. We applied “bug spray” with little effect. Nothing seemed to help. I ultimately concluded that there was little to be done but accept the heat and accept the gnats and enjoy ourselves. We quickly adopted the “campsite wave.” We, along with the other campers throughout the campground, continually used our hands to fan up and down in front of our faces which looks as much like an unknown culture’s greeting gesture as a way to ward off gnats from our faces.
After acclimatizing to the heat, gathering firewood for the night, and fishing in Antietam Creek and the Potomac River, we finally returned to camp for relaxation and bonding time. While organizing our firewood, I saw perhaps the ugliest creature I have ever seen. I didn’t recognize it at first. Only after it turned upright and I could see it’s entirety did I recognize it as a Dobsonfly – the harmless adult hellgrammite (a not so harmless little critter). I lifted it from its perch to show it to the girls. While I held it for observation, it squirted about an inch or two of urine from its torso, causing the girls (and this old woodsman) to jump away startled and providing us with ample laughter at the sight of a “bug peeing.”
Fortunately, the gnats subsided a bit in the late evening, allowing our arms the freedom to cook and eat instead of continually waving in front of our faces. For Friday’s dinner, I went relatively simple – hot dogs roasted on a stick, fire–roasted corn on the cob, and s’mores. Even if our taste in music, clothing, and activities differ vastly, we were all in agreement that the hot dogs were the best hot dogs ever.
My youngest daughter, exhausted from the heat, gave up early, going to sleep sometime around 9:30pm. My oldest daughter, who is prone to late–night fire–side conversations, sat with me until at least 11pm. These are the moments I enjoy most. She talked nonstop. She talked about school. She talked about her dreams. She talked about camping. She just talked. And as a wise father should know, I didn’t try to talk over her or dominate the conversation. Instead, I listened.
My late–night fire–side daughter isn’t overly affectionate. Although she enjoys hugs, she rarely offers them. She’s not unaffectionate. She just prefers conversation over physical affection. I tell you this only so you understand the implications of our walk to and from the Honda. As we walked through the darkness back to our campsite after securing our food, without words, she reached over and offered her hand for me to hold. A moment of perfection! Had I the forethought, I would have walked back and forth for twenty miles while holding her hand instead of returning to camp. Even with the short duration though, my heart was filled with enough joy to last me a lifetime.
After the girls were asleep, I wrote in my journal as I sat by the fire, then lay awake in the tent for a few hours, listening to the sounds of the night. For over an hour, several owls hooted throughout the valley. “Who, who. Wh, who. Who, who. Wh, whooooh.” Owls are the old souls of the forest. I know I am in the company of greatness when I hear their calls echoing throughout the nighttime air. Shortly after the owls’ departure, a bobcat, in the throes of passion, screamed along the opposing riverbank. If you’ve never heard these screams, I assure you that they sound incredibly similar to a woman’s screams. If you ever find yourself camping and hear a woman’s terrifying screams in the wee hours of the night, you’re either in a bad Friday the 13th movie, or you’re simply near a bobcat.
Saturday proved to be a fantastic day for both father and daughters. We finally had the opportunity to find relief from the heat in the relatively frigid waters of the Potomac River. Both daughters stood on the banks, trying to gather the courage to enter the murky water. I’m a believer in leading by example so I walked quickly into the river until my knees, then my waist, my chest, and finally my shoulders were submerged. After adjusting to the cool water, I found the temperature spectacular compared to the stifling heat. After a little coaxing, both daughters – more acquainted with swimming pools than flowing rivers – agreed to try the rope swing as a way to enter the water. After swinging for the first time, I practically had to force them out of the water when we were finished. They swung. They dropped. They swam. But best of all, they held onto me as I walked them out into deeper water. As I reached a depth just over my shoulders, we simply stood still as the waters slowly drifted around us. We talked and laughed for nearly an hour while they tightly held onto the man intent on teaching them the meaning of love.
Eventually, I had to return to camp for fire–building and cooking. Fortunately, the rope swing was close enough that the girls could continue playing while I gathered tinder and kindling, started a small fire, and prepared our evening meal.
For our dining pleasure I slow roasted baked potatoes and onions wrapped in aluminum foil. After cooking for over an hour, I topped them with butter and a touch of salt and pepper. Although not my best campfire cuisine, they were excellent – soft, moist, full of flavor. But they were nothing compared to the main course – flame–grilled pork chops. We buy pork loins every so often, then cut them into two roasts and sixteen pork chops. Typically, we freeze most of this and eat it when the mood strikes us. For our trip, I removed a package of four chops from the freezer, poured a healthy portion of Dale’s Steak Seasoning into their container, and packed them in the cooler. By the time we were ready for them, they were just thawed enough and just marinated enough for perfection. I placed them over the hot coals and small flames, allowing the surface to blacken.
My youngest daughter, who is a professed semi–vegetarian, swore that they were the best food she had ever tasted. My oldest daughter concurred. Smart girls, they are.
As of that moment, neither the girls, nor I, had caught any fish. I had a plan for our fishing, but didn’t account for impatience and inexperienced young anglers. After careful consideration, I opted for an entirely different approach. I baited our hooks with the leftover hot dog wieners of the previous night. Within a moment of our first cast, I was reeling in a respectable channel cat. The excitement of a large fish and my willingness to let the girls help reel the line, hold the light, and “help” me catch the ole cat, made for an enjoyable experience for all.
After the last night, we awoke early, packed our gear for the trip home, and headed to the rope swing and the river again. Did I mention that I could barely keep the girls out of the water after they overcame their fears?
We did finally leave camp at about 11am. We barely spoke on the drive home. We were all exhausted from the heat, the swimming, the fishing, and all of the physical effort of gathering firewood. Instead, we allowed John, Paul, George, and Ringo to do the talking for us. “And in the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love you make.”
Have I mentioned that I’m blessed with a fantastic wife? Not only does she accept my daughters whole–heartedly and encourages our father–daughter camping trips, she also cooks a damn good post–camping trip breakfast of homemade buckwheat pancakes, real maple syrup, and oven–baked cinnamon and sugar bacon. A perfect ending to a perfect weekend.