I took a long slow draw from my Montecristo cigar, allowing the smoke to waft across the campsite toward the the campfire at the center of our family gathering. The smoke lingered in front of me until it reached the heat of the fire and drifted upward and into the atmosphere of darkness. Although everyone was talking, I was occupied with my cigar and with staring up at the few stars I could see through the sycamore leaves. Of course, I listened to the conversation, nodding in agreement when appropriate, but instead of interrupting or finding the perfect moment in the conversation to add my two cents, I simply listened. Between my wife’s brother, Aaron, his wife, Holly, and Misti, my better half, I enjoyed hearing their stories and their laughter. At a natural lull in conversation, Misti said, “You know how I can tell that Duncan is having a good time? He’s letting someone else mess with the fire.”
She was right – as usual. I was having a good time. I was relaxed. And I was exhausted.
Everyone laughed at her observation, and I attempted to explain my obsessive–compulsive need for order – especially with campfires. But there is little point explaining my 2,500–word essay about my love of campfires or my ridiculously long study of how to build and manage fires for cooking, fires for lighting the area, fires for warmth, and fires built to burn for hours upon hours. Instead, I complimented Aaron on doing the work well and relaxed a bit further in my chair. Aaron is an accomplished woodsman. He’s more of a hunter and fisherman than I am these days. And he’s comfortable in the woods. I knew the campfire was in good hands.
The rest of the family, like myself, were exhausted, happy, healthy, and pleased with our adventures of the weekend. The day before we sat beside the fire discussing my penchant for being particular, we met at the Antietam Creek Campground (click here to read a campground review) for a weekend of camping and canoeing along the Potomac River – and to celebrate my birthday.
We arrived relatively early – around noon – in hopes of securing our choice campsite, number 20. At the far end of the campground, this site is remote, relatively private, and provides adequate space for two large families to camp. Lucky for us, our choice site was unoccupied. We agreed on tent locations, where to put the canoes, kayaks, and other gear, and where to stack the firewood. Then we struck camp: two large tents, four kayaks, two canoes, two large cargo boxes, two coolers, and ten folding chairs. I rarely camp with so much gear and so many people, but I would soon realize that there is great joy in numbers.
After striking camp, cooling down, and snacking, I pushed my agenda of paddling, more paddling, and then perhaps for relaxation, a bit more paddling. “Hey, guys. I think we should try to paddle a little bit.”
Aaron had already caught several smallmouth bass and was excited to get on the water. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
Between the two of us, we quickly convinced the rest of the family to drag the canoes and kayaks down the bank and onto the river. Aaron agreed to put in last so that he could help the little ones onto their kayaks. I agreed to go first. The water was swift, and I wanted to be in the water before anyone else – just in case. I drug my 86–pound behemoth of a canoe down the bank and into the water. I stepped into my rightful spot at the stern, and eased my posterior onto the seat. As soon as my paddle struck water, the current and the wind turned me broadside to the river. I paddled hard, trying to turn myself parallel to the riverbank. “Hey, buddy. I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know either. You think we’ll be OK?”
“Yeah. The water’s a little swift, but not too bad.”
“Well, you’re in the back of the canoe so the front is up pretty high. The wind got you turned around pretty quick.”
“Hopefully it’ll be easier for the kids and for me when Misti gets in.”
I paddled close to shore, watching as each child drug their kayak from the bank onto the water and paddled away from me and Aaron. Each one appeared fine. When the last of four children paddled safely away from the bank, I paddled the canoe to the bank to allow Misti easy access. As soon as she was settled in the bow seat, Aaron and Holly climbed into their canoe and we all paddled forward against the river’s current. This was the first time the children had paddled on a river and the first time any of us had paddled on the Potomac. Right away I knew that I was going to love this river and the adventures that awaited.
After paddling, we enjoyed the fine art of loafing. We talked. We snacked. The children played games. The entire family relaxed as we listened to the Potomac drift by our campsite. As afternoon turned to evening, our bellies rumbled for nourishment. I started the charcoal grill and then prepared our fishing gear. While Aaron, most of the children, and I paddled for the second time, Misti prepared a gourmet camping meal. Over the charcoal, she cooked Thai noodles with spicy peanut sauce and curry chicken satay with a peanut coconut sauce. We ate well.
After dinner, we somehow decided that we should paddle yet again. After paddling twice already, our attitude was playful – even childlike. Aaron and Holly tried to fish as I turned mine and Misti’s canoe towards them. I whispered forward to Misti at the bow, “When we get up to them, we’re gonna splash ‘em.” She nodded in agreement. Trying to appear nonchalant, I eased the canoe closer and closer to them until I was close enough to drench them both. I pulled my paddle back and thrust it forward to skim the surface of the river, sending a shower of cool water towards the fishermen of the party. Misti followed closely behind, splashing water towards their canoe and towards any children that dared cross our path. Without pause, Aaron and Holly returned fire (can you call it fire when it’s water?), drenching us as well. By the end of our third paddling session, we were all drenched, smiling, and pleased with the outcome of the war. We all won. I think that around this time I started claiming we were the Pirates of the Potomac.
After dinner, I busied myself with the campfire. Within minutes, we had a fire perfectly suited to our family camping needs. I wanted it to burn big and bright until we were ready to roast marshmallows for s’mores. The entire family – all ten of us – sat by the fire, talking and joking. Just before the fire was reduced to coals ready for marshmallow roasting, I told a ridiculous ghost story about the civil war and traitors that were hung for desertion. I ended my story with the traitors dangling from a rope with their feet kicking on the water. My hope was left to the chance that fish would jump throughout the evening, allowing me to point out the sounds of the ghosts’ feet hitting the water. Unfortunately for my story, the fish weren’t jumping.
After s’mores, we decided to put the little ones to bed. They were all exhausted and provided no argument about their impending bedtime. Afterwards, we sat up talking about fishing, joking, and laughing. Of course, I smoked a cigar. While we talked, I came up with a plan. “Let’s shuttle the kids and the canoes upriver and paddle down tomorrow. I talked to John (the campground host) and he said the river is fairly calm for a long way upstream.”
Aaron quickly agreed, “Yeah. We should do that.”
Misti and Holly both concurred. We all agreed that we would wake early, eat breakfast, and then leave camp for a day of paddling on the river.
We awoke early. Shortly thereafter, I had a small fire burning with coffee brewing. Misti and I are both worthless without our morning coffee. After enjoying the sumptuous French press coffee, I started another round of charcoal for breakfast. As soon as it was hot, Misti cooked pancakes on the cast iron skillet. The day before we left for camping, she prepared cinnamon and brown sugar butter which worked perfect with the pancakes and syrup. I, on the other hand, struggled a bit with my contribution to the meal.
I was tasked with bacon fried over the fire. I don’t know what happened during our planning stage, but we didn’t have an appropriate skillet for the bacon so I constructed pans made of aluminum foil for the experiment. The foil pans worked surprisingly well – after the first batch. Instead of taking my time, I tried to rush the fire – something you just can’t do. I knew that I needed to let the fire burn down to coals (or at least small flames) before attempting any type of cooking – especially bacon in makeshift pans! But I didn’t want to keep anyone waiting so I laid the trays on the grate over the fire and waited for the magic show to begin. Within seconds it seemed, grease was popping out of the pans and onto my bare toes. To my chagrin and the children’s joy, the flames would occasionally flash high enough to catch part of the grease in the trays on fire. The flames burned hot and bright as I tried tapping them out with my tongs. That first series of bacon reached our plates with patches of char and less–than–done stretches – all of which tasted like burnt foil. Fortunately, the remaining pans went much better. The flames subsided, leaving me with the perfect amount of hot coals for bacon frying. The rest of the bacon turned out properly cooked without the black char or burnt foil taste.
After breakfast, Aaron, Holly, the girls, and I left camp to find a boat ramp for our put in location. After getting lost (twice), we settled for Taylors Landing, a public boat ramp twelve miles upriver from our site. After dropping Aaron and Holly, their canoe, and the girls off, I drove as fast as I could (yes, I made a few wrong turns along the way) back to the campsite to take Misti, the boys, our canoe, and the kayaks to the put in.
We arrived back at Taylors Landing ready for a short day of paddling. With the current moving so quickly, we expected to rush down the river with little need to paddle except to steer. The current was especially strong right in front of the landing. A small set of shoals just upstream forced the water into a narrow channel which made the current considerably stronger. We all looked at the water, looked at each other, looked at the water, and nervously pushed our canoes and kayaks to the end of the ramp. Misti, Turtle, and I put in first. We fought against the current until we paddled into an eddy just downstream. Each child and their kayak put in and quickly paddled out of the current and into the eddy. As Aaron and Holly eased their canoe off of the ramp and into the water, the children, Misti, and I edged out of the eddy and rushed downstream.
To read about the 12–mile paddling adventure, the cake, and the snake, as well as my other outdoor adventures, gear reviews, and woodcraft skills, be sure to follow via WordPress or email! I’ll be publishing the second part of this adventure series within the next few days!