There is an old episode of Off the Record with Jersey Mike and Sara Bozich wherein my good friend Jersey calls me a “campist.” Being the great dad that he was, he was talking about taking his daughter camping one weekend. I had never been camping, save for a Girl Scouts outing in my youth, of which my only recollection was making pancakes on the bottom of an old coffee can (which were the best pancakes I’ve ever had, for the record), and I wasn’t really interested in it.
As many heard on the weeks leading up to this trip, “I love nature, I just don’t want to sleep outside in it.” I had never done it, and I really had little desire to do so. Turns out, tenting isn’t so bad. I think I’d still prefer a cabin. No, I would prefer a cabin, but I could do this again for sure.
Friday night we headed north through traffic, winding through Pennsylvania’s small towns – including Centralia – until we reached Ricketts Glen State Park, which is about 35 miles north of Bloomsburg.
Luckily for us, part of our 11- person group had already arrived and set-up the tents and air mattresses. Our group included two tents at each of three sites, with one serving as “home base” for fireside chats and so much food. The sites were located around the lake, which allowed for easy access for kayaking, canoeing and fishing.
On night one, we stuck with simple treats like flame-cooked hot dogs and mountain pies, s’mores — and we even tried roasting Starburst since the Internet said we could.
The rain held out until most of us were asleep and protected in our tents.
Saturday morning, we gathered around the fire for a fresh-cooked breakfast that included bacon, apple sausage (shout-out to Schmidt’s!), eggs and potatoes (cooked in bacon grease). We also had fresh coffee, both from a percolator and French press.
Meanwhile, some of the guys fished from the banks or lazed about in kayaks our friends had brought with them.
Once we finished off the bacon and digested, we changed and readied ourselves for a hike. Ricketts Glen State Park is known for its natural waterfalls, and our fearless group leader selected a trail that was about 3 miles, with an additional mile or so to and from our site.
About five minutes on to the trail, it began to rain — and briefly pour. We had been anticipating rain for much of the day and were fully prepared to be soaked. Luckily for us, it cleared up within a matter of minutes, and the remainder of our hike was dry.
Our trail took us down first, which at times freaked me out completely because I’m a bit afraid of heights. Many in the group were not, however, and dared over cliffs and ledges to take in the remarkable views.
As we went further down the trail, we began to see more and more people. In parts I might even consider it crowded. I was surprised to see so many people out at the same time, but it’s wonderful that our parks are being utilized and appreciated.
The second half of the trail was nearly all uphill. I loved the challenge of climbing the rocks, and the height didn’t bother me in that direction.
Our mileage tally for the hike was 5.77 miles. We all returned famished, and I scarfed down a sandwich and chips. And then some more chips.
Later in the evening, Andy took one of the kayaks out onto the lake and actually caught (and released) two pike!
Dinner on Saturday night was a bit more elaborate. Andy and I assisted by bringing about a pound and a half of Andy’s own venison sausage that was used for a big pot of jambalaya! We browned the sausage in cast iron over the fire, then sliced it. Meanwhile, our “Team Dinner” co-chefs began combining their prepped vegetables in a dutch oven. Chicken stock, tomatoes, rice, Cajun seasoning and the sausage were added back to the pot to cook for an hour with hot coals laid on top of the oven’s lid. In the last 15 minutes, shrimp were thrown in to cook, and voila! An amazing camp dinner for 11.
We also brought some summer slaw (from Giant’s deli case) and a nice big salad I put together in layers to preserve freshness. All a hit.
More s’mores — and my new creation, an orange Starburst-in-marshmallow that tasted like a creamsicle — made the perfect dessert.
Full props go to all of my friends who were amply prepared for our weekend adventure. Aside from the small amount of food we contributed, we can’t really take credit or even offer any particularly good advice on camping “best practices.” However, I may have been bitten by the camping bug (also, my hair still smells like campfire), so I hope in the future I can better offer some good advice. I loved fully unplugging (no cell service at all, so we couldn’t even occasionally check email, texts or social media), and I think it’s something we all need to do from time to time.
Here are a few things I learned or would recommend, based on what we did this past weekend:
- Plan. We were lucky our friend, Lissa, loves to plan and is an experienced camper and hiker. She plotted everything — and without that, a group our size would have been pure mayhem. On a smaller scale, it’s a great idea to map out your hike in advance so you know what to expect.
- Research. That said, be sure to check the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website for rules, regulations, warnings, etc. before you go. DCNR also has a free State Parks app.
- Know. Alcohol is not permitted on state parks. When you check in, a ranger will ask if you’re bringing in any alcohol. If you do bring in alcohol and are caught, it will be confiscated. These are not booze fests. I’m not suggesting you break any laws, but flasks and thermoses are handy. Don’t you dare litter.
- Respect. Again, don’t you dare litter. Read and follow posted park rules.
I feel like I’m missing a lot here, and like I said, I’m far from an expert on this. Perhaps my best tip is: Go with people who know what they are doing. I would have been completely lost without our experienced campers.
As I learn the ropes, I’m hoping for some smaller day or one-night trips to other nearby state parks. We’d also love to take our dog (to approved park areas) to see how he does. I’m also planning to learn some handy recipes with which to impress our friends next time around. I’m talking about Campfire Banana Splits or maybe these potatoes.
What are your best camping tips? What state parks should we visit next?