In 2006 on a trip to Scotland, I saw a sculpture by Andrew Brown at the harbor in Port William. It shows a man leaning on a rail and staring out to sea. Next to him is a plaque on a rock with the first two lines of William Henry Davies’ poem, “Leisure”:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?”
I thought of that recently when I took a camping trip to the eastern Kenai Peninsula in June. Over a long, sunny weekend, I snuck away with my wife, Jenny, and our dog, Fletcher, for six days of doing nothing other than reading, sleeping, cooking by the campfire and walking along the shore of Kenai Lake. I might even had stared off and tried not to think of work, worry, the COVID-19 pandemic and how my co-workers could possibly survive without me back at the office. (They did just fine.)
May I just say that Alaska offers many a fine vista to stand and stare?
Jenny and I took off on a Thursday in our vintage 1993 VW Eurovan Weekender camper, which can be worry enough. For example, Gerty, as we call her, had been struggling with a cranky fuel system, but thanks to the work of my mechanic, Dmitri, she made it just fine to the U.S. Forest Service Trail River Campground south of Moose Pass and on Kenai Lake.
Jenny followed in our Subaru, Ruthie (we also name cars), because Alaskans always have a Plan B, which proved to be a good idea since we could dash into Seward without breaking camp. Once you get the pop topped and the canopy spread on a VW camper, it’s a bit of a pain to disassemble.
Our friend Janet had scouted ahead in her VW Eurovan camper and snagged a nice little spot on the lakeside loop at Trail River. I had the wee suspicion that just as in 2020, lots of people might be camping this summer. If you want to get a camping spot this summer, late Friday night just won’t work. Sixty percent of the sites at Trail River are by reservation, and I think they all got booked for this summer months ago.
I will pause here and extol the virtues of campers:
• You do not sleep on the hard ground.
• You can stand up and put on your pajamas without doing the flat-on-your-back wriggle as is done in tents.
• When it rains — this happens now and then in Alaska — you do not have to worry about waking up in a puddle.
• Did I mention you are not sleeping on the hard ground?
• Should a bear stroll through the campground — this also happens now and then in Alaska — you have some steel between you and the bear.
My hunch that many Alaskans and visitors would be camping this summer proved true by Friday night, when a stream of big rental motorhomes, dusty cars with Alaska plates, and all sorts of trucks pulling trailers and boats passed through the campground. Unlike in 2020, we didn’t see a lot of 20-something-year-old young people looking for fun and fellowship in the outdoors.
Also, the Alaskans who started camping last year — as evidenced by brand-new tents and gear — seemed to have learned how to practice the fine art of recreating outdoors. Most of the people we saw camping were seasoned citizens like us or families with children.
As we work our way out of the pandemic, I can think of no more cheerful sign than parents walking with their kids through a campground. People laughed and tried to be happy last year, but you could feel an undercurrent of gloom, like that point in the post-apocalypse movie before the lights go out. This year people seemed positively giddy. We’re vaccinated. We got through a worrisome winter. Whew.
At the campground, I still didn’t quite get up close and personal with strangers, but if I passed by someone, I didn’t cross to the other side of the trail and look away. With all of us fully vaccinated, Jenny, our friend Janet and I could relax at camp, sharing meals and chatting across a picnic table.
I hadn’t realized how jittery the pandemic had made me. I’m not a big extrovert anyway, so staying within a close social bubble felt comfortable. After the past 15 months, I still find it hard to be in crowds or around strangers.
Strangers still make me nervous, but not “Oh my gosh, if they cough in my direction I could wind up on a ventilator” nervous. Of people hospitalized since Jan. 1 in Alaska for COVID-19, 97% are unvaccinated — meaning, if you got the jab, you’re not likely to get sick. I like those odds.
Last summer, I felt like I walked through dense underbrush with bear scat every 50 feet and periodic woofing from the trees. This summer, I felt like the bears had gone downriver to fish for salmon, and I strolled through a mountain meadow with no sign of bear for miles.
And work? When you’re editor of a small-town paper and every morning means a deluge of emails and the demands of the day come at you like Luke Skywalker shooting at Empire tie fighters, it can be hard to turn off your job.
Deadline day means one long grind where you don’t come up for air until the last page has been sent to the printer. The trick to enjoying life beyond work means seizing moments where you try not to think about the paper.
Taking a six-day camping trip, it turns out, makes that easier. Snack, sleep, read, walk, play games, sketch, nap, repeat. I am becoming a power camper.
And the best part? Hats off to you, U.S. Forest Service. As it turns out, mountains surround the Trail River Campground, completely blocking off reliable cell service, so no one can bother you, and you’re not tempted to doom scroll social media.
Yep, that’s the goal. Stand and stare, campers. Stand and stare.