The last two months have been a whirlwind of activity in the way our new home presented itself so quickly and the realization that that meant I had to sort and disperse 20 years of collections, materials and unrealized projects as well as work on home renovations in the new house, two states away. This hasn’t left much time for camping. In fact for the first time since picking up our Casita in May of 2015, we skipped two camping months (though we did use it as an extra bedroom when entertaining guests, so that counts a little.)
We don’t celebrate Valentine’s in the Hallmark kind of way, but like to get out to the woods if we can. This year, I looked at the map for a campground close to home that we had never visited–a last chance to see it kind of thing. I was surprised to see Stephen A Forbes SRA, in Illinois, on that short list. It is only a couple hours from home and has a lake. I guess I’d always overlooked it because it’s an SRA (State Rec Area) and those tend to be more crowded than State forests and many of the other out of the way parks we’ve enjoyed nearby.
The weather was a good 25 degrees warmer than normal and we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. There was a couple with two dogs on a far loop and a single fisherman on the opposite side of our loop in a pop-up. This meant that our dogs were free to walk the trails with us–unleashed–in pure bliss. I have to admit, this is the thing I love most about winter camping–just letting our dogs be dogs and sharing in their infectious freedom and joy.
The other thing I love about cold weather Midwestern camping is the naked forest. A walk on Winter trails reveals the skeletal essence of the forest. We are able to see the way nature paints on nurse logs by covering them in Bright Turkey Feather fungus and the way a broken tree will bend to near complete snapping, but still “rage against the dying of the light.”
More to love is the silence of the forest without human noise. It’s the call of the Barred Owls at night as we eat dinner at the picnic table by candle light, and the conversations of the crows in the morning. It’s the sound of the breeze as it leaves the water and dances through the dried oak leaves and shaggy Hickory bark. It’s the rustle of the ground cover from possum to squirrels and the near silent motion from a herd of deer. Amazing silence that isn’t silence.
Another bonus of winter camping in the Midwest is the abundance of free fallen limbs and twigs in the campsites. It’s fun to have raging campfires with tree litter on the camp roads so easily gathered. This park had some tree die-off and there were many logs lying around from that tree felling, too. The park is still heavily wooded, though and that shade would make this a wonderful summer destination.
Yes, there is more planning needed in cold weather trips. We use a porta potty so we don’t have to worry about the plumbing freezing and we do have to boil water to wash dishes and to sponge bathe. This weekend was warm enough to allow for water to drain from the sink (using an old detergent bottle as the washing water) to wash hands easily. We did not order the grey water tank on our Egg ( we use an external grey water tank when we need to) precisely because we wanted it to be more flexible for this kind of camping. Nice to be able to brush teeth inside where it’s heated, too.
Cold weather camping means bringing several layers for contingencies and then there is the logistics of that bulk and where to put it. I admit, I bring too many blankets, sweaters and coats, but I always want to be prepared. Because our Independence model has the front bunks, we can fold the extra blankets and coats neatly on the top bunk and still have a bed for our dog below.
The other thing that Cold weather camping brings is some pure enjoyment of warm savory food. Because we had electricity, I mostly used our electric skillet for meals at the picnic table. The sun is still setting earlier so shorter days get us off the trails and back to the campsite with more time to cook. Because this trip was our Valentines gift to each other, I tried a little harder with the menu. Breakfasts were Goldenberry pancakes with pure maple syrup and turkey sausage with hash browns and eggs. Lunch was corn quesadillas with tofu and fresh avocado and a loaf of stuffed spinach and feta bread –heated and dipped seasoned tomato sauce. We only had one dinner at camp, so it was fried risotto balls and homemade tomato soup with a side salad of spring greens. The iPad provided soft music and the full moon added to the candle glow.
Yes, life is good at winter camp. It’s slow and it’s easy. It’s a chance to talk about all that comes and to dream a bigger dream still. The drive home with the sleeping landscapes can draw your eyes up. Looking up, you might see, as we did, a mesmerizing murmuration of thousands of starlings as they danced and folded themselves into a miles long streams of life in motion. So much is wonderous in the world in every season. Winter camping helps us celebrate that joy of stillness.
Stephen A Forbes Stat Recreation Area in IL
Our site was No 28 with a view of the water. It was a large site with no real views of any other sites. The trail down to the lake for fishing is off the next pad, though, so I imagine it’s trafficked a lot in season. The electric posts are shared by two sites so some might have a reach to get to it. There was water available in several central locations in each loop–even in winter. The shower house was locked but there are plentiful pit toilets. They must have recently improved the sanitation area because it was big and new and easy for two campers to use at one time. Our cost was $18 per night.
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