July 2013 Archives

It just froze over.

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Does it feel cold in here? Yeah, I thought so.

Why's that? Well, friends, I did something I swore I'd never do under any circumstances - I went camping.

In a tent, nonetheless.

I'd been toying with the idea of going bicycle camping - taking my bike trailer, loading it up with some supplies, riding down to New Glarus, and spending a weekend visiting the city while camping from the bike - but I'd never done much more than ponder the possibility. I bought several publications about backpack camping, studied them, read several websites, and asked around. Sounded like I could make a go of it.

A few friends suggested that I try "car camping" first. That's where you load-up your vehicle with camping gear, drive to an established campground, and give things a try. Sounded more reasonable, so I began shopping around for camping gear. Good gear would be critical to the success or failure of this venture.

I've been an REI member for years, although never really bought much from them. Until a few months ago when I started to buy-up all sorts of goodies. First up? A tent. I chose the Big Agnes Jack Rabbit SL3. Lightweight (just over 3-pounds), waterproof, breathable, room for three people, quick-to-set-up, yet packs down to the size of a large Thermos. Score.

After that came the sleeping bags. Once again, I went with Big Agnes. Gunn Creek 30-degree bags. Warm down to around 40F, lightweight (just over 1-pound each), and they pack down to the size of a 1-liter bottle. Score again.

The bags are so compact because they don't have insulation on their underside. Big Agnes discovered that as soon as you compress insulation (be it down or synthetic), the insulation loses all of its insulating properties. So, they designed their bags to be used with an air-mattress. I bought two inflatable Big Agnes mattresses; they fold down to the size of a deck of cards when not in use, and inflate in about 15-18 deep breaths of air. The bags have head-to-toe-length-pockets on the underside to securely hold the mattress in place, so that you don't slide off while asleep. Pure genius.

Accessories came next. LED camplights (small, compact, lightweight (2-ounces each), yet bright (90-lumens each & dimmable)), a MSR WhisperLite camp stove (10-ounces), cooking gear (titanium and aluminum items), collapsible water bags (for drinking/cleaning), and some ultra-light and compact folding camp chairs (about the same size/dimension as the sleeping bags), and things were all set.

I bought a few compression bags to hold all of the gear (compression bags are waterproof, collapsible bags that you put your gear into whilst in transit), loaded up the car, and headed north to Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake is located about 5-minutes southwest of the Wisconsin Dells; there's a State Park there that offered availability over the 4th of July weekend. The rate was reasonable at $15/night, and I figured it was close enough to civilization that if anything went wrong, I'd have options.

After an hour or so in the car, my small group arrived to the campground. We checked-in with the rangers, found out where our campsite would be, and set about finding our way to the site.

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The sites were set-up really, really well. They were nearly completely private - each site was separated by a ton of foliage, and they were configured to promote privacy. Parking was genius as well; we only had to walk about 50 yards from our parking stall to the campsite.

Here's the site before we began to set-up:

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The picnic table was huge; the fire pit was nice, and the inclusion of a trash hook (elevated) was a great touch. To make things even better, we had a fresh water source located about 200 yards from the site, and a bathroom about 600-700 yards away.

If this next photo doesn't look impressive, it's not meant to be. The firewood (which we bought at the campsite) and cooler take up more space than all of the camping gear did...

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With 2 trips to the car, we had everything unloaded and ready to set-up. Here's what one of those compression sacks looks like, with the opening unwrapped. You'd normally roll the top over onto itself and clip it closed to make it waterproof. Inside of this bag is all of our gear, with the exception of the tent and sleeping bags. It's crazy how small today's camping gear compresses down to!!

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First order of business was to set-up the tent. We put down the "footprint" first; the footprint was a secondary item that I bought to help protect the tent. It's a super lightweight "liner" that goes under the tent to protect against dirt and moisture. The tent connects to it via clips, so that nothing slides around. It's so ingenious.

The tent took all of 5-minutes to set-up. There were two poles which formed an "X" over the tent. They assembled together via slip-joints and polymer connectors. Another brilliant design.

After the tent was set-up, we inflated the air mattresses. Here's one of them fully inflated and ready to go.

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The mattresses slipped right into the bags, secured nicely, and were set to go in a matter of minutes.

We then assembled the chairs, set-out our "welcome mat" (a huge, water resistant, stain resistant picnic mat), folding table, and cooler. The site was officially set-up in less than an hour.

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Mirror Lake had a bunch of trails, so we decided to do some hiking and exploring before settling into the site. If I had to guess, I'd say we hiked about 3-4 miles. The trails were well shaded and really well maintained. Here's part of one of the trails:

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As we hiked, we made our way over to one of the lake inlets. The campgrounds offered rentals for Kayaks, Canoes, Stand-up Paddle Boards, and other watercraft. If we would've had more time, I would've liked to have tried the Stand-up Paddle Board. I hear it's a great workout. Regardless, the lake was gorgeous.

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We made our way back to the site, where we split some of the firewood and set-up a fire. Thank goodness for those fire blocks; all of the campground's firewood was really damp, so it was incredibly difficult to keep a fire going. I had to split-up an entire bundle of wood into small pieces, just to keep the fire going. At one point, we could literally see and hear the wood "steaming" as it burned.

With the fire stable, it was time to make some grub. Here I am roasting some brussels sprouts over the fire.

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If you look at the cooking grate, you can see some ears of corn. We prepared a great feast for the night - corn on the cob, brussels sprouts, chicken brats, and a quinoa salad.

Here are two of the plates after the cooking was complete:

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We ate with polymer sporks; the food was fantastic. Oh so tasty. Grilled anything always tastes great, and everyone knows that eating outside makes everything all the better. So, we were destined to win with this combo.

Spent the rest of the evening listening to music, enjoying some ice cold brews, and relaxing under the stars. The weather was perfect, and we kept the bugs at bay thanks to our clip-on Off thingies. I slept absolutely great on the air mattress - I'd argue it was more comfy than my "Dreams by Steinhaffels" bed.

Morning arrived, and I made a breakfast with Neuske's bacon, eggs, roasted jalapenos, and "toast" (from hot dog buns). Yummo. The only thing we were missing was some coffee... but, I've since purchased a camping/backpacking French Press. ;-)

I spent Saturday at Mount Olympus park in the Dells. Our friend's roller derby teammates had a friends-and-family get together there, so we hung out with them and had a good time. I'd venture a guess that there were around 20-25 people with us.

In other news, one of my friend's dad lives in Chicago, so we drove down to visit him and to take in a game from one of the rooftop venues located just outside of Wrigley Field.

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Our seats included access to an all-inclusive rooftop venue. It featured free food and free drink, and was a great way to watch the game. Unfortunately, the venue didn't open until 45-minutes prior to game time, so we killed some time by walking around the stadium and taking in some of the sights and pre-game fanfare. Here's the infamous statue of Harry Caray:

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The shenanigans that take place between Cubs and Sox fans are hilarious, as demonstrated by the sign this water vendor had made:

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The venue opened, and we made our way to the top of the building. The seats were quite good - we had a full view of the field, and were able to see everything, with the exception of deep left field.

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The venue was great; we were about the only people there, so we almost had the place entirely to ourselves. We feasted on pork nachos, chicken skewers, brats, and fresh fruit. We also enjoyed a few beverages. The Cubs won after extra-innings, so that was the icing on the proverbial cake.

So... the million dollar question remains - would I go camping again? And the answer is, ABSOLUTELY. I loved it. I can't wait to go again!


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