That Was the Second-Strangest Day of Camping I’ve Ever Experienced

Last Friday was solid proof that, with the right group of people, it doesn’t matter a bit that absolutely nothing goes the way you plan it.

The plan was for my wife, daughter and me to drive down to Krispy Kreme on Randall Road for breakfast. We were then planning on stopping in Ottawa to see the Lincoln-Douglas debate site. Then we would head to Starved Rock State Park where we would meet some friends, set up camp and spend the day hiking and cooking over a campfire.

The first clue that things weren’t going to be entirely normal — Krispy Kreme was closed (as in boarded up and signage removed) and had been for some time. We settled for a nearby Panera.

When we left Panera, it was raining. The rain continued as we drove down to Ottawa. We found the park where the debate took place, but we didn’t get out of the car. We didn’t even pull over. It was too wet.

We got to Starved Rock just as Nate and Karen arrived. We found our campsite — and two inches of standing water where the tents were supposed to go. Nate set up a canopy over the picnic table to allow it to dry off, but there wasn’t room for us to stand around the sides. So … for about 45 minutes until the rest of our friends showed up, we stood under the canopy ON the picnic table. (There was rain and mud and mosquitoes, but even so none of us were at all depressed. In fact, we all found it rather funny.)

When Will, Margaret and Olive arrived, there wasn’t room on the table, so we gave up on keeping it dry and moved the canopy to the lone spot of high ground in the campsite and discussed the future. We decided we weren’t going home, no matter what. But while we didn’t mind camping in the rain, setting up camp in the rain was a different story. So now what?

Karen is on the phone in the photo above. She’s calling Nicole, who was planning on arriving later. Nicole’s parents own a farm not far from Starved Rock, and it occurred to us that it might be amusing to stay overnight in the barn. It might have been amusing indeed, if we had done it, but as the barn was filled with cows …

It was getting near lunchtime, and we still hadn’t come up with Plan B. We drove to the park lodge and bought hot dogs and such in the gift shop. There were three small tables in the room, and we occupied two of them and most of the chairs from the third. We considered renting a cabin or room in the park, but they were all filled up. We considered driving an hour or so and crashing my sister’s house, but she didn’t sound over-enthusiastic when we called and anyway, that didn’t seem much like camping. Then Olive saved the day. Her grandparents live in a small town a short way north of Starved Rock. The room above their garage has been turned into a party room, and they were perfectly willing to let us stay there. Crisis averted.

It was still raining hard. We’d solved the problem of what to do with the night, but we still had to decide what to do with the afternoon. We moved out of the gift shop into the lobby and tried to decide what to do next. Sally bought some fudge and we munched on that as we chatted.

As nothing terribly exciting came to mind, I suggested we drive north across the river to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Museum overlooking Starved Rock Lock and Dam. The Illinois River was above flood level, so no traffic was moving through the locks. (We were told the water was too high for the towboats to pass under the bridges.)

We stood under the overhang on the deck and watched the rain. An occasional Great Blue Heron or Double-crested Cormorant flew by and fish were constantly leaping high above the water in the lock. In the panorama below, Starved Rock is the outcropping across the river on the right.

A busload of school children who were there when we arrived cleared out and we had the museum to ourselves. Even the guy who worked there disappeared into the basement, never to be seen again. The main feature was the pilot house from a towboat that sank in a flood. This confused us a bit, because we had always thought that boats were supposed to stay on top of the water, no matter how deep it got.

I spotted two floats used to keep barges from smashing into the side of the locks. I had my photo taken lifting them as though they were heavy, but Nate went one better. He sat on one and bounced his way across the front of the museum. Even this didn’t bring the guy up from the basement. We engaged in all the silliness we could think of, then left in search of other adventures.

Our next stop was Mix’s Trading Post, in Utica, billed as a purveyor of “Indian Artifacts.” As Karen mentioned, we thought that artifact implied some degree of authenticity, but that was decidedly not the case. We had fun anyway, making fun of stuff on display, playing with a four-foot Scottish claymore (also not authentic — it was priced at $80 and was very tempting to several of us) and befriending a pregnant cat. I made a small rock stack in a box of $3 geodes.

The place was decidedly bizarre and the collection of goods for sale was decidedly eclectic. You can get some idea from the stuff you can see in the background of these photos, but there were several more rooms of weirdness that I didn’t capture on film.

We had carpe-ed the snot out of the diem and it was time for supper. I’ll cover that in a future post, but I can’t stop this one without mentioning one more member of our gang. Ande, Nate and Karen’s dog, contentedly and quietly spent the day in their car as we wandered about having rainy-day adventures. But that’s not to say she wasn’t happy when Nate returned.

Ande and Nate - Utica, Illinois

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One Response to That Was the Second-Strangest Day of Camping I’ve Ever Experienced

  1. n8 says:

    Wow, that was a massive amount of rain. I feel all soggy and clammy just thinking about it.

    I wonder what I was doing in that picture under the canopy. It looks like I’m about to sneeze or trying to back away from a close-talker.

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