Perfect [Bleep] Storm
I grew up camping. Many of my favorite early memories involve sleeping in tents by some lake or river somewhere, with my parents, two siblings, and dog (see Go Home Lassie, You Are Drunk). In my mind, these trips were relaxing, easy peasy, simple. We’d eat sandwiches in the dust and swim in the [insert name of lake or river]. My parents told stories of bringing my older siblings backpacking when they were mere toddlers or preschoolers, and this reinforced my idea that camping with kids was an easy-peasy no-brainer.
OK, so I value taking the kids outdoors (and being outdoors myself) enough that I wanted to put in the time when they were young so that they’d be used to it and love it too. I knew that it would not be easy when they were little, even though my parents somehow hiked toddlers through the Washington State rain carrying their own gear. But how hard could it be?
However, when my husband made not one but two three-night camping reservations last summer, I got nervous. I mean…three nights? With a ten month old?
So, the first trip went fine, other than some neighbor-camper issues, which I will not go into here. And other than the fact that I have yet to have a baby who knew how to fall asleep well in a tent. But it was good.
I felt a little better. I felt even better when I found out my parents would be joining us on Trip #2. I stopped feeling better, however, when my husband broke it to me that he had actually double-booked himself with work, and would be leaving me alone in the woods with my three children.
[This section has been censored, due to a high volume of shocking language.]
You can probably see that this story is not going to be about how easy Trip #2 was.
Soooo, anyway, we drove up to Wright’s Lake. The plan was for my husband to drive us up there, help set up camp on Day 1, and then leave the morning of Day 2 to drive back down to Sacramento. I felt increasingly anxious as we drove…
…and then, when we were nearly there, but not quite close enough, the truck’s temperature gauge shot way up, and the engine started to steam, and we had to pull over. One of the hoses was cracked, and all of the coolant was gone. This hose bit allegedly wasn’t a huge or hard thing to fix–but it was a Sunday afternoon, and we were in the Sierra Nevada mountains with three children, rather than at the local auto parts store. Oh yeah, and there was no cell phone service.
We sat by the side of the road for a while. My husband worked on a temp repair (I am afraid I can’t provide a lot of detail on this, but I believe some aluminum foil was involved.) As the children started to cry, I led people behind trees to pee, doled out snacks, swore under my breath, nursed the baby, and prayed for a miracle: that my parents would drive by. And, as time went by, that ANYBODY would drive by.
Eventually, my lesser prayer was answered, and an older gentleman stopped his RV. Which was full of WATER, thank goodness. We were able to refill our radiator enough to get us to the doggone campground, at least. It was much later than we had planned, but we got there. We set up camp, and though I still felt like I was going to have a panic attack, it looked good. We had two tents, and a pop-up over the kitchen area. The weather was beautiful, and the lake, when we walked over to look at it very quickly before the children’s bedtime, was serene. I talked to some ducks.
My parents arrived, and we made our plan. My husband was going to take their car when he went to Sacramento, and he’d leave a little earlier and stop by an auto parts store to get the whatchamajig. He would go to his work event and then come back sometime in the middle of the night. OK, so I would have what, 12 hours on my own in the woods? And my parents would be there. What could go wrong?
That first night did not do much to soothe me, however, as Noah, unused to tents, cried at bedtime. For, like, two hours. And it kept the other kids awake. And when he finally quieted down, Asher got up and woke him up again. And I wanted to scream too. I don’t think I did, though. I think I just sat at the camp fire, with my teeth clenched.
Nobody got a ton of sleep, but the next day dawned, and I felt hopeful again.
My husband left somewhere around lunchtime, about the same time as some afternoon clouds rolled in over the lake. I chuckled a little when it started to mist a little, because it was pretty good timing. It was still nice and warm, and I enjoyed the feeling of the humid air. I put everyone down for naps, and glory be! They all fell asleep. I did too, enjoying the sound of the rain drops splattering on the fly of the tent and some occasional rumblings of thunder.
I awakened to water splashing onto my face. What the?? I sat up. The saturated rain fly was allowing the rain to pour down onto me like a little surprising waterfall. I looked over at Selah, who was still sleeping, if somewhat damp from the water that was seeping up from the floor of the tent and wetting her hair, which was pressed against the tent wall. I suddenly had a hilarious flashback to the fact that, during camp setup, we had even talked about those times when you have to dig a little trench around the tent. Yeah, we didn’t do that. It wasn’t going to rain. Thanks, weather.com.
I flung the zipper open as fast as you can if you are trying to do it so quietly that you don’t wake a sleeping child. I ran out and assessed the situation. In the hour (?) in which I had been asleep, a creek had started rushing through my campsite. Lightning flashed, and thunder boomed. I took a moment to utter thanks that somehow all three kids were sleeping through the mayhem.
The tent with the sleeping boys was wet, but not underwater or anything. It was at the top of a gradual slope that the water was running down. Our popup was filling with water, and as I started to dart around, gathering up the clothing and toys that were littering our site, the popup collapsed under its own weight, dousing the stove, the food, everything with unbelievable amounts of water. How is there this much water?? I knew we were going to need to get the heck out of there–but we have no car.
I ran down to my parents’ campsite, and peered into their tent. They were sleeping.
Deciding I was going to take care of this on my own, I ran back to my own site. I tried to lift the broken pop up, but it was too heavy and awkward, as it was basically the equivalent of a large, full kiddie pool, with lots of long, sharp, broken metal legs. Cursing and swearing, I kept trying. I desperately wanted to salvage things like our matches and whatever else was going to get ruined by the rushing creek and the hellish popup kiddie pool’s water. I had made good progress in running down to the (broken) truck to throw in things that weren’t already losses to be cut.
I was wet to the skin, and the air had rapidly cooled, and my teeth started to chatter. I found my fleece to put on over my tank top, and it helped, though it quickly became soaked through as well. Lightning flashed. He has to come back and get us. I don’t know what else to do. I tried my cell phone. No luck. I jumped into the broken truck and drove slowly toward the lake, the only break in the trees, where I hoped there would be some kind of cell phone service until the temperature gauge terrified me, and I got out and ran the rest of the way, aware that my kids were alone in my campsite. My parents are nearby. They’ll hear the children crying if they wake. Right? No service. The rain poured down on me so thickly that I could hardly see. I walked closer and closer to the lake. There was a tiny spot with two bars of service, and I called my husband. He couldn’t hear me well, except that I think I got him to understand that it was flooding. When lightning crashed overhead, I realized I was taking my own life stupidly into my hands by being out in the dock in the middle of a thunderstorm. I ran back to the truck and got it back to the site.
Standing back in the campsite, soaked to the bone, shaking, I finally gave up and admitted I needed help.
I woke my mom up, and she helped me lift the hellish popup kiddie pool off of the kitchen stuff, and we tried to sort of throw it aside so that the water would all splash away from the site. We were quasi-successful. Some of the wood was a little dry. The plastic tubs full of food and dishes had fared pretty well. But the matches were soaked. Most of our clothes were soaked.
Once we had done the best we could, I asked my mom if she had anything I could wear. I was covered in goose bumps in my short and soaking wet fleece, and my flip flops were no longer cutting it. We went back to her tent, where my dad was happily reading his book, not fully aware of the fact that my site was under water.Theirs was not fully under water. My dad’s side of the tent was great. My mom’s side was so wet that water had soaked all the way up through her two camp pads. Go figure. They gave me my dad’s shirt, and we huddled in and talked, and I think we had a little wine.
Miraculously, the children slept until just about the exact moment that the rain stopped, the clouds rolled back, and the sun came out. Birds chirped, and it was like the whole thing had never happened, except for the vast puddles and the fact that my camp site looked like something from a natural disaster photo montage. The kids thought this was hi-larious.
My parents and I walked around the devastated site, stringing up ropes to hang sodden clothes and sleeping bags on. We turned the tents on their sides to let the bottoms dry. We weren’t going to be able to go anywhere until at least the middle of the night sometime, whenever my husband came back. I had moments of hoping that he would have left his event to come back for us, that I had managed to get the message across that we were…not doing so well, but that was not the case.
Another small miracle happened, which was that the sun grew warm enough again in the remaining hours of the afternoon that most of the most important stuff dried out. Except the matches. My mom and I conferred, and decided that if we left when my husband got back, we’d be getting the kids into the car and packing everything out in the middle of the night before our two-hour drive back to Sacramento, and that since we’d actually survived pretty well, we should just stick it out for the duration.
We found one match that wasn’t soaked, and managed to start a fire with it, which we kept going so as not to lose our one source of drying warmth. That night, I sat around the fire with my dad while Noah cried in the background again, and it was a little crazy-making, again, but I had this pervasive sense of pride in my piecing things together and sticking it out to keep me warm. Well, and Noah kept me warm when I finally gave up and just held him by the fire. We were up there during the Perseid meteor shower, and we tried desperately to see the shooting stars through the clouds, which had rolled back in, but we never really did.
My husband did come back in the middle of the night, and, by another miracle, had picked up enough information to gather that it would be a good idea to round up a bunch of tarps and dry sleeping bags–which was good, because I was freezing in my damp clothes and had given away most of the dry blankets and sleeping bags to the children.
It rained again the next afternoon, but we were better prepared for it. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. Especially since having three kids in the woods was really the least of my problems, I actually found myself thinking that I would like to bring them camping again sometime. Maybe just not right away.
For the record: we learned later that it rains and thunders just about every day at Wright’s Lake in August, regardless of what weatherchannel.com tells you! Dig a trench and bring waterproof matches!
I’ve found that the key to happy camping is to have parents with a trailer who are also willing to cook all your meals. Essential.
From the photos it looks like you’re up in the Sierra (…off to google Wright’s Lake), in which case nearly daily squalls are totally typical. I’m sorry you had to find out like this!