“There’s nothing like the intensity of one-on-one time during a trip for bonding,” my friend John Kokola commented on my Facebook page in the middle of August.
I’d posted a photo of my son, Harry, as we made our way back to the airport after three days of camping in Wisconsin. Exhausted, dirty, stinking of 72 hours’ worth of campfire and bug spray, he sat looking out the window of an Uber, watching the buildings and traffic of Milwaukee with the fascination usually reserved for an expensive guided tour of a foreign city.
He’s 10. It’s a time of vigorous transition in a child’s life. He is just 10 days from starting fifth grade, his last year in the elementary school that has had no small part in shaping the boy he is. When he finishes next June, he’ll cross the parking lot to the middle school, a crucible of hormones, self-consciousness and rapid progress toward his teens.
But today, he’s just a boy.
When we first started planning the trip to Wisconsin to drive a 2019 Subaru Ascent and try out the Tepui Low-Pro 2 rooftop tent, I was all in, but Harry was a regular PR man.
“We’re going to camp on the roof!” he told both of his grandmothers, his summer camp counselors, our neighbor across the street, birds at the feeder, a random dog, and just about every other living creature he ran across.
We pick up the Ascent in Milwaukee, a Tepui Low-Pro 2 rooftop tent U-bolted to the Thule®1 cross bars. [See Why You Should Camp in a Rooftop Tent to learn about the benefits of a rooftop tent and watch our time-lapse video of the installation.] By 3 o’clock that afternoon, we arrive at our campsite at Kohler-Andrae State Park. After unfolding the tent, our first mission is to check out the lake.
Full disclosure: Harry and I are ocean guys. We spend a good amount of time in the frigid cold waters of the Atlantic in southern Maine. But we Yankees are completely unprepared for the scale of Lake Michigan. There is a stiff wind coming off the lake, and we’re shocked to note that the swells in the water aren’t much smaller than what we’re used to in Maine, along with a similar undertow warning.
It is also apparent that we have drastically undersized fishing gear. Fortunately, we’re able to walk a half-mile to the nearby Friends Fishing Pond, part of a wonderful program in Wisconsin for urban and community fishing that provides encouragement for more people – “especially youngsters,” according to the Wisconsin DNR website – to go fishing. The small pond does have bass and trout, but it’s also loaded with obsessively hungry bluegill. In one hour-long session early in the day, Harry hooks 26 fish and is convinced that he has a career as a fishing guide.
I want to use this trip to try out some new camping recipes, so I pull a few options from the Family Camping Cookbook by Tiff and Jim Easton to whip up crispy smoked paprika chicken wings for dinner, and banana, chocolate and marshmallow boats for dessert.
“We’re eating that?” Harry says, eyeing the fire-red chicken marinating in the bag.
“Mom makes stuff like this all the time,” I say. “You eat it at home.”
“I’m good,” he says, stabbing a hot dog and roasting it over the fire himself. “What’s wrong with these buns?” he asks, confounded by the side-split rolls, as opposed to the top-splitters that we’re used to in New England.
We left our home outside of Boston at 5 o’clock that morning, traveled half the day, gained an hour crossing the time zone and squeezed all we could into the entire afternoon, so by the time 9 p.m. rolls around, we are both running on empty.
For a kid who was so fired up to camp on the roof, Harry drags himself up the ladder, climbs into his sleeping bag and crashes about 30 seconds after his head hits the pillow. The tent proves plenty comfortable – he’s out cold until 7:30 the next morning.
When you’re the parent of a 10-year-old, you hear “I’m hungry” about 78 times a day, but this morning he really means it. I make breakfast quesadillas out of the cookbook, substituting the ham for bacon.
“OK,” he admits. “These are good.” I have to agree – you can’t really go wrong with bacon, eggs and shredded cheese.
We want to explore a bit outside the park this second day, and since the tent folds up as quickly as it unfolds, we’re able to jump in the Ascent and explore beyond the park to the city of Sheboygan. Just 15 minutes north, we find the wreck of the Lottie Cooper at Deland Park, located close to Harbor Centre Marina.
The Lottie Cooper was a three-masted schooner that was built in 1876 for the Truman & Cooper lumber and flour mill in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. On April 9, 1894, the ship was hauling a cargo of lumber from Pine Lake, Michigan, when it was caught in a howling gale close to Sheboygan and sent to the bottom of frigid Lake Michigan. Crew member Edward Olson was the lone casualty among the crew of six.
According to Travel Wisconsin, during an underwater survey for the construction of Harbor Centre Marina, the wreckage was discovered. A section of the hull is now displayed in DeLand Park.
“It’s falling apart,” Harry says, picking up a piece of rotted timber from the ground. (After we get home, I read up a bit on the wreck and discover that because the wreck was pulled out of the water, it began rotting as soon as it hit the air. Submerged, it could have lasted forever, but in the open elements, it’s disintegrating even as volunteers are trying to preserve it.)
Alas, boys can’t live on historic sites and outdoor activities alone. Toy stores, that’s what a kid loves, and I’m not one to stand in his way. I figure if we can find a Lego® set to put together, I can “read a book” (i.e., “take a nap in the tent”).
We stop at Culver’s®, a famed Wisconsin restaurant chain, for frozen custard, and I use my phone to find toy stores in the area. Weeding through a few lackluster dollar-store candidates, we strike gold with a regional independent toy store in nearby Sheboygan Falls, though it is really more like a department store the likes of which have been disappearing since I was Harry’s age in 1978.
Along with clothing, books, knitting supplies and tools, Uniquely Evans boasts the single best toy section either one of us has ever seen. Hundreds of board games. Hundreds of card games. Puzzles stacked floor to ceiling. The model car selection is as expansive as the toy stores I grew up visiting.
The jewel in the crown – according to Harry, anyway – is its selection of Legos, with kits by the dozen. It is sensory overload for a boy with $30 to spend. “Can we move here?” he asks, as we bring his final choices to the register after an hour of wandering in awe.
It’s late afternoon, those Legos aren’t going to build themselves and that nap I promised myself is calling, so we head back.
After dinner, Harry opts to fish again. We don’t want to break the tent down and set it up once more, so we walk the mile or so to the fishing hole.
Harry will famously tell anyone – including our driver from the airport, by the way – about the time four years ago when the alternator died in my truck and I made him walk the quarter-mile to day care from the parking lot.
Yet on this walk, as we cover important topics from superheroes to the first time I saw Star Wars, to which of his pet mice he’s most attached to, he never once mentions the time or the distance.
Harry: “What would you want your superpower to be?”
Me: “Well, the big question is this: Flight or invisibility?”
Harry: “Oh, I’d fly. Being invisible just lets you play tricks on people.”
Me: “Yeah, and if you could fly, you could pretty much be invisible, since most people don’t walk around looking up all the time.”
When we arrive, I wish the walk could’ve been another mile.