Checking out some old structures at Nelson Forest.

Scraping ice off my car windshield is not high on my list of favorite winter activities. Nor do I particularly enjoy waiting for my rear window defogger to do its job. But tasks such as these help me to appreciate that I have a warm car to get around in, and better yet, a warm house to go home to on even the coldest nights. These are necessities, and yet easy to take for granted because they are also the norm in our society. I’m not sure I could survive without them.

I was out walking by the North River the other day, bundled up in layers of “outdoor wear,” all constructed of manmade fibers — Gore Tex lined boots, polypropylene long johns, polar fleece from head to toe — and it occurred to me that for hundreds of years people existed along the shores of rivers like the North with far simpler amenities.

For example, the Wampanoag Indian tribe, who inhabited parts of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts in the years preceding European settlement, traveled by foot or wooden canoe, and wore clothes made primarily of fur and animal hide. They made camp near the ocean in summer, hunted throughout the spring and fall, and moved inland when the cold weather arrived. Their homes and gathering places — wigwams and longhouses constructed from tree limbs, skins, and woven reed mats — were heated by fire. More than 20,000 strong, the tribe thrived until the disease and war resulting from contact with European settlers nearly decimated their populations.

There were Wampanoag camps in the North River Valley, and even to this day people routinely turn up arrowheads and other artifacts in excavations within the river corridor. But the Wampanoag way of life of 500 years ago is so foreign to us that it seems exotic, almost unfathomable. Most of us would not want or dare to live the life of our Native American forebears. The closest we come is through extended camping and hiking excursions in the wilderness. But the deliberate nature of such trips, the fact that they are in fact “trips” and not “life,” prevents us from ever truly understanding what an average day in the North River Valley of 1498 was like.

It’s eight o’clock at night and I’m hiking a familiar trail through the woods to the North River. It’s dark. Tall trees obscure the clear, starlit sky, and with a large pack on my back, I must take each step carefully so that I do not fall. It’s November, and it’s cold.

Approaching the river, I search for the camp site I set up earlier in the day. The forest looks different in the dark, and it takes me a while to get oriented to my surroundings. Finally a sweep of the flashlight locates my brightly colored tent among the trees.

I remove my pack, step into the tent, and build myself a nest to sleep in: a foam pad on the floor, a down sleeping bag, a polar fleece blanket. Then I take the sandwich and hot tea I’ve brought along and head down to the river’s edge for dinner. It is the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday.

I wanted to do something special to mark this milestone in my life — something more significant than a party with friends and family. Something more meaningful: a personal challenge. I’d always wanted to camp on the banks of the North River. For years I’d dreamed about falling asleep to the sound of the retreating tide, and waking to the sun reflected on the river’s surface. Yes, camping on the banks of the river would be my celebration. The challenge: I would do it alone.

It had been a mild autumn, the nights rarely dipping below forty degrees. As my birthday drew near, I paid more attention to the weather than usual, hoping that the inevitable chill of late fall would hold off for just a while longer. I was about a week too late. By the second week in November it was good and cold, and the forecast for my camping night predicted the temperature dropping into the low twenties. Still, my sleeping bag was rated to 20°F, and I had an extra blanket: I would take my chances.

As I ate my sandwich, I watched the lights from the stars and the houses up and downstream dance on the water. There was a breeze coming in from the ocean, and the trees swayed gently in the wind. The night was beautiful, but I could not stay out for long because, sitting still, the cold was quick to penetrate my coat and the four or five layers of clothing beneath it. Before long I went back to the tent.

Before crawling into my sleeping bag, I put on more layers, and then settled in as comfortably as I could. As the words in my head quieted, I became much more aware of the sounds outside the tent. There was the river, as expected, but I hadn’t counted on the creaking of the trees. It sounded like a branch, or an entire tree, would snap off at any minute and come crashing down onto my tent. But after thirty minutes of creaking and no crashing, I grew used to the sounds of the forest. Eventually I fell asleep.

But I slept fitfully, waking it seemed every hour to an unfamiliar sound or the need for warmth. During the night I somehow rolled off my foam pad, and by the time I realized it, at 6 AM, I was truly chilled. I had planned to sleep late and enjoy breakfast and a hike before heading home, but the cold overrode all other plans. I knew I had to leave immediately, get home to a hot bath, a warm bed, and a few hours of decent sleep.

Maybe I’m a wimp. Despite layers of polypropylene and polar fleece, hot tea, and a down sleeping bag, I couldn’t quite make it through an entire night of cold-weather camping. Maybe it takes a stronger . . . or smarter person.

My wish to fall asleep and wake up by the river was fulfilled, but I was too uncomfortable to appreciate it. Even now, more than a year later, I think about the ways I could have made the night better — different gear, perhaps, or a more protected camp site.

But I’m proud too. Even if the experience did not quite meet my expectations, it proved to me that I could rise to the challenge it presented. As time passes, the fact that I could not endure the cold seems much less significant than the fact that I spent entire night outdoors, in the woods, alone. If nothing else, it was a great way to begin the next quarter-century of my life.

I’m planning another camping trip . . . but this one will be in June.

by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
January 1998

Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.