Fatherhood Journey: Savoring our camping time on one last trip

  • Though you can drive or take a ski lift up most of Mount Mansfield in Vermont, the actual “Rocky Top” still requires a hike. The Engel family took in a distant view of the mountain from their campsite at Grand Isle State Park. Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com

Monday, September 13, 2021

The trip was three years in the making — but after two thwarted attempts (last year due to pandemic travel restrictions) our family camped for two weeks at Grand Isle State Park in Vermont. We’ve camped at the park during seven of the past 10 years, though never longer than a week. The annual summer visit is a family ritual that kindles our spirits throughout the year as we revel as much in trip planning as we do in storytelling about our many adventures.

Upon arriving at our site, with a view looking east over the main body of Lake Champlain, we were greeted by the chirping of three baby wrens, nested overhead in the corner of the lean-to in which we stowed our gear and took refuge during rainstorms. Furtively, the mother returned to the nest with food for her young, then immediately left to find more, a pattern that repeated throughout our trip.

After setting up camp, we took in the familiar distant views of Mount Mansfield and Camels Hump, two of Vermont’s tallest peaks, which we ascended in years past when Zoe’s and Adam’s legs were much shorter. This year, though, was quickly shaping up to be different.

We brought our puppy Luna, a rescue we adopted last November. It seemed like a good idea, but within 48 hours we had a family meeting and unanimously decided that everyone — especially Luna — would be happier if we boarded her. So, at 3 p.m. on day three of our trip, I drove Luna 3½ hours back home to check her into her much-loved doggy lodge, grabbed a sandwich and juice at the food co-op, then drove back, arriving in time to slip into my sleeping bag by 10:30 p.m., snuggled next to my resting family.

Despite the bumpy start, we all shifted into vacation mode. Adam put our new canoe to great use, fishing every chance he could, catching and releasing most of nearly a hundred fish in 13 days, including a 5-pound bass we enjoyed for dinner.

Zoe and Lori went for trail runs and jaunts on Zoe’s standup paddleboard. Lori and I enjoyed early morning and evening kayak outings. Refreshing swims, rock-skipping and sculpturing, campfires and s’mores filled spaces along the way.

But lovely as it was, it was different. Lori left on the eighth day to drop off Zoe at an amazing overnight gymnastics camp a few miles from the state park and then continued home to return to a busy clinical work schedule. Adam and I stayed the full two weeks and enjoyed lots of fishing, trips to two skateboard parks and an overnight trip to an epic mountain biking area.

But it wasn’t the same. We both missed Lori and Zoe — and being together as a family at one of our favorite places.

Adam and Zoe, rising seventh and ninth graders, remarked that camping for two weeks left them missing their friends, letting Lori and I know that they wanted our vacation to look different next summer. This is both understandable and not surprising, but difficult to take nonetheless. In the waning days of the trip I found myself both deeply appreciating the significance of this special place for our family and grieving, too, at the realization that we may have outgrown it.

The final night, after enjoying another catch of fresh fish (garnished with onions, capers and lemons), Adam and I sat around the fire and put to good use the remaining s’more ingredients. Then we headed down to the lake for the grand finale — the ritual of swimming in our boxers on the final night of our trip in the cool lake under the rising moon.

In the morning, as we cooked our final batch of pancakes, we noticed that the baby birds appeared on the verge of testing their wings.

We chatted with purpose about the big chore of packing up the site while mopping up the last of the maple syrup, then as we began to wash the dishes we suddenly realized that the birds were gone. The birds did not return that day, and I’m not sure they will. They spread their wings and ventured from the comfort and safety of their nest to explore and thrive in places anew.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.