Dark Camping

A look at my disdain for campfires…

Certain people who follow this blog are aware of the fact that, in my youth, I took advantage of any opportunity to play with fire. But some of these people may not know just how much my interest in fire has waned over the years…to the point where I no longer own a grill, I don’t use candles in my home, and I think that fireworks belong solely in the hands of professionals.

As for campfires, they are certainly obligatory in the eyes of the camping public—the universal symbol of “Look, we’re camping!” Seems like every depiction of camping in advertisements and entertainment includes happy people sitting around a fire. For the record, when I’m camping, I’m happy too. But, as with travel and…well, lots of other stuff, I can’t follow the popular script when I camp. I avoid developed campgrounds and opt instead for dispersed camping, getting as deep into the middle of nowhere as the Pontiac can take me, where I can savor the silence and solitude. And, while I’m there, I don’t build fires. I think the last time I started a campfire was back in my Boy Scout days.

This post is not a lecture decreeing that you shouldn’t be building campfires (even though parts of it may read that way); rather, it’s just a look at the reasons why I find campfires undesirable. I raise the issue simply because I was asked about it during one of my camping adventures back in May, when I was touring Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Darkness

One of the primary motivators that leads me to these desolate areas is the reward of viewing incredible starscapes that I could never see here in the light-soaked Midwest. Cloud cover, horizon clutter, and (especially) proximity to light sources all weigh heavily on the when and the where of my campsite selection.

A sure way to destroy your night vision during an evening of skywatching is to spend a couple of hours staring into a campfire. After that, you’d be lucky to resolve anything in the sky smaller than the Moon. But when you go easy on your eyes and give them a fair opportunity to adjust to the darkness, you might be surprised at just how well you can see by starlight alone. There have been nights out on the grasslands when—even in the absence of moonlight—the night sky had illuminated the countryside to the point where I could discern the colors of nearby plants and rocks. And on moonlit nights, navigating the terrain is a breeze…no flashlight or lantern required.

Beyond my campfire moratorium, I further preserve my night vision by avoiding the use of traditional flashlights with blinding white light. Instead, I carry an assortment of red flashlights which are much easier on the eyes. Once the sun is down, I use these red lights exclusively, both inside my tent while setting up shop and outside while fiddling with my camera and/or telescope.

Those of you who camp are likely familiar with the many labels used to differentiate the various modes of camping, such as “boondocking,” “dry camping,” “wild camping,” “stealth camping” and so on. Scanning the Internet, I’m not finding any consensus on a term that denotes fire-free camping, nor am I seeing any meaningful use of the phrase “dark camping.” So, this blog post serves as notice that I’m officially taking credit for applying the term “dark camping” to the act of camping without fire. (Notary Seal)

Safety & Liability

It makes sense that a skywatcher like me would set up camp in those regions where clear, dark skies are a common occurrence—deserts, grasslands, the Great Plains in general. It also makes sense that locations with frequent fair weather see much less precipitation than other parts of the country. As you’ve probably noticed from the photos I’ve been sharing for many years, a lot of the places I visit appear quite brown and dry. They also tend to be fairly flat and wide open, which lends them another quality—they’re windy. Prairie winds can be both strong and unpredictable, going from zero to sixty with no warning at all. Dry grass, high winds and campfires…not a good combination.

When you’re dispersed camping in the middle of thousands of wild acres, you can’t just build a fire anytime or anywhere you please. It’s your responsibility to be aware of the current fire restrictions that are in place at the county and state level, as well as restrictions issued by the various US agencies when you’re camping on federal land. Of the locations where I camped (or wanted to camp) back in May, nearly all were under county-wide burn bans at the time. Such bans apply to campfires and can sometimes prohibit the use of grills.

Burn bans are increasingly common in this part of the world as the West continues to heat up and dry out, and they’re not to be taken lightly. Find yourself responsible for sparking a wildfire and there’s likely more than a ticket in your future…you’re looking at the possibility of financial ruin, maybe even incarceration. I’m happy to report that people were taking the bans seriously during my journey in May; I did not see any campfires or open burning in those areas.

Food & Cooking

One day while scouting online for potential wilderness campsites, I caught a glimpse of a developed campground listing in the area. Though I bypassed it automatically, the most recent review for the place caught my eye and made me chuckle. It came from one very unhappy camper who, quite upset over the burn ban in place at the time, asked indignantly, “How are we supposed to cook our food?!?”

Well, a great way to avoid that problem in the future is to pack food that doesn’t need to be cooked.

With camping, I prefer the simple and light approach; I don’t want to be bogged down with a ton of gear. That’s partly why I cringe at the sight of campers lugging around store-bought bundles of firewood and unpacking bulky, heavy cast iron skillets and dutch ovens. That feels like overkill for a camping adventure. If full-blown cooking is that important to you, I think you’d be better off just renting a well-equipped wilderness cabin…or putting up a tent in your backyard.

On top of that, the idea of turning your campsite into an outdoor kitchen seems so unnecessary when you consider the sheer abundance of food items that require no cooking whatsoever. There are thousands upon thousands of options, and before your mind leaps right for the junk food, those options include plenty of items from the healthy side of the aisle. Sure, you can live it up on Slim Jims, donuts and beer for the entire weekend, or you can go the other way and fuel yourself on nothing but organic produce and nuts. Throw in everything in between and the possibilities are limitless.

I’m not about to list each of those possibilities here, but I’ll give you the broad strokes based on the foods I carry into camp as well as those I eat at home in the summer when it’s too hot to use the oven:

~ Fresh fruit, fruit cups, canned fruit, dried fruit
~ Fresh vegetables, canned vegetables and baked beans, dried vegetables, pickled vegetables, pickles, olives
~ Fresh salads, bagged salad kits, cold deli salads (potato salad, pasta salads, cole slaw, etc.)
~ Nuts…so many nut choices, as well as a wide variety of nut butters
~ Trail mix, snack mixes (packaged or homemade)
~ Bars…bars by the thousands…granola bars, keto/protein bars, energy bars, nut bars, fruit bars, oat bars, rice bars, breakfast bars, crunchy bars, chewy bars (The bar aisle in some stores should have its own zip code.)
~ Bagged and boxed snacks…potato chips, vegetable chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, popcorn, crackers
~ Baked goods (packaged or homemade)…bread, cornbread, rolls, croissants, donuts, pastries, pies, cakes, cookies
~ Jerky…beef jerky, bison jerky, deer jerky, bacon jerky, salmon jerky, trout jerky, even vegan jerky made from mushrooms
~ Shelf-stable meat and seafood…Underwood Deviled Ham, Vienna Sausages, dry-cured whole salami, boxed pre-cooked (real) bacon, tuna and salmon (cans or pouches), canned sardines, mackerel, herring, oysters, shrimp, crab, etc.
~ Canned pasta (Is there anything better than eating SpaghettiOs straight out of the can?)

And like most campers, I don’t head into the wilderness for weeks on end; the majority of camping adventures in this country are only one, two or three nights in duration. So I don’t haul much food when I’m on the road, other than a few small snack items for the car. When it’s time to gather my meals for the campsite, I stop at a grocery store in the last town en route to the backcountry and load up on fresh food in the deli and produce sections, where I might purchase a salad kit or a ready-made Caesar salad for that night’s camp dinner, a big sandwich for the following day, a pint of seafood salad or some other cold deli dish, and a pint of fresh blueberries (maybe even a six-pack of those tiny donuts for breakfast).

The menu changes from one place to the next, with each store stocking different selections and each deli counter and bakery offering its own unique tastes. Plus, each small town that I pass through has one or more mom-and-pop restaurants to explore; I have no shortage of opportunities a grab a take-out order and haul that off to camp…maybe a plate of BBQ or some beef lo mein. There are even gas stations that have sold me some surprisingly tasty hot and cold sandwiches. It’s no exaggeration to say that I could camp every day for the rest of my life and—without ever lighting a fire or using any type of cooking gear—I’d never have to eat the same thing twice.

As for the irate camper mentioned above, if he was carrying food which needed to be cooked, then he must have had a cooler or mobile refrigeration to keep that food from spoiling before it arrived at the campfire. And when you have access to cold storage on your camping trip, your no-cook food choices increase substantially. Now you can pack even more fresh food; you’re not limited to the amount that has to be eaten on your first day in camp. Load up with more salads/salad kits, more fresh produce, more deli salads, and then throw in cold cuts, smoked salmon, fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt, dips, spreads, milk and milk alternatives, OJ and other fruit juices, and so on.

If you’d like to have a go at flameless campsite cooking, there are plenty of solar ovens and related devices on the market, but even those don’t interest me; that’s just one more thing to buy, one more thing to pack, one more thing to take up valuable vehicle space. On those rare occasions when I do want to warm up half of my sandwich, I get along fine with the old standbys: placing it on a sun-baked rock, parking it on the hood, trunk or dashboard of the Pontiac (all of which are black), and on cloudy days, I can just set it right on the engine block.

I’ve warned you that a van is in my camping future, which will allow me to reach those rugged and remote areas where the Pontiac just can’t cut it. And as the van research moves forward, friends and family are helping me with interior layout suggestions. Certainly, I’ll be reserving space for a small refrigerator, but I can’t imagine that I’ll ever want to carry any sort of cooking apparatus in this van…not even a simple gas-fired camp stove. I truly have no need for such things.

What about the fish we just caught?
Yes, you’ll need a way to cook those. Personally, I don’t fish.
What about coffee?
Never touch the stuff.
What about s’mores?
Bleh. Little Debbie Zebra Rolls are far superior…

Warmth & Social Gathering

Unless a coyote and a scorpion wander into camp to hang out with me, my campsites have no social component.

As a heat source, a campfire will indeed warm you up while you’re sitting nearby drinking coffee, roasting marshmallows or telling stories, but it’s a poor choice for keeping you warm throughout the night. Sleeping close enough to a campfire to feel its heat is not a great idea. And it’s a downright reckless idea to leave any fire burning unattended while you sleep.

The key to staying warm while camping is quite simple: dress for it…be prepared for the worst weather that could possibly show up. By investing in the proper clothing and camping gear, you’re assured of being warm, dry and comfortable no matter what surprises the weather may throw your way.

Smoke

Like a magnet, smoke from any fire finds me every time. Bonfires, patio fires, campfires…it makes no difference. If I stand upwind, the wind will slowly turn until I’m in the crosshairs once more. Then I’ll move again, and the process repeats…and repeats. My throat, my sinuses and my eyes aren’t built to handle smoke of any kind.

I know that the aroma of wood smoke holds a special charm for many, but I can do without it. A breath of clean, sage-scented prairie air is much more to my liking.

Low Profile

If you’ve experienced wide-open places in the dark of night, you know that a campfire or any other light source becomes a beacon that can be seen from miles away. There are many instances in old Western TV shows and movies, as well as in Western fiction and even non-fiction books, when outlaws, a posse or other travelers on the range will stop for the night and camp without a fire so as not to betray their location.

Of course, the West was a much more hostile place back in those days. When I camp, I’m not doing anything nearly as exciting as running from a bounty hunter. All the same, I seek out these deserted areas to enjoy peace, quiet and solitude, and once I find a campsite, it’s my nature to avoid calling attention to my presence. Though not too likely, it is possible that my lonely campfire might provide an excuse for folks to say, “Hey, someone is camping over there. Let’s go check it out.” No, I prefer to blend in with the terrain and be swallowed by the darkness.

Bonus points: Find my campsite in the photo below…

Romance

Campfires are a storied part of 19th century cowboy and pioneer life. Along the cattle trails and along the emigrant trails, the songs that rang out around those campfires are still being recorded and enjoyed today.

To the cowboys and families traversing the wild West for weeks and months on end, fire was a necessity, and the tenet of Leave No Trace was far from the thoughts of those who were focused on day-to-day survival in a harsh landscape. But this is not 1857. We have options today that were not available to those travelers.

I find nothing lacking in my camping experiences by the absence of fire. The West provides its own romance; it’s always there in the sensory splendor of my surroundings.

 

Give Me a Thin Slice

A new personal record: About four years ago, I photographed a slim crescent Moon that had only 2.39% of the lunar disk illuminated. I always look for these super-thin crescents on either side of the new Moon’s arrival, but where I live in the Midwest, the air quality, light pollution and horizon clutter make them difficult to spot.

Last month, on the desolate plains of New Mexico, with a big clear sky and an unobstructed horizon, I was able to image this 1.53% waxing crescent just 34 minutes after sunset on the day following the new Moon. Venus appeared first, and I knew the Moon would be close by…I just had to wait for the sky to darken enough for her to pop.

(Want to track lunar phases and positioning in real time? Get the free app from MoonCalc.org)

One Moon Ago

Preceding yesterday’s Halloween blue moon was the Harvest Moon of October 1. This autumn’s road adventure marks the first time in the past 14 years of travel that I’ve packed only film cameras and left my DSLR at home. I have lost interest in digital photography in recent years and I find that I’m much happier when shooting film. However, DSLRs are clearly the superior choice when it comes to astrophotography; if I hope to capture the Milky Way or the northern lights, I will pack my digital Nikon.

The rise of the Harvest Moon is something I look forward to each year. As that date approaches, I tweak the Pontiac’s course to put myself in an area with good weather and an open horizon. This was my first attempt at preserving the event on color film.

(My time-lapse video of this moonrise can be viewed here.)

Crook County, Wyoming
Kodak Ektar 100 film (35mm)

Audio: Coyotes in South Dakota

When visiting my favorite South Dakota ranch, I usually spend some time each evening out on the range photographing the night sky. In addition to the cattle residing at the ranch, the coyotes are constant companions. They start singing near sundown; some are heard only faintly, very far in the distance, while others are surprisingly near. In the darkness, I have no idea exactly where they are. Their howls make a fantastic soundtrack to the visual display overhead—one that provides a good degree of romance, and not a little tingling of the spine.

On this particular night of sky shooting, I brought along a digital recorder and a directional microphone. The result is a half-minute recording of the coyotes doing what they do.

Caution, pet owners: Your dog or cat may not like this recording. Proceed accordingly.

The audio is posted as a video (with the above still image) at these links:    Vimeo    YouTube

Speaking of the Song Dog: Whether you love coyotes, hate them, fear them, or know very little about them, I highly recommend the Dan Flores book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. Covering everything from biology to mythology, the book is a comprehensive coyote biography, illuminating such topics as the coyote’s role in the beliefs and culture of Native Americans, its “discovery” by European Americans, portrayals of the coyote in modern popular culture, and the lives of urban coyotes. (Unsure about the correct pronunciation of the word coyote? That’s covered as well.)

The book examines the evolution of these highly intelligent animals and their unusual reproductive adaptability. While wolves were being extirpated by humans, the coyote’s ability to function either as a pack member or as a solitary hunter allowed the species to survive and expand its range. The core of Coyote America is a detailed look at the long timeline of a misguided and utterly futile government campaign to exterminate one of the most resilient animals on the planet; 150 years of persecution, and the coyote has now colonized virtually all of North America and Central America.

You don’t have to be a biologist to appreciate the wealth of information in this book; Coyote America is not presented as a dry scientific monograph. Dan’s writing is accessible, well paced and provides a very enjoyable reading experience.

After the book’s release in 2016, Mr. Flores was interviewed by National Geographic. Take a few minutes to read that informative article on the NG website:

How the Most Hated Animal in America Outwitted Us All

I discovered this book thanks to Ed Roberson’s Mountain & Prairie podcast. In a 75-minute conversation, available here, Ed and Dan discuss coyotes, wild horses, land management and other interesting topics. (Be sure to check out another great book by Dan, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains.)

Hey, you with the bushy tail: I’ve written of my fascination with owls, and I am similarly drawn to coyotes. I hear them quite often when I’m wandering through the Canadian wilderness and the American West, but I have never heard the coyote’s song here in the eastern part of the country. As for spotting a coyote with my own eyes, there have been just four such occurrences, and only twice was I able to photograph the encounter (both times from the driver’s seat with a pocket digital camera). First, there was this “prairie wolf” in western South Dakota…

And, not far from my home, this eastern cousin…

You can view a very short video of this creature walking across the snow-covered field by following these links:    Vimeo    YouTube

UPDATE: I recently uncovered video evidence that my first coyote sighting occurred in Montana in 1990. Read this blog post to learn more and see the video.

This may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Do not approach a coyote, do not attempt to feed a coyote, do not encourage coyotes to become comfortable around humans.

Further reading and resources: This link will direct you to Project Coyote, a non-profit organization “whose mission is to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science and advocacy.” Read about their work toward ending wildlife killing contests that target coyotes and other predatory species.

(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library.)

Northern Life

Greetings from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, on the southern bank of the La Grande River in northern Quebec. Was it worth the 1500-mile drive…?

Excerpt from our group conversation:

“Hurry! The orange moon is rising above the river.”
“Ooooh! The northern lights are starting!”
“Ack! Which should we shoot first?”
“Can I squeeze them both into one frame…maybe…?”

I’ve been lucky enough to see and shoot the northern lights in 2013, 2016 and 2019. Guess I know when to schedule my next northern adventure.

Below, Mireille watches the lights. I was especially happy to have enjoyed this event with a group of people who, despite living in northern Quebec, have not become jaded by these displays and were just as fascinated with the show as I was.

Looking up at the stars through the mikiwahp poles. The shot below was Isabelle’s idea. (Thank you!) The poles in the upper part of the frame are illuminated by moonlight, the others by house lights. A shooting star can be seen in the upper right.

All 25 photos from this night can be viewed in this gallery, where you can also purchase prints.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

I have previously written about my favorite spot in the Davis Mountains of Texas, which I last saw in 2004. Naturally, this view topped my list of things to see when I rolled through the area in October of 2015. So, after a chucking my luggage into the hotel room and grabbing a quick dinner, I drove up into the hills, wondering if the valley was still as beautiful and unspoiled as I remembered.

Absolutely perfect autumn weather for an evening drive in the mountains, just as it was in ’04. The sights along the road all seemed familiar, and very little, if anything, appeared to have changed. I took that as a good omen. Anticipation was reaching the saturation point, and certain landmarks looming ahead told me that I was very close to my destination. Rounding the final curve, I pulled over, cut the motor and smiled broadly. There it was, exactly as I had left it. Welcome back, Carl. Eleven years had changed nothing…

…though it’s a safe bet that the trees had grown a little taller and a little fuller in my absence.

I walked over to the edge of the slope and stood there, basking in the scenery and the silence, which was broken only by a few chirping birds and insects, and three rather clumsy deer stumbling down the steep hillside behind me.

At this point, I placed my cell phone on a small tripod and recorded two minutes of video, which you can view here.

So, was everything the same after eleven years? That verdict would require the onset of total darkness, still a couple of hours away. Seemed like a great excuse to continue driving through the mountains, watching as the final moments of daylight painted the sky and the landscape…

…and then back to the spot in time to watch the young crescent moon as it fell slowly behind the hills to the west…

Now it was time to prepare for the main event. The nearby McDonald Observatory was built here for a very good reason, as the Davis Mountains are home to some of the darkest skies in North America. The folks at the observatory have even assisted local residents and businesses in procuring outdoor lighting fixtures that minimize light pollution. And plenty of other people in the area are behind the effort to keep the skies dark.

When I came here back in ’04, I was blown away by the starlight on display, an intensity unequaled elsewhere in my travels. Sadly, I only had a low-resolution pocket digital camera with me on that trip, so astrophotography was off the menu. This time, I brought the gear to make it happen.

Looking at satellite images of this area, I spotted a few buildings within this large valley that appeared to be the homes of ranchers. I don’t know if they existed during my last visit or if they were recently constructed. Regardless, I was hoping that they wouldn’t spoil the view.

Darkness was now firmly in command, and the show in the sky was nothing short of stellar, once again. And happily, the stars were the only source of light visible in any direction; the valley remained dark. If any of the homes down there had outdoor lights burning, they were buried in the rolling hills and invisible from my vantage point.

Adding to the romance of the evening, the coyotes took up their call, just as they did two weeks earlier as I was shooting the Harvest Moon eclipse in South Dakota. For me, that sound is the most wonderful part of photographing the night sky in the West.

I hope this area will maintain its sublime beauty for a long time to come. And I hope it won’t be eleven more years before I return.