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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Camping at Coon Bluff

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 6/20/2024
Occurred: 10/22/2007
Page Views: 5840
Topics: #Arizona #Camping #SaltRiver #Zachary #CubScouts
Zach's first Cub Scout camping experience.

This past weekend, Zach spent at his first-ever Cub Scout camping trip. Unlike Boy Scouts, where the members of a troop camp under the watchful eyes of a scoutmaster and maybe one or two assistants, younger Cub Scouts go to a common area and camp "with their families" but spend the days in activities with their pack. That leaves the parents free to do parent things…which, in my case, meant a planned weekend of sleeping.

This was not Zach's first campout or, for that matter, mine. I love camping out, and so does Zach. However, he's eight and can't be expected to know how to pack for a camping trip; and I had to work until a half-hour before we were supposed to be at the site. So, under instruction, I got Michael and Mary and Karen to gather things together to be put into the car. (Jenny was also at work.)

I had already decided to buy new sleeping bags for the trip, as our old ones were substantially older than Zachary, and had been thoroughly used, to the point that the zippers no longer worked. Fortunately, and thanks to those three-year-old children who work in the Chinese factories, I was able to pick up a couple of nice bags, appropriate for the weather we expected, for less than $10 each.

Zach and I were, of course, running late by the time we got into the loaded car to head for the campsite. The saving grace was that the Den leader called me to confess she was running late as well. Also, she didn't actually know where the campground was. I had to give her directions. Also, suggestions on what to bring on a camping trip, as she had only gone camping one time previous in her life.

I started wondering how much sleep I was going to get on this expedition.

Coon Bluff campground in the daytime.

By the time we left it was dark, so Zach agreed we should just get something from McDonald's on the way there, rather than have to wait until after we'd set up camp in the dark.

The campout was being held at Coon Bluff. This is a spot we pass each time we go on a Salt River float, but had never really seen from the river because the river bank is some 20 feet high and very steep. It turned out to be an ideal spot for a Cub Scout campout, though. The ground is sandy and open, with just enough mesquite trees to provide shade without cluttering things up. Most of the campers set up tents clustered some distance from the river, but Zachary agreed with me that a site near the river bank would have a nicer view.

As we carried our first load of stuff—the tent, the poles, the sleeping bags—Zachary said, "We really need to do this more often."

I laughed. "We've barely started to do it now!"

"I know," he said. "But it's so much fun! I love camping!"

Sleeping under the stars.

I didn't really want to sleep in a tent. But Murphy's Law states that if you don't at least set up a tent, you'll wish you did. We own three tents, I think—certainly two. But the home packing crew could only find one, my oldest backpacker's tent, which still is in good shape. There was also some mix-up over which poles went with which tent. So when I put together the first pole, I realized the ends of it wouldn't fit in this tent—they went to one of the other tents. "I don't care," Zachary said. "I'd rather sleep under the stars, anyway." So we used the tent as a tarp, and on it put an inflated queen-sized air mattress (I like camping, too; but I'm not an idiot!) and, on that, our brand new sleeping bags.

Toasting marshmallows.

Since we'd already eaten, we were then free to wander to a central campfire. Although no "Scout" activities were planned for this first night, the kids naturally gravitated to each other. Marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate magically appeared and the next thing you know, s'mores happened. The kids wasted far more marshmallows than they ate; they seemed much more interested in sticking things into the fire than in eating candy. I had brought a pair of binoculars, and showed Zach the Pleiades and the craters of the moon. His friends ran over to see what we were looking at and got their first astronomy lessons. A few were particularly fascinated by the "stellar nursery" with its baby stars (the Pleiades); I overheard them telling their parents about it.

Interestingly,not one parent came over to see what their kids were looking at or expressed any interest in the night sky. On the contrary; they couldn't fire up their gasoline lanterns fast enough.

Around ten the parents started announcing that they were pooped and took their kids to their own tents. Zach and I didn't actually have a working flashlight—I had bought fresh batteries when I got the sleeping bags, but somehow the batteries never made it to the car—however, with the half moon and the stars lighting the sky, we had no problem finding our way to our camp. In fact, it was easier because we could see the shadows of low-hanging mesquite branches and avoid them. As I've said before, a flashlight shows up one thing brilliantly, but starlight shows you everything softly.

It couldn't have been a nicer night. It was just cooling, with no wind. The river below the bluff on which our camp was located made just the slightest rippling noises, while crickets chirped from an island located a couple hundred yards offshore.

"Thank you so much for taking me camping, Big Papa," Zachary said.

"Thank you so much for inviting me," I replied.

We were just about to get into our sleeping bags when the bobbing light of a hand-held flashlight came our way. It was Butch, the chief Assistant Cubmaster. "I heard you didn't have a tent," he said. "I have a spare you can use."

"Well, thanks," I replied. "That's very kind, but actually we do have a tent. We just decided we didn't need to use it tonight."

Butch seemed puzzled. "You're certainly welcome to use this one."

"And I appreciate that, but we don't need to. We like to sleep under the stars. But thanks!"

Butch's expression, seen in the reflected glow of his flashlight, was the same as if I'd told him Zachary and I intended to sleep in the middle of an interstate highway. But he didn't persist and left us, his flashlight pinpointing each next step, his quiet retreat occasionally punctuated by muttered curses each time a low-hanging mesquite branch poked him in the eye.

This was the view from our campsite in the morning, enjoyed over a breakfast of bananas, granola bars and juice:

The view from our campsite.

We were a good 20 feet above the river, with a sandy ledge running maybe five feet from the top. The bluff was steep but not vertical. Zachary found the lower ledge and called it his "secret hiding place" because he couldn't be seen from the campground when he was there. Then, of course, he showed it to all his friends.

Butch came over, panicky that the kids might fall in the river and drown. I worried, too, when I realized that not all the kids could swim. "The Denmaster told me that the kids couldn't swim as a pack, but individual families could."

"That isn't true," Butch stated in a tone that allowed no further discussion. "Velma hasn't been a Cubmaster very long." I could tell by Butch's tone that he thought he should be Cubmaster. I had no idea what politics were going on in the background, but decided to just keep out of it. We scooted the kids away from the bluff. And Butch was taking no chances. Every time he led kids along the river, he made sure they were so far from it that an 8.5 earthquake wouldn't have been enough to cause them to fall in.

Cub Scouts ready for a hike.

Although bluffs line the river all along Coon Bluff, there's one particular bluff that rises maybe 200 or 300 feet from the river. That's the actual "Coon Bluff" the area is named after; and the kids went on a one-mile hike to the top of it, where they got a bird's-eye view of the surrounding area, including Four Peaks to the west-north-west and Phoenix to the east. Afterwards they came back for whittling (on bars of soap; Zachary's masterpiece was going to be a racecar but when that didn't work he changed his mind and whittled a camera). I slept in the shade of the mesquites.

Around 4:30, the exhausted Cubmaster and Assistant Cubmasters let the kids go and Zach woke me up wanting to swim. To tell the truth, I wanted to swim too. Being a primitive campground, pit toilets were the only amenities. Since we already had our Tonto Pass for the car, Zach and I hopped in and drove a mile east to Phon D. Sutton, our usual takeout on river floats. There were only two other families there. Zach plunged right in and I followed more slowly. The water was cool but not frigid and felt terrific.

After fifteen minutes or so of jumping off a rock into the current, then climbing out where the current peters into an eddy, Zach switched to leaping from rock to rock. When he finally slowed down, I brought him over to me and pointed out the rocks in the area. "These all look like separate rocks, don't they?" I asked.

"They are islands," he said.

"That's right, because of the water. But if the water wasn't here, they would all be connected, right? Because they aren't separate rocks at all. You can't pick them up and take them home. They are all connected under ground. So, instead of being rocks, they are a rock formation."

I then pointed out the small granite stones embedded in the rock. I explained how the giant plates of the earth push one another deep into the fiery part of the earth, and how if they partially melt before popping back up, it makes this kind of rock, conglomerate. I could see him appraise the landscape with a new understanding that what we see on the surface extends deep underground.

And on the way back to camp, I explained how the Solar System formed.

The home crew had been unable to find my camp stove. So I took a pack of hot dogs over to a grill that everyone was sharing and cooked five of them. The other one, Zach ate raw. Well, uncooked. It's now a couple days later and he's still alive, too.

That night the Assistant Cubmasters built a bonfire to be set off electrically, courtesy of a car battery and a bowl of gunpowder. Another Assistant, Ryan, was the master of ceremonies. He was very funny, and knew how to engage the kids even though his "Chicken Song" was not a hit—the kids didn't understand why the chicken laid no eggs until a rooster came along. Each pack in the den did a skit, and then the kids told jokes. Zachary was completely comfortable in front of the fire telling knock-knock jokes. ("Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Canoe." "Canoe who?" "Canoe come out and play?") It was interesting seeing how not all the kids had yet crossed that line of understanding exactly what constitutes a "joke". They all had the form, but didn't all understand the point. For example, one kid offered, "Why did the elephant cross the road? …It was the chicken's day off." Everyone laughed. But then a slightly younger kid tried to repeat his packmate's success with, "Why did the elephant cross the road? …Because he wanted to."

"There were also a couple of jokes that made the collected adults gasp. Two of the kids told blonde jokes. And one began his with, "What do you call four Mexicans in a boat with a hole in it?" Some of the kids were Mexican, although they didn't see the potential for an awkward moment that all the adults were experiencing at that moment. "Quattro sinko," was the answer to the riddle; and there was a group sigh of relief as what might have been an ethnic joke became an inoffensive pun.

The Pleiades

The Pleiades can be seen through any inexpensive pair of binoculars.

Butch had made sure the bonfire was located near the river bank, presumably so it could be pushed into the water if it proved dangerous.That meant it was actually located near our campsite. Zach and I got into our sleeping bags by firelight. Zach fell asleep watching the stars overhead intermixed with flying sparks.

During the night, however, a wind came up. I'd guess it was 4 AM or so. If we'd been in our tent, there'd have been no problem. As it was, we had to curl up in our bags—easier for Zach than for me—and try to keep the blowing sand out of our noses.

By morning, sand had gotten everywhere. Still, no actual harm done. And Zach insisted he still preferred sleeping "under the stars".

Well, I can't blame him. So do I.