Camping, or the Art of War

July 27th, 2010 | Meera

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

—Sun Yat Sen, The Art of War, ca. 6th century BC

There are moments during a camping trip (I learned last week) when the whole endeavor starts to seem absurd in the extreme; when the attempt to temporarily reconcile being “in nature” and simply being yourself, an ordinary 21st century Western-hemisphere-living Homo sapiens, just does not feel like it is working very smoothly. One of these moments is when, having finished brushing your teeth by flashlight, you walk a few steps over from where you were in order to spit out your mouthful of $5 organic, biodegradable, wind-turbine-produced Tom’s of Maine toothpaste onto a slightly more distant patch of dark, loamy dirt so you won’t have to put a foot down on your own spit as you circumnavigate the camp site.

Another is when you find yourself dragging a six-dollar load of firewood through sandy, uneven terrain, swearing because you are pulling a cart with only two wheels and a tendency to nick you in the ankles as you go. Or when you are flapping at your nascent fire with a damp t-shirt as raindrops fall on your face, willing the frail sparks it contains to catch hold of the split logs you have brought it—nay, bought it, with the sacrifice of your poor ankles—your not-quite-burnt offering to the still-capricious god your ancestors first harnessed nearly a million years ago. In these moments it seems funny that Kafka never wrote about camping.

Then there is the time when you put rocks on your food. Is this new to you? It was to me, as I had never been camping before except for one night last fall in the Michigan Dunes, and that did not really count because we had a car and were approximately 12 feet from the nearest other tent, modern bathroom, and Dairy Queen location. But on this trip it was explained to me that, when camping, one’s nightly go-to-bed-ritual involves putting rocks on one’s food. I learned this from Megan, my camping partner.

“It’s just a precaution,” said Megan last Monday night, our first on the car-free, bicycle-free, human commerce-free, exquisitely beautiful Rock Island State Park in Wisconsin. “You never want to have any food near your person, so you have to keep it outside, but in order to keep it safe from raccoons or whatever, you pile rocks on top of the bag.” She proceeded to place a few heavyish stones on top of both our flimsy garbage bag and equally flimsy food bag: just three or four rocks on each, leaving large swathes of plastic exposed. “There,” she said, pleased, “and we can put our pot right on the top of our food bag. Then if something tries to get in it’ll fall off and make a loud sound and scare it away.”

I laugh, now, to think of this breezy confidence in the pot.

Rocks piled, we went to bed, a process delayed somewhat by the need to remove 20 or so languidly migrating daddy long legs from the tent, where they had each begun to make themselves comfortable. We were righteously annoyed with the daddy long legs (and, I think, Megan was righteously annoyed with me, because she thought I had been none too careful keeping the tent flap zipped shut). Then we realized that the reason there were so many of them in there was that we had brought in our backpacks from the outside several hours prior, with the intent of keeping them dry, and had not thought to check them for stowaways. Amateurs, we. Plucky-hearted, but amateurs for all that.

Stowaways evicted, we went to bed. Slow, hypnagogic conversation followed—the kind of conversation you can only have if you have awoken at 5 in the morning, driven six hours, taken two ferries, and traversed nearly four miles of bumpy, sandy trail in order to set up your tent and haul in firewood. The kind of conversation one hopes will meander, gently, into sleep and never, never be interrupted by a sudden tilt of the head and the sharp, suspicious whisper: “Did you hear that?”

She did hear that.

“Maybe it’s a deer,” she said.

But they were clacking, rustling, tearing sounds, exactly the kinds of sounds that a raccoon might make with its lithe little fingers it if had gotten up in the middle of the night to help itself to a snack from inside a plastic bag or bags upon which you had just placed a wholly ineffectual number of rocks and one small metal cooking pot.

The sounds grew bolder as our eyes widened.

Stumbling groggily out of the tent and waving a flashlight in the general direction of the food bags revealed two moderately-sized raccoons getting totally all up in our shit, y’all—raccoons which, surprisingly to me, did not immediately move away but stood their ground until there was a good deal of yelling and additional flashlight waving. Even as we approached the scene of the crime for the first time, the bandits fleeing a little way through the trees, it became clear that the rocks—as we had arranged them—were to these creatures but a laughable entertainment on the way to delicious refreshments.

In the minute or two since the noises began, the garbage bag had been ripped apart, leaving a mass of spilled corn chowder carnage. The food bag had several holes in it. Indeed—I gasped—through one of these points of forced entry, the bastards had already made their first major theft! For a torn, empty bagel bag lay abandoned a few feet away.

We stamped our feet. We wrung our hands. We consulted. What could we do? Clearly the bags themselves were vulnerable to raccoon claws, and even if we succeeded in covering them fully with rocks, raccoon hands could move those rocks aside. I would have put our food in our backpacks, but Megan worried that raccoon teeth might tear through them, and then we would be without food and usable packs. I also would have brought the food inside our tent, but at this Megan steeled herself. “If you do that,” she warned me through her own gritted teeth, “I will throw it out!”

Her voice rose an octave.

I raised an eyebrow.

She raised the specter of a pack of hungry raccoons looming out of the night, sniffing out the food in our tent, surrounding us, and scrabbling at our shelter with their every sharp part.

I capitulated.

At last we understood two fundamental truths about our situation: One: The raccoons would be back. Again and again, probably, through the night. We could not stay up shooing them away. And no matter what we did, they would probably get our food eventually. Two: Even though we were bound to fail, we had to do something. If we did not, the night would be full of the sounds of raccoons feasting undeservedly, and we’d be sleepless anyway.

Since the packs and tent had been vetoed as storage spaces, the only materials we had left were the rocks that had failed us so spectacularly in round one of this unwanted warfare. Could we do better with them?

At first I did not think we could, and though I set to collecting stones from around our campsite I did so with a reluctance that did not match Megan’s grim determination. But that’s because all I had, at that moment, was indignation. Megan had a plan.

She had noticed that the raccoons (dextrous but not that strong) had a much easier time tipping rocks over than pushing them aside. If, she reasoned, we stacked the rocks around the bags, leaning them only if they were too heavy to topple, we would do better. She also began dragging a few large logs of rotting wood over from where they had been arranged around the fire pit, yelping only slightly at the colonies of bugs she unearthed in the process; these logs were even heavier and more raccoon-proof, and could form a sturdy perimeter to the fortress she intended to build.

As our construction went on, and we achieved double and triple layers of rock and wood around our bag of food, I began to see the virtue in the strategy we had adopted. And when, in a final stroke of genius, I said “Aha! The cart!”—meaning, the lousy, two-wheeled cart with which we had hauled our firewood back to the camp site—the final piece of our anti-Raccoon program fell into place.

We set the cart on top of the rocks, and piled atop the cart itself our bag of leftover firewood. The fortress was complete. In all, its creation had taken more than an hour of concerted effort by flickering flashlight.

This is what it looked like.

Let me be clear: This is what it looked like in the morning. Virtually untouched. Oh, a few small stones were pushed away in the night; we heard them. But no edible was thieved. No raccoon had impregnated our fortress. We had won.

In truth, as you are no doubt saying to yourself, it was never a battle—though at minutes to midnight, whispering strategy to my fellow-general in the damp, close air of our war-tent, it started to feel like one.

It was never a battle because the stakes were never high enough. We had so little to lose: some smoked fish, a few eggs, a bag of green beans, beets, and potatoes, a hunk or two of cheese, sweating in cling-wrapped envelopes. As for the raccoons, well. For them it was an exercise in mischief as much as a well-planned food-gathering sally; at least, I like to think it was. Less tactical than curious, they, and presenting far less formidable a foe than a black bear or wily coyote.

Nevertheless it was deeply, profoundly satisfying to wake up in the morning and see that we had succeeded in fending off our tiny and adorable enemies. This satisfaction, too, took on something of the absurd. For hadn’t we spent all that time coming here, to this exact place, precisely to be in an environment inhabited by raccoons (and deer, and eagles, and chipmunks, and daddy long legs)?

Indeed. But what of it? Here, at last, I think, in this absurdity, Megan and I found a happy marriage between being ourselves and being in nature. For surely there is nothing so natural as the desire to fend off another creature who wants to steal your food. And nothing so very Homo sapiens as the desire to beat the little bastards that stole your bagels with nothing but a pile of rocks, a plastic cart, some firewood, and a little human ingenuity.

Thanks to M. Humphrey, military mastermind, for all photography in this post.

12 Responses to “Camping, or the Art of War”

  1. I felt as though I were right there with you the whole time. I even swatted a few mosquitoes as I was reading. The thought did occur to me, though, that there may not have been raccoons in China back in Sun Yat Sen’s day. If there had, he might have had to come up with a whole new set of rules. (I’m sure there are raccoons there now, but they’re likely made of plastic.)

    Congratulations on your victory, by the way, and on surviving the entire ordeal. Didn’t your bed feel great when you got home? I think that’s the best part of camping.

    • Meera says:

      Oh my goodness, it wasn’t an ordeal. Not in the slightest; I’m sorry if I made it sound that way. The raccoon episode itself was, though frustrating at times, truly funny (and a little bit fun) even while it was happening. And after it happened it became a wonderful story. The rest of camping, despite its occasional discomforts, was marvelous, at least on this particular beautiful spot. I loved it. And I think the best part of camping is waking up in the morning to the sun shining off the lake.

      Perhaps I should not go camping again, since this first experience was so perfect in many ways.

      P.S. There were no mosquitoes. Truth.

  2. Anya Weber says:

    Congrats! Glad you had a wonderful trip and outwitted the raccoons!

  3. Megan says:

    Meera, this is so great. Enjoyed every second of reading it, even if I don’t agree with all the details. For example, my confidence level about piling rocks on the food was only about about 75%, and I felt quite silly about it, even while insisting we do it. I’d read about that option somewhere, along with hanging food from a tree. I’ve since read about hanging food from the middle of a rope that’s well suspended from the ground b/c raccoons aren’t good rope walkers. That doesn’t explain how to deal with cheeky squirrels.

    • Meera says:

      Yeah, I knew it would be tricky to convey the psychological nuances of Rock-Building 1.0. It wasn’t so much that you seemed confident the rocks would work as that the whole exercise was presented like a formality, since surely no one would come out of the trees to bother us. You did seem proud of the pot-as-noisemaker strategy, though. Which, if it had been a whole mess of big pots, I could see working. :)

  4. Megan's Mom says:

    Meera — What a gift you have for story-telling! I so enjoyed reading this! I was right there with you! Though it reminds me of (here comes my story) of watching my father hoist food up in trees in Yosemite to keep the bears away just as Megan reported, and then hearing the next day about the ninny who had his trunk ripped open because he didn’t feel it was necessary. Then there was a camping trip in Michigan when Megan was a baby and we were awakened by stomping feet and rattling bags and boxes that surely sounded like a bear. When we were brave enough to peak out it was worse: a skunk!!
    Megan — Who do you come from that you are so-o brave to go out by yourself or only with a rookie into the wilderness and live in the elements? You don’t get that from cowardly-weakling me! And you apparently did not take to heart my stories about our goofy and destructive backyard raccoons dragging off our pool toys and hoses to furnish the fort they were building in the woods!

  5. Marianne says:

    Hi Megan, Your mom shared the story written by your friend, about your wilderness adventure, it was wonderful, but frieghtening to an old city girl like myself. I have never been camping, never will. I always said, I would rather be left to fend for myself in the middle of Cabrini Green than go on a camping trip. I figured I might have a chance talking my way out of any dangerous situation, you can’t reason,smooze or bargain with a raccoon or a skunk. m

  6. Jackie says:

    Thanks Megan’s mom!
    Loved the story.
    My idea pf camping is watching a PBS nature special while lying in my soft, warm bed.

  7. Sarah Marie says:

    Bear bags for everyone!

    (I cannot get the idea of camping with Kafka out of my head. That sounds horrible.)

  8. DeLene says:

    This is so funny and touching. I have camped and backpacked a LOT but I have never heard of putting rocks on your food bag. We use a scent-proof (supposedly) bag that we string up on a tree. We call it “bear bags” or “bear lines,” because you string it in a way that bears can’t get to it even if they climb the tree. Love the lengths you guys went to in protecting your edibles!