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Tuesday, September 15, 2009  

Camping Near Death


Trash and I have been using the same camp stove for over ten years. It's a three-burner Coleman that runs on propane. The knobs that run the burner have been missing for years. We used to turn the little metal stalks behind them with a pair of pliers, but we don't even bother with that any more. In fact, as of this last week, we don't even bother with the stove any more. Not now that we have a new three-burner model that runs on either camp fuel or gasoline.

We switched over in the Black Hills, in fact. We'd brought both stoves along, mainly because my dad had lent us his pickup for the trip and we had plenty of cargo space. Our first day in our favorite site, Trash was having a little trouble getting the old one lit. All it would do is hiss, and until she got her coffee, that's all Trash would do as well.

I decided to help. I turned it off, let the gas in the supply hose burn off, and started over. Before applying the flame, I went through the usual procedure, and after a few seconds was rewarded with two things. One was a strange hiss of gas that sounded different from the usual hiss of gas. The other was a visible cloud that coalesced immediately over the burner.

Huh, that's weird, I thought, and lit it.

The ensuing fireball didn't hurt anyone, and wasn't even that loud, but oddly, Trash's need for coffee wasn't as urgent as it had been a few seconds ago.


The first sign you see after entering Custer State Park is in white letters on a brown background. It reads, "Buffalo are dangerous. Do not approach." And of course it says this in really big letters so that nobody has to approach the sign to read it.

"Dangerous" is a little deceptive, but there's not really room on the sign to show a little graph with "aggressiveness" on the X axis and "size and strength" on the Y axis, indicating that while a bison is probably not going to go out of its way to come after you unless you provoke it, if it does you'll be in a world of hurt. Oh, and also, it may well construe your being within fifty feet of it as provocation. Like, as the avuncular, white-mustached park ranger told us within minutes of when Trash snapped this with her cell phone near our campsite, you don't want to get much closer than this:

I'm a bison.

And that's only when he comes up to you, not the other way around.

Which is why we were a little uneasy that evening when we returned from a walk and discovered that he was back. And closer. Two campsites away from ours, in fact.

So we quickly got in the truck (which was not rammed, my dad will be glad to hear) and drove to the adjacent campground to alert the ranger. He suggested we be somewhere else for a while. Either the buffalo would leave on his own, or he, the ranger, would run him off with his bullwhip.

Yes, I said bullwhip.

We made a stop at the general store, and when we got back, it was dark and the bison was gone. The only other camper said the ranger had come and taken care of it. I'm still kind of disappointed at missing the bullwhip.

One other thing the ranger told us: you can chase a buffalo off, but they tend to come back. We retired to our tent early that night.


We have this screen gazebo that's great for keeping rain off the picnic table when we camp. But since there wasn't rain when we camped, all it really did was trap bees inside it.

As I may have mentioned, Trash is deathly allergic to bees. If a bee stings her, it's a life-threatening situation. Which makes sharing a campsite with a small swarm of them rather inconvenient.

We were looking forward to saying goodbye to them on our last morning in the campground. Our plan was to move to one of the cute little cabins that are nearby, just to see what they were like for a night, and also to expedite our departure for home the following morning. We were packing up the truck, and I was congratulating myself on all the bees I'd saved Trash from during the past few days when suddenly, from next to the truck, she let out a howl of dismay. "I just got stung!" she cried.

We never camp without her Epi-Pen. At this moment, it was in the Ziploc storage bag we use for toiletries when we travel. The Ziploc bag was in the end pocket of the black duffel bag, one of the three pieces of luggage we'd packed our clothes in. That black duffel was in the bed of the pickup, along with roughly half of our other stuff. The pickup was some twenty yards away from me. I don't think I'll ever know how I dropped what I was doing and got that Epi-Pen out so quickly, ready to jab it in her thigh before we all leapt into the truck and hauled ass to where I'd seen a big blue "H" sign in nearby Custer.

But Trash pushed it away. She had seen that she'd been stung by a wasp, which doesn't actually kill her. It only debilitates her severely. So yay, she didn't die! After prescribing herself ice and rest, she only developed a red blotch on her knee the size of Louisiana; suffered excruciating pain, itching, and limping for the remainder of our trip; and had to go on prednisone for a week when we got home and saw the doctor. Win-win-win!


The park guide magazine is pretty clear that if you go on a hike, you should carry a sturdy walking stick. But considering what they want you to use it for, they should just come right out and call it a cougar-fighting stick.

Yes, apparently mountain lions live in the Black Hills as well, and although they aren't nearly as numerous as the bison, there's a whole section about them in the guide that reads like a chapter out of The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook.

Problem was, I had trouble finding a decent walking stick the evening we went for our walk. Trash and M. Edium both had sturdy poles that were just the right height for them, but even after scouring somewhat afield of our path, all I could come up with was this thick, awkward, Y-shaped branch that came up to the top of my belly. Trash mocked me, but I made the best of it.

"No, see, what I'll do is when the mountain lion comes at me, I catch his head in the Y, like this, right? And then I twist it! You guys just stay behind me while I handle it, okay?"

Later, Trash told me that when she went to put my cougar-fighting stick in the fire, it came apart in her hands. So it's probably just as well that we never saw a mountain lion at all.

posted by M. Giant 10:29 PM 4 comments


I'm going to print out this entry and show it to people when they ask why I don't go camping. Glad you survived it all!

By Anonymous Sasha, at September 16, 2009 at 4:33 AM  

Between this and the leaning tree of Pisa, I don't think its advisable to go camping.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 16, 2009 at 9:16 AM  

We were in South Dakota the week before you guys and this post illustrates perfectly why we slept at Comfort Inns and spent our days at places like the Flinstones Campground and Gift Shop o' Overpriced Crap. Sure, we might have missed out on the "real" South Dakota but we also never had had to find cougar fighting sticks either.

When we drove through Custer State Park we saw people trying to pet the buffalo. We also yelled at people for throwing frosted flakes at the prairie dogs. It was awesome.

By Blogger Jen, at September 16, 2009 at 9:20 AM  

I'm with Sasha in the "no camping for me, thanks" camp.

Though... I just agreed to be the Troop leader of my daughter's new Daisy Scout troop. I am pretty sure there is no camping involved until they're actual *Girl Scouts* so as long as I find someone to take over before then, I'm safe....

And at any rate, we do not have cougars or bison in our corner of New York. The occasional bear, sure, but no cougars or bison, whew.

By Blogger Heather, at September 17, 2009 at 1:41 PM  

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