New York Kindling

NYCO's Blog in Exile. Northeastern camping and notes from the field.

July 5, 2011
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The Leatherman

There are many sites out there about the Leatherman – a mysterious vagrant who wandered and camped through Connecticut and New York in the 19th century – but this one has the best detail, including this:

The question is frequently asked, “How did he keep warm in winter?” A number of people observed carefully his cave-keeping methods and took particular note of his heating plant. Before leaving his cave each day an inverted “v” of small dry sticks would be placed on the “hearth” or large flat stone in the center of his shelter, needing only to be lighted on his next arrival. Additional dry wood was stored in the rock crevices within the structure. With such preparation little time was lost in starting a fire after a day’s journey and soon the small area was comfortable and warm. When enough coals had accumulated to warm the hearth thoroughly, they were swept outside and the Leather man lay down on his improvised “soapstone” to sleep in a warm, if not soft, bed. Additional warmth radiated from the low overhang of rock and the sensation must have been like sleeping in a hot oven. It was sufficiently warm for him to come through every winter in good health.

The Leatherman was recently in the news again when his body was exhumed for possible DNA identification. Or rather, his gravesite was opened, because it turned out there was nothing left in there to exhume. He is now walking a bigger circuit.

July 4, 2011
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The Perfect Campground, Part 1

I was originally going to write about just two of the places I stayed at during my 8-day trip south this past week. But then I realized that I stayed in a distinctly different species of campground each night, and when am I going to have the chance to blather about those fine distinctions again? So, this is the first part of a seven-part series. You’ve been warned.

A bit of background about the trip: Usually I don’t do extended road trips outside of New York, but this was one that my dad and I had been thinking about for a few years. Last year he bought a used Sportsmobile camper van (dubbed the Land Yacht), so the time had finally arrived for an extended road trip down to his old hometown in western Pennsylvania, and also to West Virginia. The Land Yacht supposedly sleeps five, realistically sleeps three, and comfortably sleeps two (there is an “upstairs” and a “downstairs”), so this was a departure from the usual van-and-A-liner setup. Not to mention a further removal from the ideal of “a tarp in the woods” (but that’s a post for a different day). Also uncharacteristically for us, we deliberately sought out campgrounds with electric service, and were obliged to stay in privately owned campgrounds a couple times during the voyage. This trip was all about transient camping.

On Day 1 (Friday the 24th) we got a late start, and so I selected Lake Erie State Park in Dunkirk as the stopping point for the night. In hindsight, swinging over by Buffalo was a dumb idea, but I justified this because I wanted to see and photograph Lake Erie, a body of water I have never spent any quality time with. (Well, the quality time didn’t happen this time either, because the weather was very poor.)

While Dunkirk itself has an attractive setting on the lake, this state park represents some of the worst that New York campgrounds have to offer. Which I expected, but not to such a degree. There seems to be a mentality at lakeside campgrounds everywhere (not just in New York) that you should just be happy and grateful to be next to a body of water, that of course you are only there to swim or boat, and that trees and decently sized parking spaces campsites will not be missed.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I miss those things when I camp. And maybe there are compelling logistical reasons for there not to be those things — storm and flood risk? limited public space carved out amidst lakeside landholdings? — I don’t know. But I’ve developed a cheerful euphemism for this sort of campground – “camping on the heath.” Sounds much more appealing than “plopped down in the driving rain on a shelterless expanse of grass surrounded by dozens of your closest non-friends.”

In all fairness, there were trees at Lake Erie State Park, but not enough. I don’t believe that people should have to fight each other for trees. (All the trees you see in this picture were accompanied by giant puddles, by the way.) Though our campsite did come with a free yellowjacket nest – they lived in the 30 amp outlet. But that’s just another camping hazard for the scrapbook.

And yet! There was a healthy group of campers there for the weekend. There always is, next to any lake. And they looked like they were there to stay for a few days. In tents, in popups, in fifth-wheelers, in the cabins. They wanted to be there. I don’t pretend to know exactly why anyone would camp in a grassy parking lot by choice, erecting their family welcome signs and wind whirligigs. They were comfortable, they were happy – or trying to appear to be. But one person’s outer suburbia is another person’s wilderness; and I’d get some more insight into this as the trip progressed.

Because it rained all evening and into the next morning, I did not get any nice photographs of Lake Erie, just a video. I took this from in back of the bathrooms. Enjoy.

July 1, 2011
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Camping technology report

Before I write up my broader observations of this extended interstate camping spree, some quick observations on the utility of various gadgets I brought along this time. (These were primarily meant to serve as roadtrip facilitators, not as camping gear.)

Can you get anything out of a mobile Wifi hotspot, an iPod Touch and a netbook? Yes and no. The gadgets are never as useful as you imagine they would be, but usually good for something.

The Verizon MiFi hotspot is pretty much worth its weight in gold. Even when it was in roaming territory (all of West Virginia), speed wasn’t terrible – good enough for e-mail and Twitter checks, modest image downloading, and prompt loading of all but the most image-heavy mobile sites. When located inside the camper, the radius extended around 30-40 feet outside – not bad – even in deep woods. (Couldn’t say the same for the campground-supplied WiFi we encountered in a couple of places we stayed at – I get the feeling that campground WiFi is pretty much a scam anyway.)

The hotspot is what made everything else possible, including these apps (run on a 4G iPod with iOS 4.3):

Oh Ranger! Park Finder. Where to camp for the night? If you’re like me and prefer camping at parks and on public lands, this listing-based search app is very good (and free). Like most apps of this type, it ignores the existence of DEC campgrounds in New York – a major omission – but it covers almost everything else, including Army Corps places. I used it mainly ahead of time to route-plan. Warning: Sometimes the results aren’t thoroughly researched – for example, some Pennsylvania parks were listed as having camping when they really didn’t – but that’s the fault of their source material I think.

Allstays Camp and RV. Map-based app that I used a few times during the trip when I had to change route plans on the fly. Between this one and Oh Ranger, I was well covered in campground searches. (It also claims to show Wal-Marts where overnighting is and isn’t allowed, but you probably shouldn’t bet on the up-to-dateness of that.) The creators of this app are responsive to correction suggestions – when I first downloaded it, they showed Chittenango Falls as a campground, but corrected it after I told them there was no camping there any more. They also have promised to put in DEC campgrounds later.

GasBuddy. I didn’t have much use for this one, actually. First, getting a location on an IPod touch is always iffy unless you are in a developed area (although it would sometimes spontaneously give an accurate location out on the Interstate). In fact, fixing a location was a necessary chore when I was in a developed area and I knew I would soon be moving to somewhere more isolated. Anyhow, going gas prices seem to be prominently broadcast on giant roadside LED boards down south. And while it’s nice that you can consult GasBuddy and find out that someplace 14 miles away has gas that’s five cents cheaper, who wants to waste time driving there when you’re traveling?

iExit. Another not particularly useful app with functions largely duplicated by Google Maps – not to mention most roadside signage near exits. It also balks when you are off an interstate even a few miles, claiming you’re not near an exit and that it can’t help you. I wound up not using it.

360 Panorama. I didn’t reckon on what a total doofus this would make me feel like when I used it in front of other people. As a result, I didn’t use it much. But you can see some of the results of my labors, mostly at campsites I stayed at along the way.

Ustream Live Broadcaster. I attempted live broadcasts from a few of the campgrounds I stayed at for the benefits of the folks back home. The results were spotty. Don’t expect much more than jerky picture and unsynced audio from this, particularly not using a mobile hotspot. The entertainment possibilities of this app wore out pretty quick, but it’s worth a try.

WordPress for iOS. Part of this post was composed on this app. Unfortunately I didn’t have much free time to give it a really thorough workout, but if you’re a blogger you will definitely want this on your device, despite the relative lack of features and surprisingly buggy implementation.

Some apps I have which I didn’t get a chance to try out were Offline Topo Maps (I didn’t do any hiking), Clinometer (a leveling app) and Weather Radio (I had great weather for most of the trip). I attempted to try out LeafSnap, but realized too late that its gargantuan size (50MB) would have occupied my hotspot for most of the voyage, so I couldn’t complete the download.

Video: iPod video cam versus Flip Mino HD. The iPod’s still camera is notoriously crappy (compared to the iPhone’s), but it actually takes very good HD-ish video that compared very well to the Flip. It’s also less jumpy than the Flip. I had to take a lot of video while driving on this trip because I was documenting a drive-through of my dad’s old hometown. I wish I had used the iPod camera for this instead.

Netbooks. As I had to do some work while on this trip, I brought my ASUS EEE PC 901 (running Linux) and also had access to an ASUS netbook running Windows 7. Let’s face it: there is no reason not to have a netbook running Windows 7 now that they’ve come down on the price to around $300. The 901 was absolutely useless for even some of the easier web-based tasks I had to do, and I’ve resolved to get rid of it now.

GPS old skool. I don’t have an in-car GPS receiver, so as I always do, I took along my old handheld Garmin which did just fine once it was placed out on the dash to pick up the satellites, usually as a last resort when lost in a small town, which happened on this trip more than once. (Guess what? Navigation during a road trip actually doesn’t require high technology when you have a map-reading human along as a co-pilot. In the end, humans are still the best technology.)

This was my first time traveling/camping with my iPod and full Internet connectivity – easy because for this trip, unlike in the past, we stuck to electric sites. While the apps made planning the trip a lot easier, I can’t say they were indispensible on the road, and I probably won’t be very dependent on them in future trips, except for quick e-mail and news/weather checks.

June 30, 2011
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Broken Manual

I don’t find camping books to be particularly useful, and nobody really writes about car camping anyway, but this project caught my eye -

Created over four years (2006-2010), Alec Soth’s newest book represents a significant departure from his previous publications. Entitled ‘Broken Manual,’ Soth investigates the places in which people retreat to escape civilization. Soth photographs monks, survivalists, hermits and runaways, but this isn’t a conventional documentary book on life “off the grid.” Instead, working with the writer Lester B. Morrison, the authors have created an underground instruction manual for those looking to escape their lives.

Unfortunately, I can’t review the book because it costs $800 – it’s an art book intended for those on the classical “holy hermit” track, and you have to be wealthy first in order to achieve that level of renunciation. But it looks intriguing.

(There is a trade edition of the book, but it costs $75 for those of us on the “suburban slob” track.)

June 27, 2011
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Snapshot: Pixley Falls


Here’s a campground that is no longer with us – Pixley Falls State Park in New York. This was a very small campground of only 22 sites, some of which butted right up against Lansing Kill. When we stayed here in late May 2006, it was tent caterpillar season and pretty gross – but we had the place to ourselves on a weekday.

The campground was reached by crossing a stone bridge over the creek, and this bridge was badly scoured during the ’06 floods. But as soon as they finished the rebuild in 2010, the campground was closed. It was originally on Paterson’s list of park closures that was reversed, but they quietly closed it anyway, and the park turned to day-use only.

Aside from the peace and quiet and the soft plop of caterpillars continally dropping onto my hair, I remember our epic rain-soaked exit at the end of this trip. A miserable total rout – the kind where you’re tempted to just leave your tent half taken down and GIT.

June 23, 2011
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Camping at Versailles

Welcome to Le Petit Hameau, the campsite of Marie Antoinette. It was an offshoot of her “suburban” house, Le Petit Trianon.

Don’t laugh. Despite the lavish appearance of a rustic “village,” this is every bit a campsite. The Dauphine and her friends really believed they were roughing it here, just like any of us campers do. And she wanted what we want:

Sweeping away the old court and its traditions, she insisted on living as she wished. In her Trianon domain, which Louis XVI gave her in 1774, she found the heaven of privacy that enabled her to escape from the rigours of court etiquette. Nobody could come there without her invitation… This arrangement shows an art of living linked to free thinking, for the spirit of the Enlightenment was far from absent here.

June 23, 2011
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Green fields at Green Lakes

Green Lakes State Park is getting a bird conservation area designation. This covers the large grassy area adjacent to the campground loops.

We forget that open fields are wild areas too, but all too often they are considered “waste areas” either recovering from or waiting for construction. My favorite time to visit this sort of terrain is in late summer/early fall, when all the late bloomers are on show, or going to seed for the fall.

Another great place to visit open fields in CNY is the Camillus Forest Unique Area.

June 22, 2011
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All that you can’t leave behind

As a camper of the pop-up persuasion, I’m always wary of discrimination against the little people. In some New England state beachside campgrounds, for example, they won’t let you play with the other reindeer unless you have full hookups. In New Zealand, one locality wants to pass a law requiring “freedom campers” to have toilet facilities on board.

(This probably isn’t a real newsworthy item, but I love the term “freedom campers” and wonder what it means. Transient camping?)

June 21, 2011
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Snapshot: Fillmore Glen

Here’s a memento of simpler times. Dad and I started taking camping trips in 2004. The accommodations were super primitive: a small tent for him, the back of his van for me. Three years later, things had progressed to a pop-up trailer and a somewhat larger tent. This was the first trip for the A-Liner, which I wrote about previously.

(It’s so cute how we were still using the plastic tablecloth. I don’t know why that used to be considered a necessity. It’s not like we ever remembered to bring enough clips for it.)

June 21, 2011
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Camping in the wilds of… Brooklyn?

Floyd Bennett Field, a former airfield in Brooklyn in Gateway National Recreation Area, is being turned into a 90-site campground. An aerial view reveals it’s already got plenty of trees, so it might not be like camping in a big parking lot.

Sites will be about 30′ square with the usual fire ring and picnic table (but no electric service or other hookups). 50 new sites will open up for the 4th of July weekend, followed by more next year. Because they will have no showers, they’ll be designated “primitive.” So there you have it – primitive camping in New York City!

Since everything in NYC is more expensive, I wonder if these sites will run $100 a night…?