I recently celebrated my 35th birthday alone in the woods and thankfully, I did not burn down the forest.
In the weeks leading up to my birthday, a good friend asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. In that moment, I knew how I wanted to celebrate, but I did not see my dream becoming a reality. All year, I knew I wanted to do something fun and memorable to mark this occasion. Last spring I found some information about a multi-day rafting trip in Idaho that fell on my birthday weekend. I got really excited about seeing amazing scenery and doing something adventurous. During the first months of 2011, I even entertained the idea of going to Turkey for a yoga retreat on the Aegean Sea. The thought of practicing yoga and looking out on the waters of the Aegean Sea on my 35th birthday made my heart soar. But as my birthday drew nearer, the stars were not lining up for my dream celebration and I wasn’t feeling up for getting creative with my budget to make the multi-day raft trip happen.
I was left with the question: “what do I want to do for my birthday?” Two weeks before my birthday weekend I was talking with a new leader at Seattle Inner City Outings New Leader Training. We were covering the “where are you from” question and it came up that I am from southern Oregon. The conversation led to the topic of rafting. I shared about my first rafting experience on the upper Klamath River, one of the most fun and thrilling things I’d ever done. This conversation re-ignited my desire to raft for my birthday. I decided to scale back the scope of the trip and find something closer to home. I found some half day raft trips on the Tieton River near Yakima. The raft companies invited their guests to camp out with them. I started getting excited.
I called up my friend and told her the three things that I wanted to do for my birthday: to raft, to sleep in the woods, and to have s’mores, that delicious treat of a roasted marshmallow and melted Hershey’s chocolate sandwiched between two graham cracker halves. Having s’mores at least once a year is a tradition I strive to uphold in my life. Before I called my friend, I decided that I’d go on this trip even if that meant going on my own. My friend enthusiastically supported my plan, but she confessed that she is “allergic” to camping and another friend, though interested, was recovering from a shoulder injury. The outdoorsy folks in my life, well…they plan things weeks in advance, but they were very supportive of my plan. I stayed firm in my commitment to go. I embraced the fact that I am an independent woman and I told myself and my friends, “that’s what 35 year old women do, they take themselves rafting and camp on their own.”
On a beautiful and uncharacteristically summery September morning, I set out for my rafting and first solo camping adventure. Since I was camping on my own, I decided to make things a little easier for myself. I took less camping gear and I planned for less camp cooking which meant less set up and clean up. The raft company provided a BBQ so my dinner was taken care of. Upon arrival at the raft company’s “campsite,” I drove into the woods and found a dreamy spot along a small creek. I set up my ultra basic campsite: tent and chair.
I had lots of time to spare before the afternoon raft trip. It was just me and my thoughts, me and nature. I was starting to feel a little bored. There wasn’t enough time for exploring. I brought a book, but wasn’t in the mood for reading. Instead I felt like writing, but I didn’t bring my journal. What was I thinking? I had been too focused on packing camping gear and baking zucchini bread for my camp breakfast and neglected to think through how I would occupy my time alone in the woods. I had some paper in my car with information on the raft trip and I knew there must be an old golf pencil in my car as well. I found the old golf pencil, folded a piece of paper and wrote down memorable images, a “picture” of my day.
Two hummingbirds zipping in unison, wide open landscape, sky white with forest fire smoke, wild oak trees, dry powdery dirt, secluded campsite along creek, orange sky rockets, red and black biting ants, tent on soft bed of pine needles, purple aster, glove tight wet suit, warm air, beautiful river canyon, water splashing on my face, big horn sheep, Kingfisher, basalt formations, rust colored bark of Ponderosa Pine trees, darting dragonflies, echoing gunshots, rising smoke, rising moon, almost full, moon shadow.
The rafting was fun, but not as much of an adrenaline rush as I desired. The rapids were not as intense, the drops not as big as my trip on the Klamath River. It did feel good to get wet on a warm and sunny day and the canyon was stunning, the basalt rock formations spectacular. And bonus…we spotted a “herd” of big horn sheep from the river.
My real birthday adventure awaited me back at camp. I was camping out, on my own, on my birthday, so that I could have s’mores. Being the responsible outdoors person that I am and knowing this was forest fire season, I did some research before hand to educate myself about the fire restrictions. I read something to this effect: “campfires outside of official campgrounds or fire pits are prohibited.” What makes a campground official? and what defines a fire pit? At my secluded creek side campsite, there was a rock circle that had served as a fire pit. I chose to make my own interpretation of the officialness of this campsite and feign ignorance. And I had smelled campfire smoke earlier that day. I knew I couldn’t make a fire in the existing rock pit. There were a bunch of dry pine needles in the pit and the entire forest floor surrounding the rock pit was covered with dry needles, foliage, and fallen branches. One stray spark and poof, the forest would go up in flames.
With all the extra time I had on my hands, I thought this through, scoped things out. I decided to make a fire pit in the rocky and sandy creek bed. There was nothing within a wide circumference that would catch fire in the event of a stray spark and I would be close to a water supply, which I could immediately grab to put out any rogue fires. I was also a bit hidden down below the creek bank. I laugh now, but I was nervous at the time. Nervous I might get caught (pretty unlikely and I knew I could deal with that), more nervous that I might start a forest fire. That would ruin some folks’ experience and who wants to be responsible for starting a forest fire? That is a very serious and un-cool thing to do – the devastation to the forest and the eco-system, the monetary damages, the legal ramifications. And for what purpose? for birthday s’mores??
I kept my fire small. I was mindful of how high the flames were and of the heat rising from the fire. The green leaves of the Birch tree about six feet over the fire were also mindful, so mindful that the leaves were wilting. I took care of that: bye-bye branch. With the moon rising and light spraying into the forest, I could see the smoke from my fire, but the smoke I saw was quite a ways away. A few times I jumped up and scanned the forest floor with my headlamp just to make sure that there hadn’t been any stray sparks shoot up and land on the dry forest floor above the creek banks, igniting a rogue fire. Nervousness and paranoia aside, I enjoyed my s’mores. I succeeded in not burning my marshmallows; the chocolate, carefully placed on a graham cracker on a rock next to the fire, softened. A perfect oozing chocolaty marshmallow sandwich. I have to say I was relieved when I put the fire out, very relieved that my birthday s’mores did not result in tragedy.
When I got home, I re-read the fire restrictions and clarified my “ignorance.” I estimate the value of my birthday s’mores at $5,000. Had I been caught with my fire outside of a designated campground, I could have been fined up to $5,000, quite a painful “donation” to make for my birthday s’mores. Good thing I didn’t get caught, but more important, good thing I didn’t start a forest fire.
an empowering birthday adventure and camping out on my own – priceless
having an entertaining story to tell – priceless
not burning down the forest – priceless beyond words