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Sunday morning, on my way home, I crossed the Baptism River on Highway 61. Looking toward Lake Superior, I could see people standing on the lower bridge. I decided to take a little excursion off the main road and turned into the Visitor’s Center at Tettegouche State Park. Passing the parking lot, I headed for the small bridge.
The bridge draws a lot of traffic in the spring, summer and fall; pedestrians and bicyclists safely share the road with cars and motorcycles. You don’t see a lot of traffic crossing in the winter. Especially people walking on a bitterly cold day like today.
I drove slowly across the bridge. Two people on foot, stood at the railing looking up the snowy, frozen bed of the Baptism River. They turned my way long enough to give me a friendly wave. The road was plowed but still had a thick layer of packed snow. Passing under the Highway 61 bridge, I continued onward, wondering how my two-wheel-drive van would handle the hills and winding curves ahead.
The parking area for the walk-in campsites was also plowed. That seemed strange, but I thought maybe people use this parking as a place to set out on snowshoeing trails. The road continues on back to the Tettegouche camping area, then on farther back to the parking lot and trailhead leading to High Falls. I was more surprised to see the campground road cleared. Most campgrounds have barricades blocking the entrance to traffic in the winter months. I turned right to investigate.
It was odd to see cars in the driveways at the rental cabins. Then I saw a motorhome in a campsite. Weird. As I continued around the loop, there were more campers. I wondered if this might be some special event going on.
A few campsites later, there was a large tent set up. Smoke rolled from the metal chimney pipe, poking out near the peak. The pleasant smell of birch wood burning caused me to yearn for the next camping season. Two sites later, there was a green canvas tent, again with smoke rolling out of the stack. The green canvas tent took me back to a time years ago.
My family had a large khaki-colored canvas cabin tent. When we went camping, it was always crowded with people. The tent was often used by my older brothers and sisters, who took it on camping trips with their friends. Along with a few of my younger siblings, we tried without success to set up the tent in our backyard. It was so heavy we were never able to raise it up without the help of our bigger brothers or sisters – and they were at a stage in life where they were too busy with friends to mess with little kids who wanted to camp in the backyard. I dreamed of a day when I would have my own tent. A smaller tent that I could pack around and set up by myself.
My dad owned WGLB radio, in Port Washington, Wisconsin. I loved sitting in the front office, listening to him on the radio – especially when he was hosting The Trading Post; a program people used to buy and sell a variety of things.
One day a man called in. “I have an older two-man pup tent for sale. It’s been stored in the garage for a while, so it needs to be aired out, but the canvas is in good condition and the poles are straight. It comes with a carrying bag but it’s pretty rough.” My ears perked up.
Dad asked more questions, “Does it have a screen door?”
“It has two screen flaps that tie together at the opening and they’re perfect; no holes or tears.” He said. Dad asked how much he wanted for the tent. “I want seven dollars. The price is firm and you can call me at…” I scrambled for a pen or pencil as he was giving his number, then wrote it down as Dad was repeating it.
I called the man who pretty much said the same things he did during his call. He reiterated the price was firm, then gave me his address. “Okay,” I said writing it down, “I’m going to ask my dad if he can bring me there to look at it today and I’ll call you back.”
“Hey Dad?” I started the conversation. He was working at his typewriter in his office. He looked at me over the top of his glasses and asked what I needed. “Do you remember that man that called the Trading Post with a two-man pup tent for sale?” He said he did. “Well, I called him and he said we could come look at the tent today if we wanted to. I told him I would ask you and then call him back.” Dad still looking over his glasses, asked if I priced a new tent. “I looked in the Sears catalog and it’s nineteen dollars for a new tent. But a new one is nylon and the one on Trading Post is canvas, which is much stronger and he only wants seven dollars for it.”
Still looking over his glasses, he inquired, “Do you have seven dollars?” I admitted that I did not.
“I’ve been saving my money from mowing Mr. Klinke’s yard and I have four dollars and eighty cents. I was going to ask the man if he would let me make payments on the rest.” Dad was quiet, still looking at me. “Can I call and tell him we’ll come today?”
Dad glanced at his watch then resumed typing. “I won’t be ready to leave until after 4:00.”
I was excited that Dad didn’t say no. “So, should I tell him we’ll be there at four?”
Dad paused for a moment, “What is his address?” He started typing again, while I read it from my note. “That’s out past Sentry Foods.” He said, without stopping. I thought he was changing his mind. “You better tell him 4:30.”
The man met us in his driveway and handed me a rolled-up bunch of canvas. We took it to his lawn and unrolled what appeared to be an old Army tent. Inside were four poles and a small bag. “What’s that?” I asked. He opened the bag and took out six stakes. He showed me how to anchor the first corner through the loop, while the tent was flat. “You have to make sure it’s taught.” He said, as he tugged on each corner before driving another stake. Then he pounded one stake about three feet in front and another about three feet behind the tent, although I didn’t know what they were for.
He put two pole pieces together and stood it in the front center of the tent. A rope was attached to the top of the tent. On the loose end, the rope went through a hole in a round wooden handle, then came back through another hole on the other side, creating a small loop. A knot tied at the end of the rope kept the handle from coming off. He slipped the loop around the front stake, then pulled up on the handle a bit so the pole would remain standing.
He put the last two pole pieces together, handed them to me and said, “You go inside and put this up in the back the same way I did the front. I’m too old to be crawling around in a pup tent. That’s why I’m selling it.” I did as he said, but the pole kept falling inward each time I tried to put it up. “That’s okay,” he said, “let it fall and come out here.”
On the back, there was another rope tied to the top, just like the front. He slipped the loop over the back stake, pulling it slightly tighter than the front. It brought the pole upright and held it in place. The tent looked good, but I pointed out how it sagged in the middle. “Well, just hold your horses.” He said, while walking back to the front. He pulled the front handle tighter and the tent stood straight as could be.
“So, the wood handle just slides up and down the rope and cinches to make the tent tighter?” I thought that was pretty neat. He showed me how to roll the canvas door flaps back and tie them to stay open when it was warm outside and how to tie them together to keep them closed when it was cold. The tent was so old that it didn’t have zippers, so the screen flaps tied the same way.
I sat inside the tent while the man looked in through the open doors. It smelled musky. There was a slight smell of petroleum or maybe plant fertilizer and campfire smoke all mixed together. “It stinks in here.” I told him.
“Well, I said it needs to be aired out.” He snapped back, “It’s been rolled up, sitting in the garage for a few years now. What do you want for seven bucks?”
I climbed out, looking to Dad to see what he thought. He said, “It’s older, but in good shape and I think it will air out. It’s your money, son…”
I turned to the man, “About that seven dollars…” I explained my financial situation, “I want to buy the tent. I’ve got four dollars and eighty-cents with me… The man interrupted to remind me the price was firm. “I know.” I answered, “I was wondering if I gave you this money today, would let me make payments on the rest. I get a dollar-fifty each time I mow Mr. Klinke’s yard, so I could have you paid off in two weeks.”
He looked at me, “You mow lawns?” I told him I did. “What would you charge me to mow my yard tomorrow – and rake it too, including around the shrubs?” I looked over the yard. It wasn’t any bigger than Mr. Klinke’s yard, but he wanted me to rake it, too.
I quickly did the math in my head. I wanted to make enough to pay off the rest of the tent. “How about three dollars and twenty-cents?” I said.
He shook my hand, “We’ve got a deal.” The man said, “Be here in the morning and make it early, before it gets too hot outside.” I gave him my money, then Dad and I left. We went to the A&W in Grafton where they had a special; three chili dogs for one dollar. Dad ate two and I had one. We split an order of fries and a small coke. All the while we were eating, I told Dad about the adventures I would have with my new tent.
Like a kid on Christmas Eve, I was so excited about getting my tent that I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning, Dad dropped me off at the man’s house and told me to call him at the radio station when I was done. It took most of the day to mow and rake his yard. The man gave me a cold cheese sandwich with mayo on white bread, lemonade and a cookie for lunch. It tasted good.
Dad came to get me in the late afternoon. The man gave me the tent and handed me another dollar. Puzzled, I asked what the extra dollar was for. “Kid, you do good work, but in the future, you better let someone else handle the money.” He started laughing, although I still didn’t know why. Then he handed me another dollar, “Here. This is for you. I think the yard was a lot bigger job than you thought it would.”
I sat in the passenger’s seat, holding and admiring my new tent. Dad explained the extra dollar and the error I made in my math, then said, “Why don’t you roll your window down.”
I wrinkled my nose, “It stinks, doesn’t it?”
“It will air out.” Dad assured as he turned into the radio station driveway. “Why don’t you leave your tent outside for now.” He suggested, “You can set it up and tie the flaps open to let it air out.
In the yard of the radio station, I slept in the tent alone that night. It was a little scary for a twelve-year-old kid, even though I had the doors tied tightly for security. In the morning, when the sun shined on the green canvas, it got hot inside the tent. With no air movement, I woke up sweating.
It always got hot inside when the sun shined. If it rained, or the tent was wet with morning dew, and I slept touching the canvas walls, the moisture came right through the walls and I would get wet, too. Still, I kept that tent well into my adult years. When my daughters were little, I tried to get them to sleep in the tent, but they wouldn’t. “It stinks in there, Dad.” They would complain – so I bought them a playhouse, instead. I don’t know what ever happened to that tent.
On the way out of the park, I stopped and talked to a guy who worked for the Minnesota DNR. “I think Tettegouche is the only state campground that has heated shower houses.” He told me, “We keep this campground open all year, including the cabins and the walk-in sites.” I told him the park was basically in our backyard and I had no idea it was open for winter camping. “Yep, 24-7/365, we’re always open,” He laughed, “and just like the summer months, we’re at full capacity right now.”
Winter camping is so much fun, I thought maybe I should go home and dig our Scamp out from under the snow. I drove through the campground loop again, looking at the green canvas tent and how it sharply contrasted with the white snow surrounding it. The smoke billowing from the metal chimney smelled good. I smiled, wondering if they were as warm in their green canvas tent as I always was in mine.