Category Archives: Camping

Camping in Memphis

There’s nothing quite like late July in Nebraska, where it’s hot and humid and barely a whisper of wind in the air. That’s when you get to enjoy the great outdoors with just a bit more patience — and some creativity about ways to keep cool.


Hannah and Aaron started things off with a week-long VBS at First Presbyterian in Bellevue. They attended every morning through the week and finished things off on Friday with a water fight outside. I took the day off to start our camping trip, so Vivian and I dropped by to watch them play in a sprinkler and throw wet sponges at one another. They also got some freeze pops and some candy for memorizing a bible verse, which was sweet (literally).

Then, just as we were trying to decide what to do for lunch, we saw the famous “food truck” at the library (a thing I’ve heard about from Vivian for years but never seen with my own eyes), so we stopped and got some chicken sandwiches before heading home.


Then came the camping trip! Wee invited Mama Ginny to keep her son Harold company while we were all away. Then we packed up our things and headed off to Memphis, Nebraska with some burgers and Combos to tide us over. The trip took all of half an hour, and we grabbed a spot with convenient proximity to the lake and the sandy play area with a cabin for the kids (and ground squirrels and geese to keep us company).

We set up camp and got a fire going for s’mores that evening as the Mills family came to join us. It was already sweltering, but little Gabe brought us lemonade on a platter to keep us cool. Hannah also immediately took to the lake, going inside and soaking her little pink dress without a care in the world. Then once the sun went down, we lit a fire and roasted up a batch of s’mores for the evening.


Vivian and Lexi scrambled up some breakfast the next morning as Hannah explored the lake looking for “gooey” frogs. Afterward, I took her with Sammy, Aaron, and August over to the playground with old school metal equipment like a teeter totter, a merry-go-round, and monkey bars, just like the kind their parents grew up with. There was even a tether ball pole Hannah and Sammy were able to bat around. The kids also had some fun climbing a nearby tree — at least until a branch snapped and Hannah came tumbling down. She got the wind knocked out of her and was a little sore but otherwise all right. Hopefully it won’t put her off tree climbing, which has become one of her favorite activities at grandma and grandpa’s house.


We had some lunch and then tried keeping cool that afternoon with a little wading in the lake near the boat dock up the road. The water was relatively cool, albeit with a rocky and muddy bottom. I was able to traverse the lake to the little island, where a crane seemed to have made its home and mulberries were growing wild. The kids wanted to come explore the island, too, so Nate rented a canoe and took them around for a look.


Later that afternoon, I took the kids for a walk (or in Sammy’s case, a bike ride) into town. I snapped a few photos of a few of the old buildings, including the Century-old Iliff Chapel. We also stopped by Don’s Bar and Grill (the only operating business in town) for a few drinks and snacks with the kids before heading back to the campsite.

Sammy brought a couple American Heritage Girls for her and Hannah to play with while August and Aaron played some Uno. For dinner, Vivian and Lexi grilled some brats followed by some Dutch oven brownies and a cheese dip. The kids explored the lake a bit more and discovered the waterproof nature of lily pads near the shoreline. Then we finished off the evening with some s’mores and a raging battle in the dark over a set of colored glow sticks before bedtime.


The next morning was strangely cool with a thick, eerie mist hanging over the lake and everything around it. We got the kids up for a breakfast that included roasted marshmallows and donuts warmed over the fire. Then the kids had one last romp in the sandbox and the grown-ups packed up the tents and all our things before getting set to head home.

Of course, I had to get a big group photo before we headed off. We’ve been camping with the Mills family for a couple years now, and I don’t think we’d ever gotten a joint family photo together before. It was long overdue.


Then that afternoon, because my weekend hadn’t been busy enough, I dropped by the Cross Training Center for some “grassroots training” with Scott Presler and around 60 other patriots. I’d met Scott before at a “pep rally” during the 2020 election, and it was interesting to see him back in a more educational role — giving a 90-minute presentation on voter registration, running for office, and get-out-the-vote efforts, among other things. He also spent most of the presentation off the stage and walking the room, and this even included some audience participation, roleplaying getting a stranger registered to vote.

It was an event held jointly by the Nebraska Freedom Coalition, Freedom Rally USA, and Nebraska Against Government Overreach, a trifecta of what I call the “populist upstarts” on the right, focused more intently on public demonstrations and online activism than “establishment” conservatives. Of course, there was also time to get selfies with Scott afterward, and I’d worn my new Jordan Peterson shirt just for the occasion. I also got to meet the “Beard Vet,” who seemed to have a followingall his own among the crowd, and his own line of coffee.

In all, it was a great weekend, and not even as hot as they’d predicted it would be. I’m always glad to have the chance to enjoy the great outdoors with our family and friends — even when it’s just down the road.

Happy campers!

Two Rivers Camping Trip

We just got back from a three-day weekend of camping down at the Two Rivers State Recreation Area, right on the edge of the Platte River. It was a hot and muggy weekend filled with bugs and ending in rain, but we still managed to have some fun with the kids cooling off in the river and watching the kids make new friends on the communal playground.


After spending a good chunk of Friday packing up and getting food for our trip, we headed across the river and past Waterloo to our site at the Goldenrod Campground. Ours was lot 72, right next to the playground and a small water pump that was used almost non-stop through the weekend. We got the tent set up and Vivian made a “hobo style” dinner of chicken, potatoes, corn, and carrots wrapped in foil as the kids explored the playground next door. Our kids also got some special presents for the weekend — a tent for Hannah’s doll and a travel version of Hungry Hungry Hippos for Aaron.

Our friends the Mills joined us in time for dinner as the sun went down and the entire campground filled up with travelers. According to a sign at the entryway, every single site was booked for the weekend.


The next morning, Nate and Lexi fixed us a breakfast of “Dutch Baby” and some eggs, and afterward Hannah found a tiny toad, which she decided to name “Gooey.” Then after breakfast, we headed down to the riverside to wade in the Platte River. There was enough sand left at a washed-out campground to create a makeshift beach for us as we led the kids down into the nice, cool water. The Platte was shallow enough to wade out a ways, and Nate brought and inner tube that the kids got to ride on for a bit. It was mostly nice just to escape the oppressive heat and humidity in the cool water for a bit.

Then on the way back, we dropped by the lake by our campsite for a little more swimming. That water was even colder, which almost made up for the gross algae and mud as we splashed around for a bit with the kids.


The kids spent some quality time on the playground in the afternoon and also made some tin foil “creatures” with Vivian’s direction at our picnic table. Vivian and Lexi made some chocolate cake in the Dutch oven in the meantime, and I broke open Aaron’s game of “goofy ball toss,” which he played a bit with August once I got it assembled. Lexi made some barbecue chicken for dinner, which we ate with tortillas.

Then after the sun went down we broke out the marshmallows, which the kids roasted together over the fire for s’mores. Mostly, however, we tried keeping cool under the faucet, and after the sun went down we eventually had to retreat to our tent to avoid being eaten alive by an oppressive swarm of mosquitoes.


On Sunday morning, we woke up to the patter of raindrops on our tent followed shortly by thunder and a torrential downpour. Our tarp did a fairly decent job keeping most of the rain out, though it came down hard enough in spots to leak through. Once it let up a bit, we started tearing down the campsite, but we were still soaked within minutes. Then we made a hasty return home, wondering if next time we ought to just rent one of the cabooses on the south side of the camp instead.

School is getting set to start again, so Vivian and I barely have time to recover before jumping back into that daily routine. Maybe I’ll have the chance to catch my breath before my birthday the end of the month.

Camping Highlight Reel

Camping Overnight in October

Well, we managed to get in at least one camping trip this season, taking in a brief, overnight stay up at Fremont Lakes. It was a chilly weekend for the most part, and our stay was interrupted late Sunday morning with some rain, but we still got to enjoy the outdoors together.


We packed up and drove on Saturday morning and pitched our tent at the campsite with Lexi and her kids, and then we got a fire going and brought our tea kettle along to boil some water for hot chocolate. We had a gaggle of geese visiting us throughout our stay, so we got some bread for the kids to toss to them and make friends. Hannah also found a new “playground” with a fallen tree to walk on, and the boys found a picnic table for some dancing.


The sun came out a little late, so we took a brisk walk up the street to the little playground. The kids found a few mountains and rocks to climb on along the way. We were also surrounded by lakes at every turn around the park, which would have made for nice fishing if we’d brought any equipment. They made for some lovely picture later on as the sun went down, of course.


We got the fire going again later as Lexi made some soup and macaroni and cheese for dinner. The kids had some fun dancing to their shadows as the sun set, and then we tried making a batch of actual cookies on the fire with a cast-iron cookie sheet (which became a big, gooey mess). When it got dark, we broke out the skewers to roast jumbo-sized marshmallows on the fire for s’moresNate came by to join us after a while, and then we scooted the kids off to bed before it got too cold.


It was around 40 degrees throughout the night, and I don’t think I got any sleep between the chilly air and the occasion train rolling by. I got up around seven to make coffee, and Vivian made sausage, eggs, and hash browns for on one of her skillets for breakfast burritos for breakast. Lexi read a VeggieTales book to the kids in lieu of an actual church service, and then we started to scramble as the rain rolled in. It started as a sprinkle and then got stronger as we put a canopy over our picnic table and huddled under umbrellas. The fire persisted, however, and Vivian cooked some cinnamon rolls over the open flame as we did our best to stay dry.

The eventually headed on home to dry off and warm up after a chilly camping weekend, but we still had a fun time. It was certainly nice not to have to worry about bugs for a chance. Maybe next time we’ll try it again in the spring.

Camping in Louisville

Labor Day Weekend brought us some reasonably nice weather to finish off the summer, and the Johnson Family got to spend it camping just a few miles down the road in Louisville with our friends, the Mills. We arrived right around sunset (a gorgeous red one, in fact) on Friday night to set up our tent before it got completely dark. The whole campground was booked for the weekend, but our part of the park was still relatively empty. We got to see (and hear) some Spooky Owls after the sun went down, and then Vivian grilled up some burgers and some potato casserole before we started getting set for bed.

(For anyone planning to camp overnight in Louisville, be prepared for an endless series of trains to keep you company with their whistles all…night…long…)


The next morning, the kids had some fun playing in our tents as Lexi scrambled some eggs for breakfast along with bacon from the Mills’ own pig. I took Hannah and Sammy on a nature walk, observing bugs, spider webs, and floating leaves along the trail, as well as a clearing with fallen logs that Hannah dubbed her “playground.”

In the meantime, Nate took the rest of the kids down to the actual playground in the park for some quality time on the swings and slide. There was a pretty lake there was well, and our kids got to run around a little too close to the shore to observe a stray fishing pole that had been left there. We got to see a bit more wildlife back at the campsite, specifically a furry caterpillar that got to climb on Hannah and Sammy, as well as a cicada that somehow claimed Jake as a friend.


Before lunchtime, Lexi got a hammock as a birthday present and got to try it out (along with the kids, of course). Then we took a trip down the street to Platte River State Park to climb their lookout tower. It took about five stories and gave us a clear view of the Platte River. We could see several people tubing down the river and riding noisily up both directions on fan boats. Hannah and Sammy were both terrified of the high tower but both bravely made it all the way to the top (as did Aaron).


It was still a relatively warm day (in the upper 80s), so we headed down to the Lake for a couple hours to cool off in the afternoon. The littler kids spent most of their time playing in the sand along the shoreline, while Jake and Sammy continually tried to drown one another farther out in to the lake. This was also Baby Gabriel’s first time in a lake, so he got to get his feet wet along with his folks. Jake found a sandy toad before we headed back to the campsite, adding to the list of wildlife our kids have been able to touch and hold over the weekend.


Saturday was Lexi’s birthday, so Vivian brought a chocolate cake for the kids to discreetly decorate (at someone else’s vacant campsite) for their mom before presenting it to her back at the campsite. The Mills put together a dinner of bruschetta chicken, cherry chocolate cobbler, and corn on the cob, and I took the kids on another nature walk, where they found a seemingly endless supply of snails (and mushrooms) to take back to the campsite with them. I’d never seen this many snails in Nebraska before. Maybe next time we can bring some butter and make escargot.
The sun set and then the moon came out among some spooky clouds, so I told the kids a goofy ghost story around the campfire before putting them to bed. Then the grown-ups to to spend a little more time roasting some s’mores around the fire with some giant marshmallows I’d brought along from Aldi.


The next morning, Vivian made some breakfast casserole and pancakes for everyone (along with some s’mores for the kids) before it was time to start tearing down the campsite. I got all six kids out of the way by taking them on a long, extended walk through the forest for an hour or two (including Gabe). I got a couple cute group pictures of course, and we walked together a mile or two along the trail, getting a good look at the view of the river before heading back to camp.
It was an exhausting trip, and it felt good to return home and have a shower and sleep in our actual beds that evening, but we still had a lot of fun. Donna was also nice enough to come by the house and bring us some KFC for dinner before we got back.


Of course, there was still Labor Day as well. Wildfires off in Montana turned our sky yellow and smoky for most of the day (with an eerie pink sun peeking its way through). Vivian took Aaron to the store to get him a new backpack for his first day of preschool on Tuesday, but we otherwise spent our entire day relaxing.

Then we dropped by my parents’ house for a Labor Day cookout with all four grandparents. My dad smoked ribs along with some burgers and hot dogs (and one lone chicken breast), and Jack and I brought some beans and potato salad respectively to complete the meal, and Donna brought some banana split cobbler for dessert.

In all, it was a lovely three-day weekend, and a nice way to kick off another busy season of fall fun, which is just now getting started!

Happy Trails!

Camping with the kids


Fall is always a fun, busy time of year, with activities nearly every weekend that keep us busy. Things kicked off on Labor Day, as my dad invited us and Vivian’s folks over to their house for a lunch of smoked ribs. My dad actually got three different kinds of pork ribs to sample. Both Aaron and Hannah seemed to enjoy them, and then spent the afternoon rocking out with the rest of us grown-ups.


On Friday, Aaron turned 15 months old, so we took a couple cute, patriotic pictures of him out on our front porch. Shortly after that, we drove on up to Lake Manawa to take our kids on their first, legit camping trip. We set up a tent that Hannah and Aaron seemed to love playing inside (even before we broke out the sleeping bags). Then Nate and Lexi joined us to grill some burgers as the sun went down. The temperature dropped fairly quickly, so after a few rounds of ladder golf, we snuggled up next to the fire and let Hannah have her very first s’more with us.

It eventually got down to 45 degrees or so, but the kids seemed to sleep remarkably well outside in a tent for the first time. Aaron kept rolling around and throwing his blanket off, however, so I had to keep wrapping him back up throughout the night.

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The next morning, Nate and Lexi made us breakfast as a cold mist hung over the lake. the kids enjoyed running around the campsite for a bit, and then Nate took Jake off to a soccer game. I broke down the campsite as Vivian and Lexi took Hannah and Aaron over to a play area that Hannah dubbed “The Brown Park.” (This was to distinguish it from “The Yellow Park,” where we get our cupcakes every other Monday.) There were tires and swings to keep the kids occupied before we took them back to the campsite to tear down our tent before going home. It was a particularly exhausting trip and left Vivian and me too tired even to go to the Balloon Glow at Ditmar’s Orchard (let alone that Cowtown Jamborama thing going on). There’s just too much stuff to do everything in one weekend!

On Monday, we went back to our routine of cupcakes and playing in the park — at least until next weekend.



Vivian and I just finished up a long, hot, and steamy weekend in Boone, Iowa with Jenny Dougan (née Arnold) and our usual bunch of Happy Campers. It’s been a tradition for Jenny to host a camping trip, and this year she and Kody decided to take us to the Des Moines river for some tubing. It proved to be convenient, since we were closer to people like Kody’s Mom, who brought by an emergency delivery of beer for us.

It was also ridiculously hot and humid all weekend. After setting up our tents, we spent part of our Friday night putting slices of cucumber on our eyes before dinnertime. We also found a flurry of feathery bugs of some kind to bewilder us before we put up the campfire and had s’mores. Phil and Jen came with us this time and arrived late with an amazing pop-up tent that was assembled within seconds.


The next morning, Dan and Katie put together some amazing breakfast burritos for everyone, which we ate while playing a game of Baby Jenga. Around lunchtime, we headed down to the Des Moines river for a few hours of tubing together. It was a different experience from canoeing, since we were able to spend half our time bobbing in and out of the tubes in the river together rather than actually trying to paddle someplace. It had been so hot and muggy all weekend that it was a welcome change just to be cool and wet for a couple hours.

I also managed to literally lose my shirt someplace along the river. It was a frankly gut-wrenching experience, as I’d worn this particular shirt for years through all sorts of memories and was very sorry to let it go. Farewell, beige tee of wonder — may your feathers, stars, and roses find another body to cling to along the river.


Back at the campsite, Vivian snuck away to get a piñata and silly string to help Tamra celebrate her birthday. We had burgers and potatoes and played a few games as the sun went down, including our usual round of Taboo and a progressive story around the campfire.

A lovely storm came roaring by the campsite around three o’clock, and we got to test the camp-worthiness of our little Aldi tent. It held up fairly well, and there’s nothing quite as cozy as staying dry inside a tent as it thunders and pours outside.


I fried up some Spam for breakfast the next morning before breaking down the campsite. Vivian and I took a trip through Boone to get a glimpse of Mamie Eisenhower’s birthplace before moving on to Des Moines. We stopped by the YMCA in Ankeny just to use their hot showers (and barely missing a roaming Chris Christie). Seriously, nothing feels quite as good after a camping trip than an actual hot shower with soap and fresh clothes.

We headed on to Des Moines to gorge on a couple burgers with Phil and Jen before heading on home. Thanks again, Jenny, for putting together another fun camping weekend. Maybe next year we’ll be able to take the kids!

Vivian’s Painting, Dancing, Camping Birthday Weekend


The end of September was a lovely, four-day weekend of Birthday Fun for Vivian and our cluster of mutual friends. The celebration started Thursday night, when Vivian and I paid a visit to Canvas and Cabernet, one of many “drink wine and paint” studios popping up all over town. We both decided to “wing it” by painting wine and cheese together for the express purpose of decorating our kitchen wall. The instructors there were very helpful, and the appetizers kept us satiated until we were done and ready to celebrate with dinner at Vivace afterward.

On Friday night, we dropped by the Eagle’s Lodge for an obligatory night of swing dancing. Vivian’s gotten to have a birthday jam for nine years in a row with the Omaha Jitterbugs, and we weren’t about to break the streak just shy of the ten-year mark. It was fun to catch up with a bunch of our old swing-dancing buddies, and we even grabbed some pastries from the Donut Stop on the way home.


On Saturday, after a quick trip to Ted & Wally’s for some birthday ice cream, we headed on up to the Fremont Lakes to spend the night camping out! We brought the kids along, of course, and Hannah got to explore the inside of a tent for the very first time. The weather was fairly warm (in the mid-80s), which seemed ideal for one last swim before Old Man Winter comes to visit.


Back at the campsite, Vivian’s parents joined us along with Phil and Jen, Jenny, Libby, Katie, and Jon Paper for a grilling out. We had plenty of burgers and hot dogs to go around, and there was just enough room for a lovely chunky cake of sorts that Donna had brought (and Hannah had decorated). The sun went down and we lit the campfire for s’mores as Vivian opened presents, one of which happened to be Guitar Hero for the Wii. Yeah, we’re gonna party like it’s 2007!

We had some Spam for breakfast the next morning and spent the rest of Sunday recovering from a night of sleeping on the hard ground.


Of course, Jack’s birthday was just two days later, so after we’d sufficiently recovered, we went off to Outback Steakhouse for a couple rib-eyes and an onion blossom. Donna and I discovered the joys of unlimited shrimp, especially when our wonderful waiter Austin kept them coming and coming (even in a to-go box). And yes, Chocolate Cookie Sundaes most definitely did happen afterward. We opened presents back at our place afterward, which included a grabber for Jack and a personally dictated birthday card from Hannah. (“Happy Birthday to Pop-Pop’s Birthday Happy Day” or something like that.) Other gifts were indescribable in the presence of little ears.

Happy birthday, Vivian! I hope you enjoyed every mosquito bite we earned on our trip.

Ponca State Park


It wouldn’t be a complete summer without at least one camping trip put together by everyone’s favorite Happy Camper, Jenny. This year, we elected to go to Ponca State Park, a place I’d visited a couple times while living up in Wayne, America. It’s the home of tall trees, tall views, and tall grass all around our campsite. Vivian and I headed on up late Friday in time for a campfire, hot dogs, and a spectacular viewing of Super Moon, which shone down on us like a lunar spotlight, making flashlights almost unnecessary.

That evening, however, a thunderstorm blew threw our campsite, turning muggy and hot to actually quite chilly overnight. Dan and Katie brought a propane grill that made breakfast burritos possible in the morning, and Vivian dished up Spam for everybody. I was quite surprised not everyone had eaten the stuff posing as meat before.


In-between storms, we headed down to the lodge to buy a souvenir or two and then spend an hour doing group photos by the Towers of Time monument. We hiked through the woods long enough to get lost by the pool, and then I managed to sneak a peek at the view of the Missouri River before the next storm hit. Of course, we had to walk slowly.

We retreated to town for ice cream as other camping guests showed up. Once the rain was done happening (again), a couple of us went for a dip in the pool as everyone else went down to the sandbar to see the river up close and personal. That evening, Jon brought out some Big Bubbles as potatoes and burgers cooked over by the fire, providing ample amount of goofy photo opportunities for everyone around. We had a group photo or two before people started taking off, and then had quality time with s’mores around the campfire before camping it up for the night.


The next day, those of us left (Vivian and me and Libby and Jon) headed into the park to throw some tomahawks around. I swear, there’s something therapeutic about flinging a large, deadly, sharp object into a tree stump, and after a few tries we all seemed to get the hang of it. Around the corner, people were trying out some muzzle-loading rifles, which were a bit tricky to load. Libby, Vivian, and Jon all got to try firing a couple off. Then Libby and Jon squared off in some random bout of Mortal Combat before we called it a day.


Of course, since we were only a few miles away from Martinsburg, we had to drop by Bob’s Bar for a quick lunch of Big Burgers and a big plate of onion rings. Libby and Jon had never been there and were quite suspicious whether it were a real restaurant, just from the curb appeal, but that’s all part of the charm. We headed on back to Bellevue and had tasty ribs for dinner with Jack and Donna, who had been kind enough to watch Hannah for the weekend. Our little girl turned 19 months, and we celebrated by letting her drink from the hose for the first time.

Another camping trip success! Next year, though, we have to try horseback riding. Hopefully the weather will cooperate the next time around.

Niobrara Canoe Trip

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Summer wouldn’t be complete without a camping trip! This year, Jenny and the gang returned to the Niobrara River for a canoe trip up between Valentine and Springview, where Vivian and I had camped back in 2007 and 2010. With the weather dry and pushing triple-digits, it was nice to have a campsite right by the river, ready for us to take a cool dip at any time. A nearby hill seemed to be daring me and Jon to scale it on Friday, so we trekked up to the top to check out the scenic view high above our campsite.

That evening, we broke out the burgers and s’mores around the campfire. Then, when the sun started to set, we dropped by the field behind our campsite for a completely random photo shoot with Libby.

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The next day, after a brief bagel breakfast, we headed off to start our long, 20-mile trek down the Niobrara River. We started our journey at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, which meant we didn’t have to put up with any tubers swilling light beer at nine in the morning.

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Our first stop was at the Fort Falls, which provided a quick cool shower and an overlook to anybody interested. There were also little waterfalls all along the river, some of which were useful if you needed a cold shower to wake you up along the river. Vivian and I actually ran out of water on our trip, and I was so thirsty I actually drank from one waterfall we passed by. The water was so crystal clear and cold it was impossible to resist (and I’ve no Montezuma’s Revenge to speak of, either).

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Smith Falls State Park was our halfway point for lunch, and we made our usual trip up to the tallest waterfall in Nebraska along with dozens of other people crowding into the slippery, rocky base for a photo opportunity. Of course, everyone also had to take a turn underneath the torrents of water as well.

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We continued up the river to our favorite spot along the Niobrara — the “jumping off point” I’ve since learned is called Fritz’ Island. After 18 miles of paddling in the sun, it was a welcome relief to jump off a rocky base into a churning river and get carried downstream. The Niobrara is actually quite low this year, which means Vivian and I had to deal with getting stuck on dozens of sand bars that weren’t there before. That always makes a canoe trip even more difficult.

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I was pretty dead on my feet when we returned to camp. I guzzled a bottle of water in one gulp and then headed to the showers to wash off the river (and eat the Best Ice Cream Sandwich in the World). We had brats around the campfire that night and played our annual camping trip games: of Catchphrase, Story-go-Round, and a few “experiments” with Diet Coke and Mentos, courtesy of Jon.

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The next day — after having pancakes and sausage for breakfast, tearing down our campsite, and comparing bug bites — we headed back home to Omaha. A couple of us had the same bright idea of stopping by the O’Neill Pizza Hut for lunch.

Jack and Donna had been kind enough to watch Hannah for the weekend and treated us with barbecue ribs and potato salad when we got home. Hannah only seemed mildly curious when Vivian and I returned after a long weekend of camping. We let her have her first rib to chew on as a reward for being such a good girl.

Thanks to Jenny for planning yet another fun outdoor experience!

Camping at Niobrara State Park

It’s summertime once again, and that means going camping — an annual tradition for Jenny and our bunch of mutual friends. This year, we decided to go up to Niobrara State Park, which was fortunately still up and running despite the flood happening pretty much all around it. (Two of the three roads into town were closed.)

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Vivian and I decided to take the picturesque Old Lincoln Highway north to get to I-29, avoiding the flooded (and closed) portions of the Interstate. We got to see the swollen Missouri River and some of its subsequent flooding up close and personal, including the small town of Missouri Valley, which is all but preparing for Flood Armageddon with the amount of sandbags they’ve put out protecting their picturesque buildings downtown. Travel was fairly swift north of Missouri Valley, though we got to see some more of the flood up by Sioux City and along the Interstate (some of it dangerously close to the roadside).

The first stop of our camping trip, of course, was to check out the root cause of all this mes — Gavin’s Point Dam. Extra snow and rainwater from Lewis and Clark Lake was being expelled into the river at the rate of a million gallons every few seconds. Eric and Anne joined us along with dozens of people to watch the raging waters and get splashed by random twelve-foot high waves every few seconds. It was a surprisingly festive atmosphere considering the same waters that were soaking us like a wave pool at Oceans of Fun were responsible for destroying countless farms, towns, and homes just downstream.

(We also took a brief trip to Gayville, because I have too much of my seventh-grade humor left not to visit a town called Gayville.)

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Vivian and I stopped for ice cream at the (wonderfully retro) Tastee Treet in Yankton and enjoyed the flora and fauna at a scenic overlook across the river before heading on to our campsite at Niobara State Park. We were the first campers to arrive for the weekend and got to pick a lovely spot right down by the river with both a double-sized pavilion and a bathroom right next door. I drove around the park at least once to soak up the beautiful scenery (and take plenty of pictures). We set up our tents and had some burgers for dinner while the sun went down. Our food was ready just as a passing storm doused our campsite, but it didn’t last long. Before you knew it, the deer were out, and we were roasting marshmallows before bedtime.

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The next day, we all headed to the stables to do a little horseback riding. I’d never been on a horse before, but it was a much tamer experience that I expected. We all had very well-behaved horses, and Eric compared our experience to those automated cars at amusement parks that five year olds can pretend to drive around a race track. My horse, Sox, was pretty much on autopilot the entire time, though I had to pull the reins every now and then to keep him from eating grass and sniffing the butt of the horse in front of me. (I also wound up passing Eric’s horse when he stopped to take a whiz.)

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We did a little exploring afterward, walking up to the Interpretive (dance) Shelter where Lewis and Clark were rumored to have met with the Ponca tribe a couple hundred years ago. We headed down a nature trail to a large, old train bridge by the river that has since been converted into a walking bridge (stubbornly ignoring all the signs that told us both the bridge and the trail were closed due to flooding). We got a beautiful view of the river, the bluffs, and the various bluebirds and redwing blackbirds that called the riverfront home. We even got a glimpse of our own campsite half a mile away. (Jon and Rachel were off visiting their uncle, who happens to be a park ranger, but Vivian left a sign for them to follow.)

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We had a little lunch back at the campsite and then went to the park’s pool for a little swimming. The water was predictably brisk, but I dove right in just to get the initial shock over with. We spent a few hours throwing water balls at each other and taking turns diving off the diving board. I got to experiment with my camera’s underwater capabilities, and we basked in the sun afterward when the mandatory three o’clock pool break came around.

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We spent more time in the afternoon exploring the park, and Vivian and I took a trip down the closed portion of Highway 12 to see what the flooded river looked like. It was quite amazing to see what was once a perfectly dry highway turned into a giant swamp, complete with weeds and reeds growing right on top of the asphalt. (Check out this exact spot on Google Maps for a street view of what the scene above looked like before the flood.)

Vivian and I watched the sun set from the top of the tallest hill in the park before joining the rest of our friends back at the campsite. We roasted some hot dogs for dinner over the open fire and then passed around Vivian’s electronic game of Catchphrase as the rest of the day wound down.

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We wrapped up our camping trip the next day with bagels for breakfast and a big group picture by our campsite before heading home. We did stop by the picturesque down of Verdigre along the way to grab some kolaches from the cute small town bakery they had there. Vivian had somehow never had a kolache before, so I had to get a couple just for us to munch before starting on the long trip home.

It was a fun trip, and it felt great to break away from “big city” and enjoy getting a little closer to nature. Of course, the best part was having the chance to do almost nothing for a couple days, which is always something I should have on my to-do list.

Video from our trip