Shelter in place? No thanks, I’m going camping

pokaOn the Friday of an unusually warm weekend in early October, my wife, kids and I raced south on Interstate 57 for almost 4 hours to get in one last camping trip of the season.

There were no reservable sites available online for Coon Creek Recreation Area on Lake Shelbyville, but there were a number of spots we could claim in person. I announced to my family that there would be no stops along the way and asked my wife several times, “What’s Plan B?” if we don’t get a site. There was no Plan B.

As we rolled up to Coon Creek, I jumped out of the car and asked the park entrance attendant if there were any spots left. “One, maybe two,” she said — and told us to go look for it ourselves.

We drove through loop after loop until we found the very last site available. This is not the strategy I would advise for camping — but COVID-19 changed everything. We were desperate to get an additional outing in, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot had advised us not to travel out of state. That left few options.

In a year full of sadness and grief, camping was a respite for the Chases. In addition to Coon Creek, we camped at Indiana’s Pokagon State Park and at the Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit and Richard Bong State Recreation Area in Wisconsin. We also made multiple daytrips to the Indiana Dunes, and, closer to home, we hiked parks and forest preserves in Cook and Lake counties — all safely socially distanced from others.

The Indiana Dunes features great trails for hiking.
Brett Chase

Ever since age 10, camping has been my escape. It’s a love I’m trying to instill in my kids.

Now ages 11 and 9, the Little Chases, or LCs as I call them, are campers. Even before they fully learned to ride bikes, I taught my son and daughter how to help set up a tent, gather firewood and love nature.

Camping to me means sleeping in a tent at a spacious campsite preferably surrounded by woods, plenty of hiking, nearby lake swimming and big fires at night.

My preferred destination is Wisconsin, which takes some planning as sites fill up fast. This year was even more difficult. Bong, for instance, shut down about half of its sites. Even in normal years, popular locations like Kettle Moraine — which is about 30 minutes north of Lake Geneva — sell out reserved spots well before spring. So it’s best to make summer weekend reservations at the very beginning of the year or target weekdays.

We were able to make a July trip to Kettle Moraine just before Lightfoot determined Wisconsin was a state to avoid during the pandemic. We made a second trip up north in September, camping at Bong, just before the mayor put Wisconsin on the forbidden list a second time.

A short drive from Chicago, both parks offer good hiking and small beaches. The sites we scored were fairly private and leafy, just what we wanted. We only traveled north when the mayor gave the green light and, of course, kept up our guard masking and social distancing. Signs at Wisconsin parks remind visitors to “keep one cow apart” from each other to help stop the virus’ spread.

The Wisconsin bans (and genuine concern about the rising virus cases) had us looking to Indiana in August. While we repeatedly hiked the Indiana Dunes over the summer, finding available camping was difficult for weekends. So we went a little farther to Pokagon, which is much closer to Toledo than Chicago.

The Indiana park features two beaches, a vintage hotel and an awesome-looking toboggan run for winter. I’m determined to camp in the Dunes next summer.

Coon Creek Recreation Area sits on Lake Shelbyville about 200 miles south of Chicago.
Tammy Chase

Each park where we camped offered something unique. Kettle Moraine is huge and offers big sites with plenty of space and trees between camping spots. Pokagon was incredibly well kept. Bong offers hiking through thousands of acres of prairie flowers and grass. Coon Creek, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, has a number of sites with awesome views looking directly over the lake.

One of the best parts about camping, however, are the simple discoveries that leave lasting impressions, like arriving at our Kettle Moraine site just after sunset to see it lit up with what seemed like 100 fireflies or the seven hawks circling above us as we set up our tent at Coon Creek.

My kids live in the city and coming across the occasional snake, frog or other critter is a big deal. Those thrills make the challenges, like trying to pitch a tent in darkness of night, worth the effort.

Most of all, the four campouts we managed to take this summer and fall were a serene and wonderful escape.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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