Busy Willow River State Park good setting for quick father-son campout
“What do you think would happen if we gave a squirrel coffee?”
The question was posed by my 12-year-old son, Sam, who had just discovered the real reason for a campfire: to sit around and ponder life’s great questions.
We were at Willow River State Park, just outside of Hudson in St. Croix County. The question was appropriate, as he was having his first-ever cup of coffee, and it was highly likely that we might soon experience hyperactive mammalian behavior.
“It might be even more interesting to give rats coffee,” he observed, musing on the impact of caffeine on his two companions Max and Cole, who were back home with the bosses of the house, meaning my wife and 7-year-old daughter. Max and Cole are scampering, leaping, loving little creatures who are smart as a whip and darn hard to get out from under the living room couch at times.
I had warned Sam that the coffee might make him jumpy. It was our breakfast, at least until we could break camp and get something more substantial. The night before, he had turned down the opportunity to purchase morning food or drink at the Kwik Trip, our last stop before returning to camp.
We had popped in to get dessert and some half-and-half, which many outdoorsmen would consider sacrilege for camp coffee. (An aside: I say “outdoorsmen” because the less gender-biased “outdoorspeople” is awkward, and anyway, it was a man’s trip – myself and Sam, who will be 13 soon and therefore just about old enough to start paying the monthly mortgage.)
Anyway, I like very strong coffee, so I cut it to the color of caramel and sweeten it just a little. Sam, who has sipped some every now and then, was ready to give it a go.
He was aware that I had brought no cooking gear other than the pocket-sized Primus stove and our coffee pack, which includes a portable hand grinder and a six-cup stainless-steel percolator that might provide four human-sized cups if one of the humans is only slightly larger than a squirrel.
We had packed in a hurry – about an hour to grab gear, shower quickly and head out of town at mid-day Saturday. We would attend a sporting event and get a quick campout from the deal, so we took only our sleeping gear, a couple of folding chairs, and our four-person tent (meaning three people sleep comfortably if one is no bigger than an overweight rat and doesn’t roll around or jump on your head at night).
The trip was the kind of jaunt I tried all week to talk the whole family into, but my wife couldn’t pull herself away from her schoolwork and my daughter was ambivalent about it if there wasn’t a waterpark involved. I wasn’t sure Sam would be agreeable, but he was. This, as it turns out, also was to be our first father-and-son-only camping trip, although just a short one.
So we rolled into the park, took about 10 minutes to set down the tarp, put up the tent and cover it with the rainfly, and head to the game. It got a little chilly, but that was no big deal for Sam, and it was otherwise a bright fall day with a fine sunset. Then we went to a coffee shop and I filed a game story while we had hot chocolate, followed by dinner at a wings place – real man-weekend stuff.
By the time we arrived back at camp, it was late, so we turned in and saved the fire for morning.
Fireside is where we got the coffee going, and the discussion about coffee, and some talk about rats. I asked Sam about the Mountain Dew he’d had the day before; apparently he drinks them a little more often than I know about, so I figured he’d be up for the caffeine.
The question was whether I’d be up for my son on caffeine.
After coffee, we headed down the park’s Willow Falls Trail, which Sam chose over packing up and heading to breakfast, much to my pleasure.
It’s a mile each way, and all the way out and back, he chattered about the various characters and weaponry involved in the video game “Destiny.” And I mean it was nonstop, except when I asked him for clarification or more details just to show I was really paying attention while enjoying the scenery.
About all I remember is there’s some race of aliens with many arms who get some of them stumped by their masters to demonstrate subservience, which sounds pretty much like why we need camping trips in the first place. (“They grow back,” Sam assured me.)
I concluded the coffee made no difference whatsoever. Given the chance to converse, Sam generally chooses the topic of this particular game, and pretty much always with that level of energy.
We had a fine time walking and climbing around the Willow Falls gorge. We ended up leaving the park around noon, and as we did, Sam said, “It’s great that you listen to me talk about Destiny. My friends don’t even want to listen that much.”
Then he added, “Thanks for bringing me.”
Now that’s a young man who knows how to make alien masters a little more bearable.
An urban park, great scenery
Willow River State Park, one of the busiest in the Wisconsin system because of its proximity to the Twin Cities, isn’t the kind of place you go to really get away from it all. We drove only three miles from our campsite to our breakfast in the heart of downtown Hudson. But it is removed enough for a stellar camping experience.
The 2,911-acre park is a favorite of anglers and offers almost 17 miles of trails. Three of them – the Trout Brook Trail, Willow Falls Trail, and Mound Trail – are primarily along the river or lakefront. The longest and newest, the Nelson Farm Trail (3.7 miles), goes through river bottom, wetlands, prairie, mature oak forest, and old-growth white pines and includes a vista of the north side of the lake.
That vista is very different now than it was a year ago, as Little Falls Lake has been drawn down while repairs are made to the Little Falls Dam – the last remaining of three that were on the river within current park boundaries when the land was sold to the state in 1967.
I’ll write more about this in a future column, because there are some interesting politics behind the story, and the Willow River has drawn at least some national attention because of the dams that are no longer has on it.
Despite having been to Willow Falls twice this year, I haven’t seen the lake yet, but even the drawn-down, silted-in area of wetland now visible seemed more likable than I could imagine the lake being. The surrounding hills were awash in fall color, and the scene seemed more natural as a wetland.
Sam and I could see the Willow snaking through the grassy lowland, and there were many geese honking in the river both at night when we went to bed and as long as we were there Sunday morning.
It was a pleasant noise that was occasionally overshadowed by the sound of jets from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which is 36 miles away, but I don’t recall noticing the planes until I woke up Sunday morning.
Even then, because there were only about four campsites occupied in the dozen or so that were close to us, I ended up sleeping until almost 8 a.m. Sunday. I don’t believe I’ve ever done that on a camping trip, but here, it took a while for the park to rouse.
Willow River campground
Quieter campgrounds are one real advantage to late-October camping, and even being close to a major urban area didn’t bring real crowds to the campground, although there were plenty of folks on the trail to the falls.
There are three primary campgrounds. The 100 and 200 campgrounds are newer and quite open, but closer to the falls. The 300 campground, which is more brushy and full of saplings but also has plenty of mature oak trees, among other types, also has a few sites that back up to the lake. We decided to take site 311, right next to the Falls Trail, because it looked slightly more secluded from other sites despite the trail and because we weren’t going to be in the site much anyway.
Kevin Revolinski and Johnny Molloy, in their book “The Best In Tent Camping: Wisconsin,” rate the privacy of this campground as five stars out of five because of its brush and woodiness. The large number of saplings and other spindly trees give the campground an odd sense of enclosure and made it a little spookier at night for at least one young guest, but the camp is indeed private.
Their other rankings: four stars for beauty and three for spaciousness, quiet, security and cleanliness. Incidentally, I’ve found this to be a useful book whose second edition reviewed 50 state, county and federal campgrounds for people who “hate RVs, concrete slabs and loud portable stereos.”
A third edition was released by Menasha Press in 2013.