Counting the Stars With Dad

The last licks of orange glow on the horizon signaled nature’s transition from day to night. Sitting on a deserted beach, on an isolated key, deep in the Everglades National Park backcountry, I watched the heavens as the stars began to appear one-by-one. Eyes darting frantically, I tried to count each star as it appeared. When stars began to emerge by the hundreds, I was quickly overwhelmed. Closing my eyes, I lay slowly on my back. After a brief visual break, I opened my eyes and tried to absorb the vastness from horizon to horizon.Usually, what floods my mind in these contemplative situations are big thoughts about my place in the world or reflections on how insignificant our tiny planet is in the cosmic scheme of things. But, what dominated my current introspection were not wispy glimpses of answers to life’s eternal questions, but clear visions of camping with my father.

Like so many young families in the early 1960s, mine had started camping as an inexpensive vacation-my mom and dad encouraged and outfitted by dad’s already camping co-workers. At one and a half years old, I was dragged along for all the fun. As the story goes, the first trip was a miraculous success-though it rained most of the two weeks and I’m told I spent most of my time in the tent in a highchair. It couldn’t have been all that bad; the Koelsch’s began a yearly ritual akin to migration that brought us to that same Lake George, New York campground each summer for nearly ten years. There
I caught my first fish (a “sunny” on a bamboo pole that we cooked in a metal Band-Aid box), paddled my first canoe (a beater of a Grumman the livery guy tried to blame dad for denting), and went on my first hike (a ranger-led scramble to the precipice of Roger’s Rock). Lake George was full of memories of the beginning of my love affair with the outdoors.

But, this evening, lying back on the sand on Pavillion Key, relaxing from a day’s kayaking, I recalled a very specific camping image of my father. Mind you, it was family-style tent camping we did at Lake George-three burner Coleman stove, big coolers, cotton sleeping bags with animal print interiors, mattresses that took half an hour to blow up, and a canvas tent that took an hour to erect once you figured out which pole went where. The drive-in campsite had the typical “Fred loves Wendy”-carved picnic table and slightly crooked grill-covered stone fireplace. It’s really just the fireplace that is important to this memory. That’s where dad would sit in a lounge chair and tend the campfire after his family was safely tucked in the tent. Several hours later I would half-hear that familiar tent zipper sound and dad would crawl in next to mom. Always being the curious type, the following morning I would ask dad what he did after we all went to bed. “Trying to count the stars,” he would say.

Dad’s sitting out at night wasn’t just an occasional occurrence. It was something he would do almost every night they weren’t playing cards or socializing with other campground acquaintances. And, each morning, following my question, he would answer with the same, what some people would describe as child-like, enthusiasm: “Trying to count the stars.” Sometimes he would tell me how many he counted that evening-but, the number never really seemed to matter as much as the actual counting. The quest was not for ever truly quantifying the heavens, the quest was the unrestrained joy he found in the trying. It was his continual enthusiasm and sense of wonder that drenched my brain on that clear night in the Everglades. And, at that moment in my memory, I felt closer to my father than I would have if he were sitting on the beach next to me.

Beyond our Lake George days, we spent outdoor time together through our participation in the YMCA Indian Guides program. Each of the father-son “journeys” we shared was permeated by dad’s National Geographic Magazine sense of adventure. He skillfully applied his excitement and fed my imagination in ways that made each trip even more rewarding. There was the father-son canoe trip on the Wading River in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens-where an hour of no contact with other canoes and a small “search” plane overhead added a certain “edge” to our trip. And, there was that frigid winter night hike in the Poconos that revealed several well-formed bear prints in the snow’s icy crust. We had photos from some of those trips in a box somewhere, but lying there looking at the night sky I realized that the memories and feelings I cherished the most were not captured on film. They were captured in my heart and reflected in the stars.

Those stars brought me a real gift that evening-a renewed closeness to my father and an understanding of why I could love the outdoors so much. Still lying on the beach, I broke into a appreciative smile and again began to count.

NOTE: this essay originally appeared in Canoe & Kayak Magazine.

~ by kipwkoelsch on June 19, 2011.

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