By Kenneth Kapp
Charlie pulls his SUV into the primitive campsite on the upper Peshtigo River in northeast Wisconsin. Frank bets he can’t remember how many times they’ve been here. “I’ll give you a hint. The first time was in 1972. I’m going to write the DNR and tell them they should hang a “C & F” under their signs for FS 2134.” As they unload, Charlie lectures him once again. “The only thing we got to worry about is bears coming into our site at night. We have to police the area before it gets dark and make sure our food is sealed in a tight cooler locked in the SUV. And don’t be stupid and bring a liverwurst and onion sandwich into the tent for a midnight snack as you did three years ago. Boy, what were you thinking? Good thing the bear was clumsy and we were still up. I tossed that stinker out the tent flap as far as I could once I heard at the back. Must not have liked your liverwurst, he didn’t come back the next night.”
Frank replies. “You should talk. You were the one putting our empty beer bottles around the perimeter claiming they’d keep the bears away. You’d blather how bears are clumsy suckers who’d end up kicking them. And I quote, ‘Make enough noise to scare themselves. Whoosh, gone in a flash.’”
Frank shakes his head and continues. “And if they drop ‘em and they break, you’d be just the one to get up in the middle of the night, wander around to our so-called perimeter to take a piss, and step on the broken glass. Hoot and holler sure to keep them away for the rest of the night. Dumb idea.”
Charlie goes to the cooler for a six-pack. “OK, Frank, I conceded your point and the next year I got a case of cans. Nothing to break there.”
“It was still a stupid idea. A Park Ranger came by, warned us about littering. Said she’d give us a ticket if she found any cans in the area. Just to be on the safe side we had to pick up rusted cans that must have been lying there for years.”
They finish setting up the tent in silence. Frank volunteers to transfer their air mattresses and sleeping bags from the car while Charlie brings in deadfall from around the camp. “Don’t get lazy with the wood. Good fire the first night’s always fun.”
Frank gets the fire going as soon as there’s enough wood. “Hey, get more wood. We’re going to need more after we grill when we sit drink our homebrews.”
After supper, they sit quietly around the fire. One or the other occasionally moves an isolated piece of smoking wood back towards the center of the flames.
Frank prods Charlie. “OK, Charlie, you figure out how many times we’ve been camping here?”
Charlie guesses. “Thirty years – twenty five times.” He knocks one log against another setting off sparks and quickly asks one of his own. “And most years we see bears on the forest roads when we bike?”
“You betcha. I remember the first time, coming around the crest on forest road, FS 2131, wasn’t it, and there at the bottom was this big, black thing. Your eyes were bad even then. You started to say, ‘What’s that VW bug doing across the –’ when it got up and took off into the woods. That sucker was big.”
“No shit, Sherlock. How about getting us two homebrews; time we get serious. Yeah, and then your brilliance says, ‘You know maybe we should use our horn?’ Like what horn? Thanks for the brewski. So then, what you do is start singing. Heck, your singing would make a concrete bear get up and run.”
“What’s the matter? You don’t like my barrack-room ballads?”
“They’re OK, better than the horse you rode in on. It’s your voice, Frank, it’s your voice.”
“But it works.”
“Yeah, I’ll grant you that; it works but so does a cow bell!”
They sit silently until Charlie remembers the peanuts. “Frank, what’s a fire without peanut shells – a buggy without a baby.” He gets up and brings back a bag of salted stadium nuts from the trunk of the car and two more homebrews. “Now we’re camping.”
A half-hour goes by. Frank gets up. “My turn to water the daisies. Getting time to call it a night. I think we can safely bank the embers; the rangers said there’s a minimal risk of fires. No shit, it rained four days last week and there are enough mosquitoes to prove it!”
The nuts are no longer. The sky is clear. The river sounds are constant and a fine mist floats down the forest road.
“Hey, Charlie, you remember last time we were up here we started talking about childhood memories. Kind of mellow. You said, ‘Well, it was what it was.’ No denying that. Another year pushes them further away. Any new thoughts now?”
“Nah, but this homebrew got me thinking. Some of the older memories keep coming back. When I packed for this year’s trip, I remembered how we sat here last year drunk as skunks one night and rambled on about memories. Damned if I can recall one thing we said. Then all of a sudden, I remembered a couple of things about my dad from when I was a kid. I’ve enough beer in me now to have those memories bounce back from the past like the signal from a clear channel AM bible station reflecting off the night sky.”
Frank coaxes the embers together and a small flame results. “A lot of words there Charlie, so?”
“Yeah, so. So, I remembered how my dad was working all the time. Maybe he had two weeks off a year. Probably my mom made him take a vacation. Told him he had to do something with the kids in the summer or she’d go nuts. He finds a shack at the beach to rent for a week. Must have cost a month’s wages. We had a great time. My brother and I lay around on a blanket near the surf, played in the waves until our lips turned blue. Yeah, it was great. I can still taste the salt.”
“Sounds like fun. And if I give you a trumpet fanfare can you recall the best thing from back then, the greatest?”
“Yeah, right. Ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta.”
“Good thing I’m six sails to the wind. Yeah – ta-ta, ta-ta. I remember the greatest. We did have to come out of the water occasionally to warm up. We’d spread a towel on a blanket and lie on our bellies reading comics. One time my dad came in from swimming and swooped down on me. He cradled me and rocked me back and forth in his arms. I must have been ten at the time, probably weighed 80 pounds but my dad was strong. He just swung me back and forth. It was mid-afternoon and the sun beat down on my chest. I felt super warm. The sun was coming over his shoulder so I couldn’t see his face. He ran down to the ocean, went out knee-deep, one more swing and then I went flying into an incoming wave. That I remember. Yeah, the warmth of the sun. Speaking of which, I’m bushed and cold. Time to call it a night.”
They both stand. Charlie spreads the embers and they empty the last drops from their bottles onto the coals. They go to the edge of the campsite to relieve themselves. Frank remarks that this is another way to mark their territory and keep the bears away.
A couple of years go by. Charlie’s complaining. “We’re getting too old for this rough camping: primitive fire ring made of stones, a squeaky water pump, and the same splintered seat in that outhouse. Christ, Frank, how long have we been doing this?
“I’m guessing thirty-five years give or take. Don’t complain – the hard ground’s going to keep your back young and you’re only as good as your spine. Think about it. Everything hangs off that sucker and your head is stuck there on top. Just put the cooler on the picnic table, pop us a couple, and then go gather wood for the fire. Remember, never enough and when the wood’s gone, so are we!”
“Jeez! Who put you in charge? You mean, ‘When the beer’s gone,’ don’t you?”
“Well, I’m in charge by dint of my superior wisdom and six months’ seniority. Chop, chop, but first pop, pop.”
Thirty minutes later, their tent is up with the air mattresses and sleeping bags tucked inside. Frank gets the fire started and waits for the wood to burn down to embers before putting the grill over the stones he’s set up. The potatoes and onions are wrapped in foil. There’s a single fist-sized ball with a garlic bulb.
Early on, Charlie had complained that chomping a whole onion and garlic bulb each day was costing him friends. “We get back to civilization and I go back to work where the garlic and onions that keep off mosquitoes also keeps off everyone else. My coworkers were none too charitable. Didn’t give a damn about how the oily nose that results from the garlic can be used to grease the ferrules of your fishing rod. They thought I was crazy”
Frank had then agreed they’d share no more than one garlic bulb and one onion each day. He did the shopping so he just bought bigger onions and bulbs. He was now making room inside the ring of hot stones for the potatoes, onion, and garlic bulb.
Charlie continues to bring deadfall back to the campsite. After thirty minutes he asks, “How’s the chef doing? I’m starving.”
“Ah, the poets sing of how the great outdoors stimulates the appetite and sharpens the palate. Twenty minutes. I’m just about ready to put on the burgers. Burgers the first night, comme d’habitude, then barbecued chicken the next two. After that – fish du jour: whatever we catch or the can of tuna that I’ll toss at you.
“Why don’t you get out the paper plates? I’m going to go up the road and see if I can spot that old guy. Every year he keeps coming back. Don’t know how he does it. Walks up nice enough, asks how we’re doing and what we’re drinking. I asked the rangers – no old squats for miles around. Oh well, guess we can spare a homebrew. Old guy never stays for more than the one. You may as well get three out to honor the gourmet meal about to be served.”
Fifteen minutes later Frank’s back at the fire pushing the embers around with his fire stick. “Burgers on as soon as I grease the grill. I hope you’re hungry.”
Charlie lets out a long, hollow burp. “That’s my empty stomach in anticipation.”
Ten minutes later the two friends bring their evening meal to the picnic table. Charlie opens two homebrews and comments, “Not much can beat this.”
It’s Frank’s turn to burp. “Nope; just one thing – this without the mosquitoes.”
Meal over, they toss the dirty paper plates into the fire and straighten out the aluminum foil from the onion and garlic for the next day. As they sit down closer to the fading fire, a loud, hoarse voice is heard coming around the bend of FS 2133 singing, “We are three bums, three jolly old chums; we live like royal Turks…”
They look at each other, then to the forest road as the old man approaches their campsite dragging his walking stick in the loose gravel. He stops at the edge of the road. “Greetings, my friends. I see you survived another winter. Request permission to come on board.”
“Pull up a seat, old timer. We just about finished cleaning up and Charlie’s about to get our nightcap. I take it you wouldn’t say no to a homebrew?”
In an affected Irish brogue that comes from out of nowhere, he answers, “An old man could hardly refuse such a generous offer, could he now?”
Frank pushes the embers together and throws a couple of small branches on top. The fire starts to flame and they lift their bottles, toasting old times and surviving another year.
Ten minutes later the old man gets up and puts his bottle on the table. “Tis time I be getting my old bones home while there’s enough pixie light to guide me. You boys be having a good time then.”
They both get up and walk with him up the road. Frank’s curious and asks, “How do you know it’s us camping here again? Rangers just put up our camp dates, could be anyone at this spot.”
“Not at all hard. My bones may be old but my ears are sharp. Homebrew produces a rather distinctive burp. Likewise, my nose remains young: onions and garlic. My hat off to the master chef, and now I bid you, adieu.”
Frank and Charlie stop and exchange puzzled looks as the old man goes off into the mist. They listen as he picks up his song. “…and have good luck, to borrow my chuck and down with the man that works.”
As Charlie rolls over in his sleeping bag he mutters, “Nothing in that song about beer.”
Frank has just gotten comfortable in his sleeping bag, moving his hip off a rock that was insistent on pushing up through the air mattress when he hears Charlie yelling.
“Move the camper! Move the stupid camper, you idiot! Damn it!”
He squirms out of his sleeping bag and grabs the pants he was using for a pillow. He pulls them up to his knees shoving his feet into the boots. In his haste to get out, he almost pulls down the tent and has to go back and zipper the tent door to keep out the mosquitoes.
Shit, what’s going on? He looks around and spots flames on the other side of the Peshtigo. He moves across the bridge as fast as he can in his unlaced boots. Charlie’s standing on the edge of the road yelling at a guy in a camouflage outfit to leave the gas can alone. “Flames hit that and it can blow up. Get a long stick and push it away!”
There’s a camper-trailer hitched to a beat-up truck at the far end of the alternate canoe take-out across the river. He goes up to Charlie and asks what happened.
“I went out to take a piss and saw this guy pull into the parking area pulling this tiny old camper. I watched. He opened the side-door of the camper and tossed out a lawn chair and a couple of armfuls of wood. He just kicked the wood a foot or two away. Guy was staggering and went around to the back of the camper. It sounded like he was pissing the dust off his taillights. On my way back, I watched him push the wood into a heap and get a gas can from the back of the truck. He poured it all over the wood and then dropped the can. He was swaying. I almost lost it watching him search his pockets for a match and then – whoosh! Flames up to the sky and creeping over to that can. That’s when I started yelling at him to move the truck and camper.”
“He looks at me as if I’m crazy and then decides to play it safe. Puts his hand up on the side of the camper and finally gets to the cab of his truck. Got it jerked up there to the far end.”
“He say anything?”
“No. And I’m not about to start a philosophical conversation with a drunk about fate or shit happens. Especially out here where everyone but us got guns!”
They watch as he drags a large downed tree into the landing and sweeps the gas can away towards the river cursing to no one in particular.
Frank bends over and ties his laces. “Hey, buddy, can you use any help?”
“Hell no! Want to keep all this fun for myself. I came out here to roast a couple of marshmallows in peace and got this shit to show for it. Ain’t going to happen. No more gas in this stupid can. Shit. Gonna have to run back home now. No sense camping without a campfire is it.”
Charlie asks, “Sure you’re OK?”
“Yeah, right as toast. Wood must have been wet. Had to pour the gas again. When the flames shot up onto the can, I dropped it on my foot and then the sucker decides to roll right into the fire. Almost made me pee my pants. Damn. Guess it was fun though.”
“You going to stay?”
“Just ‘til I finish my last beer. Finish that and spread the coals. Be gone in an hour. You guys got beer?”
Frank looks at Charlie. “Nope, sorry, last night here. We’ve drunk what was left. Heading back to the Twin Cities in the morning.”
“Yeah. My way of camping too – beer gone, I’m gone.”
Charlie says, “OK then. We’re going to crash.”
They cross the river. “Well, Charlie, that was interesting. I wonder if that’s how this site got the name Burnt Bridge in the first place.”
“Keep going. We can piss by the deer cut up there a bit. I asked a ranger once and he told me it was a lightning strike in the 1950s that set the bridge on fire. If that drunk’s still here in the morning we’ll have to move.”
“Let’s wait and see. Meanwhile the mosquitoes are buzzing like crazy. Better get into the tent before we’re eaten alive and please, there’s no need for you to start singing, ‘There’s a ‘squita on my peter, don’t you know.’”
About Kenneth Kapp
Kenneth Kapp was a professor of Mathematics, a ceramicist and a welder. Then he traded his shop apron for a white shirt and suit, working at IBM until he was downsized in 2000. He now teaches yoga and writes. He lives with his wife and beagle in Shorewood, Wisconsin. He enjoys the many excellent chamber music concerts available in Milwaukee. He’s a homebrewer and runs whitewater rivers with his son in the summer. Further information can be found on www.kmkbooks.com.