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A Fishy Camping Tale (Yet They Are Still Married)

From September 15 to October 22, Park Square Theatre presents the American premiere of the international hit Henry and Alice: Into the Wild on its Proscenium Stage. This hilarious comedy by Canadian playwright Michele Riml features Twin Cities actors John Middleton and Carolyn Pool as spouses Henry and Alice, two inexperienced campers who rely on a copy of Camping for Dummies to survive their ordeal.

Camping in the Great Outdoors can certainly be a terrific bonding experience amongst loved ones; but more often than not, it gives you some of the funniest memories to cherish. During the run of Henry and Alice, I’ll share those submitted to our blog.

Here’s Christine of Kenyon, Minnesota, sharing a story about a camping trip with Dave, her partner of over 30 years:

Let’s get this straight right out of the starting gate. I am not a great camper. Given the choice, I would sleep in places that have ice machines and sheets and do not feature wood ticks or chiggers.

However, my husband Dave is the poster boy for camping enthusiasm. He could be a 1950s Walt Disney camping dad. He has hiking boots. He wears red flannel checked shirts. He dips his matches in wax before we go so they will stay dry. Campfires are like TV to him, and things that might dampen another person’s spirit hardly register in his mind. He doesn’t notice there are squiggly things on the bottom of a lake, and finding a leech on your foot leaves him unimpressed.

Dave loves camping so much that he will build the fire, cook all the food, haul all the gear in and out of the van, put up the tent and not be mad when you don’t want to hike AGAIN today, preferring to read your lurid vacation books at the picnic table while brushing the ants and jumping spiders off yourself.

Dave also loves to fish. If you talk to Dave about camping, fishing always comes up. I believe he is unaware that one could camp somewhere and NOT fish. Camping triggers the fishing lure (if you will). His eyes will glaze over, and he will begin to describe in detail the sheer nirvana of eating fish every day, fresh out of the lake. This man who cannot find ketchup in a grocery store and forgets to pack pants in his suitcase (when we go somewhere normal) is unfailing at remembering the cast iron fry pan, oil and cornmeal for frying fish.

This is a true story. It happened in the late 1980s. Camping then was particularly hard for a gal of my temperament. Regular folk did not have cell phones or little TVs. Laptops were unknown. We made fire with wood and charcoal briquettes and did not have fancy pop up tents or hats with mosquito nets on them. You don’t really need to know this historical detail, but I wanted to get credit for how brave I was then. I love my husband, and it was his birthday. So we went camping at Lake Texana, Texas–in the tent section because Dave is much too manly a man to succumb to an RV.

The minute we got the tent set up and our stuff unpacked, Dave went fishing on the dock. It had been a long trip, so we were going to have bratwurst for supper and, hopefully, fish for breakfast. We figured Dave had an hour to fish; then we should eat and get a good night’s sleep. I got out salad, onions and buns and put the brats on skewers. When all was ready, I walked over to the dock where Dave was fishing. Beaming, he showed me his stringer with four big “Sunnies” and assured me we would indeed have fish for breakfast. After effusive admiration of the fish, I told him it was time for supper.  Grumbling just a little bit, he gathered up his things and came back to the campsite with me.

When we approached our camp site, there was a flurry of furry movement hurrying into the bushes. The brats were gone. The end of the skewers were chewed, the salad had been tossed on the ground and all the walnuts in it had been carefully picked out and eaten. We found the empty bun bag torn and mangled near some bushes leading into a wooded thicket. There were bite marks on the mustard bottle.

Dave told me not to worry.  He could fry up the fish in no time. I think I saw a tiny gleam of masculine provider satisfaction in his eye. Maybe after supper, he said, he could do a little night fishing and get more fish for breakfast. His shoulders were broad and his demeanor proud as he strode off to the dock to get his stringer of fish. Moments later, he was back, empty handed. It seems there are alligators in Lake Texana. Apparently, alligators like a convenient meal of fish served to them all in one spot. Undaunted, we had trail mix for supper. After that, Dave went back out and came home all smelly and happy with a bucket of fish. He secured the bucket with a cover and a rock on top.

The next morning, we found a big wet spot where the bucket had been toppled. There was no sign of the fish. We did see paw prints and drag marks leading towards the thicket of trees and bushes near our spot. We had egg salad sandwiches from the cooler for breakfast.

Dave went on a hike. He likes to hike in the woods. He brings home a lot of trophies from his hikes: feathers, craggy pieces of wood, wood ticks, rocks which he claims are agates. We had lunch, and Dave went out to rent a rowboat. When he returned, we had a short negotiation in which his goal was to get me in the boat and go fishing all afternoon. My goal was to define “afternoon” and to secure a promise that, even if the fish were “biting” we would go to shore within 15 minutes of any announcement from me that I needed to find a bush to hide behind. A deal was struck; and after an exciting 12 weeks (or it could have just been three hours) of sitting in the wet rowboat, we had another bucket of fish and were back on the dock. The dock had a fish cleaning station so Dave cleaned our catch and brought the cleaned fish back and put them in our Styrofoam cooler instead of the bucket. He wedged the cooler tightly under the bench of the heavy picnic table, further securing it with several BIG rocks. We flip flopped down to the camp showers to rinse the smelly fish and grime off. When we came back, the cooler was still firmly wedged under the picnic bench. It had not budged an inch.  It had a lot of little raccoon paw prints all over the surface. A hole had been chewed out of one corner. When opened, it revealed more paw prints and no fish. We had baked potatoes for supper.

The next morning, Dave was out fishing early. By the time I made coffee, he was back with more fish cleaned and ready to fry. He put them in our heavy-duty plastic cooler–the one with the latch. In a rare moment of mean spiritedness, I saw him rub the latch with a cut jalapeno pepper. He went to get cleaned up, and I did a quick search for wood for the fire. We were gone 10 minutes. I was in woods about 100 feet from our site when I heard Dave say something in a loud voice. Never mind what he said exactly. You don’t need to know every detail.

Apparently, the raccoons of Lake Texana are not in the least thwarted by a simple cooler latch. The cooler had been ravaged. It was cooler Armageddon. The egg salad Tupperware was destroyed, the butter completely gone except for a tiny wad of chewed up paper. Two withered grapes were left on a remaining grape stem. All the cheese and lunch meat were gone, not even a shred of plastic wrap to mark their existence. Bottles of beverages lay in a blast zone-like pattern surrounding the cooler. You might wonder if, when finding the smorgasbord of delicacies that inhabit a camping cooler, those hoodlum raccoons would leave the local lake fish out of sheer boredom. You would be incorrect.

We are not stupid. We cleaned up the site and tossed the Styrofoam cooler.  Our main cooler and our non-cooler bag of food were in the van. We went for a hike and found a clearing with some beautiful tame deer that people were feeding by hand. Enthralled, I went back to the van to get the enormous camera we had in those days.

Approaching the van, I noticed a torn bag of corn chips dangling from the front window. The window we had left cracked about an inch so as not to be roasted alive in the blazing Texas heat should we want to go somewhere. THAT window. The size of the opening of the window was calculated to frustrate and defeat fish theft.

A few yards away, a gang of chipmunks were attempting to be invisible by sitting absolutely still in a little nest of mauled corn chip bags. I told them how shocked and disappointed I was in them. They did not seem in the least sorry.

We drove to a nearby town for lunch and to restock our supplies. That evening, I made “hobo stew” while Dave went fishing. If you don’t know, hobo stew is vegetables and meat of your choice wrapped in many layers of aluminum foil and then baked on your campfire coals in the aluminum packets. While I was sitting on guard of those packets, Dave took the rowboat out. I used my time judiciously, applying dots of calamine lotion to all my mosquito bites and unidentified itchy spots. My pale green capris complemented the pink polka dots covering my arms and legs. I was sure I was making a breakout fashion statement.

Dave returned triumphant, and we locked the evening’s catch in the cooler, in the van.  Unfortunately, after securely closing the door, we had a flurry of door openings and closings due to the need for “Nana-Ramas,” a treat that we felt we had coming to us.  Nana-Ramas are a banana with one strip of the peel pulled off, the banana split down the length, with chunks of chocolate (dark is better) squished in the split, a sprinkling of pecans and a spoonful of orange marmalade rubbed on the top. Wrap it in foil. Bake in the coals. There are lots of variations on this theme. My point is someone left the back of the van where the cooler was secured, unsecured. We are easily distracted by chocolate.

The next morning was spent cleaning out the back of the van where food goo and muddy raccoon prints were abundant, then getting the van jumped because of the dead battery due to the dome light, followed by going through a car wash for the vacuum and upholstery cleaning features. After that, we had brunch in town and went grocery shopping again. In the grocery store, I suggested we buy some fish to save us the trouble of going out again. This suggestion was not good for our marriage.

The next batch of fish were stolen straight out of the bucket WHILE WE WERE STANDING IN OUR CAMPSITE. (Okay, at the edge of the site, behind the van; but still, we were right there.) The park ranger had stopped by for a friendly chat just before leaving to go home. Our backs were turned, but I heard the bucket make a “whump” noise and looked over just in time to see a gang of furry hoodlums snatching up the fish and making a beeline for the bushes.

On our last full day, Dave had a determined air about him. We were leaving the next morning. This was his last chance to fulfill my dream of having fresh fish. I attempted to say something along the lines of “I’m just as happy with bacon and eggs,” but his lips were pressed together all thin and pinched. Being no fool, I agreed with him that this fresh fish business was my heart’s desire. I said I would make coleslaw and cut up some lemons. I should tell you now that we have been married over 30 years, and I fully credit my fish-friendly remarks to the success of our relationship. Don’t be led astray by advice from popular sources, such as daytime TV or women’s magazines. Chanel No. 5 can’t hold a candle to the smell of fried fish on your fingertips.

Dave packed a lunch for himself and spent the day in the rowboat. I didn’t see him until about 6 pm. I could tell from 200 feet away that he had been successful. He was covered in sweat and fish scales. He got a little six-pack-sized cooler out of the van and filled it with ice and cleaned fish. He started the fire. I noticed that he had one knee on the little cooler. Sitting a bit downwind of him, it occurred to me to offer to watch the fish cooler while he took a shower. I refrained from making any remarks with the word “stinky” in them. Just call me supportive. I know he trusts me, but that night Dave took the cooler with him to the camp showers. I am told he had it in the shower with him.

We did have fresh fish for supper. We watched the fire and talked about how great the fish was and about other glories and mysteries of life. Dave looked ten years younger. The little cooler was at Dave’s side, under his elbow. There were enough remaining fish filets for a hardy breakfast. These had been lovingly rinsed a second time, sealed in a plastic bag, and the little cooler had been refilled with ice.

Just before sunrise, I woke to the sound of quiet chirps and gentle rustling noises.  I looked at the tent door and saw a little grey paw patting the floor of the tent in a big fan pattern. The paw pulled out of the tent, and a little snout was thrust inside.  The snout veered toward the little cooler. Dave had brought it in the tent with us and put it near our feet. Chirping and rustling continued outside the tent. The tent door (zipper) was being tampered with, the little paws reaching now in the direction of the cooler! I moved the cooler up near the middle of the tent. I was being quiet, but the intruders panicked at my movement and scampered off.

In the morning, we found paw prints all over the van door, the back of the van, the tent entrance, the picnic table and around the campfire. Dave’s fishy jeans were lying in the grass halfway from our site to the wood thicket. His fish-scale bedecked t-shirt was gone.

We had a hearty breakfast of fish for breakfast. Dave looked every bit the conquering hero.

After breakfast, Dave decided he would look for his “lucky” t-shirt one more time before we left. A bit later, he came back to our campsite and got me. He led me into the thicket of woods, past the bush barrier. There, strewn in a giant oval, were the shreds of hundreds, yes HUNDREDS of empty food containers: bread bags, bun bags, pizza boxes, chips bags, occasional cereal boxes, peanut butter jars, Tupperware and random food tins. It was awesome.  It was the elephant’s graveyard of raccoon booty.  It was the lost city of Raccoon Gold. We were the Howard Carters to the Raccoon Tut burial chamber. It was a testament to the unparalleled food thievery powers that define the raccoon essence. We were humbled in the presence of these masters. We gave up the search for his lucky fishing t-shirt. It would have taken years.

Even with this loss, Dave smiled all the way home. At one point, kind of out of the blue, he said, “Boy, they really know what they’re doing.” He didn’t say a lot more, but I had the impression that losing all those fish no longer rankled now that he understood the scope of his opponent’s powers.

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